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Alee Quick: The dark before the dawn
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Alee Quick: The dark before the dawn

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Today’s issue is a look back at the year 2020, a year that will be impossible to forget.

What can I say here that isn’t a total cliche about 2020? Writing about this year seems like one of those times it’s OK to use cliches, because they’re all just so true. Everything about this year really was unprecedented: the pandemic, the contentious election, a renewed racial justice movement that made its way into the streets of even the smallest towns all over the country.

In wake of Floyd death, rural, white Southern Illinois towns are reckoning with racist past

In 2020, we’ve continued our tradition of choosing a person of the year, in which we publish an in-depth story about someone whose work, accomplishments or actions stood out or had a huge impact on our community in the previous 12 months.

This year, we feature the medical workers who are caring for our loved ones and neighbors who have been sickened by COVID-19. They are working every single day on the very definition of the front lines of this pandemic.

They worry about bringing the virus home to their families — “It’s heartbreaking not to pick up my tiny ones,” Dr. Gurpreet Bambra said of his coming-home-from-work routine. “I change clothes and shower before I touch them.” They work hard to care for patients who never get better — “We’ll get so hopeful with somebody, then come 12 hours and everything has changed,” nurse Darren Ackerman said. They work incomprehensibly long hours — it takes at least triple the time to clean patient rooms now, according to Jeannette Butler, who works in housekeeping at Memorial Hospital of Carbondale. “There’s so much stuff in rooms. Cleaning takes a long time. We wipe everything,” she said.

The Southern Illinoisan 2020 Persons of the Year: Southern Illinois Healthcare's COVID-19 care team

In their stories, I felt tragedy — we are looking at the pandemic through the eyes of the people who stare it in the face every single day. But I felt hope, too. Many of the people Marilyn Halstead spoke with for today’s story have received the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, which is a very dim light at the end of a dark tunnel that still feels for most of us like it stretches into the great beyond.

It’s also a comfort to know there are such dedicated people in our community who are doing their best to care for all of us. And it’s not just at Southern Illinois Healthcare, although today’s story focused on the workers in that system. There are doctors, nurses, therapists, lab technicians, and cafeteria and maintenance workers at clinics and hospitals all over Southern Illinois who are fighting the virus day in and day out. We recognize all of you, and we thank you.

Our front page today also features a story about some of the workers who never had the option to stay home.

When public panic was at its height early this spring, there was a rush on grocery stores. The grocery store workers Isaac Smith wrote about in his story talked about the tension they see and feel in the aisles. They felt the fear we all felt when we were stocking up this spring. They saw us coveting toilet paper and bags of rice and beans. They feel the stress the pandemic economy is inflicting on those who were furloughed or laid off this year.

As the virus took hold in Southern Illinois, grocery workers didn't have the option to stay home

And it was more than grocery store workers who learned how to work face-to-face with the public in the midst of this virulent threat. Factories didn’t stop. Farmers couldn’t stop. Local businesses have done everything they can to survive in a year that has delivered blow after blow to so many industries that depend on drawing an in-person crowd.

We journalists didn’t stop, either. We masked up and grabbed our notebooks and our cameras and kept doing what we always do: bearing witness to history. All I’m saying is: We get it. Our work didn’t stop, either. We extend our heartfelt thanks to everyone who muddled through it.

The Southern correspondent Brian Munoz and Kelsey Landis of the Belleville News-Democrat wrote in a story we published last week about how the unique circumstances of 2020 laid bare the divisions that have long existed in our communities. COVID-19, the mitigations and rules it necessitated, the election, the racial justice movement — all of the major forces of this year exposed the cracks between believers and deniers, between mask-wearers and those opposed to such rules, between Republicans and Democrats, between Black and white.

2020 divided Illinois unlike any other year. People aren’t sure if the wounds can heal.

As we end 2020, it’s tempting to think it all goes away when the clock strikes midnight on Jan. 1, 2021. But the pandemic has exposed wounds that won’t be easily healed. When the year turns over, when the pandemic eventually ends, divisions will remain. And we must work to heal our communities.

I think of another old cliche: It’s always darkest before the dawn. Let’s hope that’s one of those cliches that turns out to be true.


The Southern's top news photos of 2020

Alee Quick is the local news editor for The Southern. She can be reached at 618-351-5807 or alee.quick@thesouthern.com.

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