- - Thursday, April 23, 2020

If the asterisk didn’t already exist, someone would need to invent it. The little starburst is destined to appear everywhere the details of pandemic-dominated 2020 are documented. Wherever it pops up, the asterisk will serve to remind future readers something happened that year which requires additional explanation to grasp. The billions living through the coronavirus contagion, though, will have their own disturbing flashbacks that recall a year like none in living memory.

Of course, the asterisk is readily available, a useful creation of the ancient Greeks. The textual mark has made its way through the pages of history to the present, where modernity teeters precariously at its pinnacle. The 21st century has broken bad in 2020 with the shocking spike of disease-borne death. The virus dubbed COVID-19 has killed more than 170,000 worldwide at last count, and 43,000 in the United States.

Americans, in particular, have been caught off-guard by contagion many thought modern medicine had consigned to the past. Long after the virus has ceased its ravages, its ripple effect is likely to appear in fatality statistics associated with suicide, drug abuse, poverty, crime and lack of treatment for pre-existing medical conditions. Life expectancy trend lines, which in the United States already dipped unexpectedly in 2018, could show a brief but sharp asterisk-worthy divot when plotted worldwide in the lead-up to the next century.

Equally glaring could be the opening of a jagged pothole in the trajectory of global economic data. Investment bank JP Morgan has forecast a 12 percent contraction in the world economy during the first quarter of the year, the most precipitous drop since the Great Depression nearly a century ago.

Assuming the devastating scourge continues to dissipate without a fresh spike in fatalities, global gross domestic product for the year is projected to fall 3 percent compared to 2019, according to the International Monetary Fund. A pit of that magnitude in the rising road toward improved living standards across the globe will surely require the addition of the handy little glyph to explain to future generations why the industrial might of the world came to a screeching halt absent the advent of widespread war.

Grappling for control of the levers of government is perennial, but the outbreak of disease is forcing radical changes in the way politicking is conducted leading up to the U.S. presidential election in November. Former Vice President Joe Biden was fortunate to nail down the title of presumptive Democratic Party nominee before the implementation of a nationwide coronavirus lockdown on April 1. Since then, he has been essentially absent from public view, except for occasional TV appearances while sheltering in his Delaware home. It’s hard to stand tall and look presidential while sitting for a video chat.

Equally disheartening for Democrats, the party first postponed the start of its national convention in Milwaukee from July to Aug. 17, and now is pondering the possibility of making it virtual. Party heavyweights, including Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, say the prospect of holding a gathering of thousands while the virus is still lurking is not worth the risk. A presidential nomination event in cyberspace — without the usual pomp, placards, balloons and confetti that normally decorate political Americana — would be an asterisk-worthy first.

For his part, President Trump is all in — so far — for a live Republican National Convention in Charlotte starting Aug. 24. Time will tell whether his three-phase “Opening Up American Again” blueprint will have succeeded sufficiently by then to allow Americans to rush en masse — with or without face masks — and re-nominate Mr. Trump.

Democrats have cited fear of contagion as reason to push for a first-ever all-mail general election. Absentee balloting is already conducted by mail in many states, but dispensing with the traditional Election Day polling places where Americans show up to select their leaders would be unprecedented. Republicans say the process would also be untrustworthy, with no assurance that each ballot is completed and sent by a registered voter. A virus-induced mail-in election would be another first, and one that Americans should not be willing to second.

Among the asterisks of 2020 that are fated to hold the sharpest meaning for coronavirus survivors are the ones that Americans attach to their family trees to represent loved ones pruned from their rightful place among posterity by a cruel year. Heaven willing, it will not be repeated.

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