2020 : The Worst Year in History

By Philipp Frank.

We are finally there. We have arrived at the end of 2020. Let that sink in. Breathe. Take a moment to really comprehend it: 2020 is over. What a year it has been! How do we react? Are we relieved? Joyful? Triumphant to have endured? Or perhaps we are tired? Stressed out? Worried and anxious? Full of sorrow and suffering?

2020 has marked all of us. It has been special, unprecedented, historic. Whatever the future may bring us, we will forever and collectively remember 2020. We will look back at it differently — not like we will look back at 2019 or 2018 or 2014. 2020 has been something else. Ten years, twenty, thirty years from now, when we hear or read or think of those four numbers, we will still immediately get that feeling, that underlying, sometimes emotionally erupting, scratching in the back of our heads, dancing on our cerebral cortex-feeling that we all had and felt throughout 2020, to be expressed in four words: what is actually happening?

The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched and distorted the year. Remembering life in January feels like going back through history to another epoch. Instinctively, we think: “January was a completely different time! So much has happened since!” This is true to an extent. Since January, we have experienced some of the worst natural catastrophes and the single worst economic collapse on record, social unrest and uprisings and escalating violence in many parts of the world. And again, COVID in all parts of the world. In retrospect, January seemed like such a “chill time”, even when the U.S. and Iran were on the brink of war 72 hours after New Year’s Eve. However, and this is sad news, if we think about what has happened in our individual lives since January, most of us ought to painfully admit: not actually that much. Confinement put us in a long, exhaustive, day-to-day ever-repeating home-office microcosm. Paradoxically, we have been experiencing the most disruptive and unstable year of our lifetimes, yet catching up with friends has never been this boring. People’s lives have rarely been as synchronized as today, rarely have they been as equally driven and limited by the same forces.

Now, of course, this is also only true to an extent. This year has revealed a number of disturbing disparities, under which some people or groups of people have tragically and unjustly suffered. Social division, economic hardship, and the ravaging of public and private health have taken a cruel toll. Looking towards the dawn of 2021, one is easily tempted to declare the previous year one of, if not the, most disruptive and far-reaching in history.

Except it is not.

There is another year in history that was already identified as the world champion in this category. In fact, this very year was declared the “worst year in history.” Surprisingly, it is not in the 20th century, perhaps the most obvious candidate as a century. Nor is it in the 19th, the 18th, the 17th, not even in the 14th century, which saw the Black Death wiping out a third of Europe. It is, according to Harvard professor Michael McCormick, the year 536 A.D. At first glance, 536 A.D. appears to be a revoltingly random year to pick for “the worst in history.” In addition, it should, for the sake of completeness and transparency, be added at this point that 536 A.D. received its title in the year 2018 A.D., which is known to have ended two years prior to 2020. 

So, what happened in 536 A.D. that made it the worst year in history? It began with a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in Iceland that year, burying Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia in dark fog for the following 18 months. Temperatures fell up to 2.5 degrees, launching the coldest decade in more than two millennia. The Chinese saw snow in summer, the Irish reported having no bread for the following three years due to crop failures. People were starving literally everywhere as a worldwide famine began to take shape. Unfortunately, it would not stop there. 536 A.D. went down in history as not only the worst year but also the launch of one of the worst periods in human history, which experienced volcanic eruptions, famines, wars, economic stagnation, and the bubonic plague. What a year that was!

Despite the terrible events of their time, people persevered and carried on. In just the following year, 537 A.D., the Hagia Sophia was completed in Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul, one of the most marvellous buildings and a UNESCO World Heritage Site today. The year after, Gregory of Tours, one of the most esteemed historians on the Frankish State and the Merovingians, and Zhiyi, one of the founders of Tiantai Buddhism (a prominent ancient school of Buddhism), were born. The point is that humanity has always had a hard time on this planet. In some particular years, it was even quite literally hell. 2020 is likely to be remembered as one of those years. In fact, let us hope it will be remembered as a singular dreadful year because that would imply that better times are ahead of us. After all that has happened in 2020, this feels like a very dangerous and delicate declaration. Nevertheless, a brighter future cannot, after all, be ruled out. If this year has taught us anything, it is that the unlikeliest things might very well be knocking on your door. 

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