President Joe Biden cast his successful election as a signal of a return to some semblance of normalcy after the chaos that defined the reign of Donald Trump, as if “normal” could describe a world obsessed with profit and facing a pandemic and climate crisis.
2021 was a year filled with uncertainty and harsh right-wing backlash against any small amount of progress made in 2020 by social movements. It began with the January 6 mob attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters attempting to overthrow Biden’s election, a clear sign that “normal” was not just around the corner. The attack should have been an embarrassing setback for Trump’s movement, but many Republicans tried to sweep the deadly riot under the rug and join Trump in a relentless campaign of misinformation. Conservatives under fire demanded that they change the subject. Anti-racists everywhere were attacked, leading to alarming attempts to suppress voter turnout, silence educators, and insert fascist politics in education.
Still, 2021 saw organized resistance towards climate destruction and politics of white grief, despair, mass death. After a year of shifting narratives, here’s just a few of our favorite stories from 2021 that help us understand where we are at today.
COVID and Variants
Experts predicted that Omicron and Delta variants were created by COVID-19 in areas with high populations where governments had difficulty vaccinating enough people. Delta and its contagious mutations are believed to originate in India, and Omicron in South Africa — two countries that have been pleading with wealthy nations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive intellectual property protections for vaccines so cheaper generics could be produced at a mass scale for lower-income countries.
Biden, who was under increasing pressure and knew full well that variants could destroy progress toward ending the pandemic in the US, eventually supported the idea. However, critics claim the United States has not pushed enough at the WTO. International trade protections on vaccine formulas, patents and knowhow continue to exist, making pharmaceutical executives billionaires who have enough wealth to vacciinate lower-income countries.
Today, vaccine makers — many of them originally funded by the U.S. and other wealthy governments to develop vaccines — still refuse to share their “recipes” with biotech firms in India and Africa, despite the efforts of dozens of nations, as well as public health and human rights groups across the world. Instead of a patent exemption, the world got vaccine-piercing variants of COVID.
Biden’s administration is on the defensive again, promising to give out at least 500 million tests for free after mocking the idea. Trump and his sycophants spread lies about COVID, which continue to kill people. The U.S. reached an unfathomable milestone of 800,000. (Trump recently voiced support for vaccines because he wants credit for the research and billions of tax dollars his administration shared with private companies to assist in development, but Trump’s embrace of “vaccine nationalism” helped set the stage for the global “vaccine apartheid” we see today.)
Since its inception, the pandemic wreaked havoc on low-income, frontline workers and people of color. It also impacted millions of people who are currently in prisons, immigration prisons, or jails. Truthout’s award-winning coverage of the pandemic will continue in 2022 — because COVID is here to stay. As Truthout’s Kelly Hayes points out, surviving “Apocalypse Normal” does not require us to pass judgement on others or wrap ourselves in cynicism. Social justice requires a “just recovery,” not a return to “normalcy” that left so many behind to begin with. We can do much more by listening and coordinating together to shape the COVID agenda 2022.
Climate Destruction and Indigenous Resistance
As destructive droughts, wildfires and heat waves struck large swaths of the U.S. this summer, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report provided another dire warning: Unless we radically transform our economies and way of life, climate change will do it for us. Disruption is taking place in every corner the globe, and most Americans agree that climate change and global warming are part of daily life. As Truthout’s William Rivers Pitt wrote the following:
Is the United States capable to make such a drastic transformation? We can’t get people to wear masks in order to save their own lives and the lives of their loved ones, there are millions of dollars to be made lying to a large segment of the population about issues like climate disruption, and our governing bodies cannot summon the necessary majority to fix a pothole.
Our capitalism is driving everything that is murdering the environment — oil, war, consumption — and that capitalism has powerful defenders.
The heavy influence of capitalists and the fossil fuel industry meant that the November United Nations Climate Summit was ineffective. The resulting “compromise” agreement was much weaker than activists had hoped, and as Noam Chomsky pointed out, the real climate action that brought us hope at COP26 was out in the streets.
Biden, at home, pledged to cut U.S. CO2 emissions by half by 2030. However, we still have a lot of work to do. Biden’s climate agenda was repeatedly stunted by the expanding fossil fuel industry and Sen. Joe Manchin, the conservative West Virginia Democrat with ties to coal who continues to object to any serious effort to move away from fossil fuels.
Yet 2021 also saw plenty of climate action, even if it didn’t come from Congress. The phase-out must begin in the areas where the industry is most harmful to people. Louisiana is one of the most successful states for environmental justice movements.
In October, climate activists and Indigenous-led Water Protectors gathered in Washington, D.C.,A historic week of protests demanding that the U.S. abandon fossil fuels was held. The protests followed seven years of resistance against the Line 3 pipeline in northern Minnesota. These standoffs resulted in police repression in 2021 and standoffs over Treaty Rights. Enbridge Energy was pushing to open the tar-sands pipeline. This is a reminder about the historic resistance to Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock.
American Indian activists and land stewards lead the fight against new fossil fuel infrastructure. This is laying the foundation for economic and energy transformation to prevent climate chaos. Truthout’s Candice Bernd tracked the Line 3 pipeline and the oil industry’s growing footprint to the Gulf Coast, where Indigenous activists are vowing to resist plans to rapidly expand fossil fuel infrastructure. Ahead of Thanksgiving, Kelly Hayes urged us to ditch the “colonial pageantry” and support the Water Protectors who risk their freedom to save a world for all of us.
The Overdose Crisis and the “War on Drugs”
The pandemic created a new public health emergency, the drug overdose crisis. This crisis reached alarming new heights in 2020-2021. Despite billions of dollars and a decade of attempts at containing the crisis, more than 100,000 people died of an overdose in a year’s time in the U.S.
Current policies built around the “war on drugs” are clearly failing. Overdoses have ensnared the drug war in the medical system, thereby increasing barriers to treatment and systemic racism in healthcare. This is one reason why overdose deaths are on the rise in Black communities. A poll earlier this year showed that a clear majority of Americans want the drug war to be ended.
As overdose deaths continued their rise in June, records were broken. Truthout’s Maya Schenwar contemplated the tragic death and life of her sister Keeley. Drug policing discourages people from accessing medical care, Schenwar wrote, and the only “solutions” offered by the criminal legal system can be deadly:
In early 2019, my sister was sentenced to two years in drug court, which meant entering a court-mandated treatment program — the type of program Biden is pushing to expand. Keeley was drug-tested frequently; she knew that illicit drugs could cause her to be arrested. sent back to jail — and possibly locked up for longer than if she’d been sentenced by a regular court. Keeley didn’t feel ready to quit heroin, but she tried, in order to comply with court orders.
You can stop using heroin. tolerance lowersThis makes you more susceptible to overdose. When Keeley relapsed, she died.
My sister, who was hiding from the police, breathed her final breath in a tent underneath a viaduct.
Truthout published Keeley’s writing this year, a harrowing account of giving birth while incarcerated. In her memory Truthout The Keeley Schenwar Memorial Essay Award was launched. It was awarded to Emile deWeaver (a writer who also shared their experiences in the carceral system) and Pinky Shear (a recipient).
Some of our favourite stories from 2021 fell under the radar, while others were not fully covered by the dominant media. We are left with the burning question: What will you do with your rage in 2022?