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Was 2020 really the worst year ever?

Old news, truthfully retold: This week we ask if the Covid-19 pandemic means 2020 really was worse than any other year

worst year 2020 Fact Fiction

Credit: Miles Cole

Every week in Fact/Fiction, The Big Issue examines spurious claims, questionable studies or debatable stories from the press to determine whether they are fact or fiction. This week we assess whether 2020 really was worse than any other year in history.

How it was told

So, 2020 has not been a cracker, has it?

There was plenty of hope and optimism heading into 2020 – as there is with any year. At the end of January the UK left the EU, bringing an end to the divisive political crisis that had dominated the last few years. Well, sort of. The next deadline also proved problematic and we’re yet to feel the full of effects.

But, from March onward, a new crisis consumed everything. The Covid-19 pandemic has been unlike  any challenge in living memory. People lost loved ones,  jobs and saw their lives turned upside-down on an  unprecedented scale.

That impact has caused Time magazine to declare 2020 the “worst year ever”. It’s a big claim. After all, there are plenty of years to take into account.

But the suggestion has sparked plenty of debate. Forbes published its own take in “Why 2020 isn’t the worst year ever” and there have been no shortage of opinion pieces weighing up where 2020 stacks overall.

Some outlets have chosen to search for the positives instead, such as Stylist’s “2020 wasn’t the worst year of all time. We can prove it” and GQ’s “The best things about 2020”. The Big Issue, too, has been keen to cover the remarkable triumphs in times of adversity through our Covid Crusaders feature running throughout the year.

But when it is all weighed up: is 2020 really the worst  year ever?

Facts. Checked

There are plenty of candidates that could challenge 2020 for the crown of worst year ever.

Every single one of the 1.5 million-plus people who have lost their lives to the Covid-19 virus is a tragedy and this article does not intend to play down the lows of 2020 which have left many feeling great pain.

But to proclaim 2020 as the worst year ever would be to ignore world wars, human atrocities and even health emergencies of the past. When the Spanish Flu spread across the globe in 1918, 500 million people were infected by the virus – roughly one-third of the world’s population – and the number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million. And, of course, there was also the bubonic plague, which wiped out 60 per cent of Europeans starting in 1347. Both pandemics dwarf Covid-19 so far.

Prior to 2020, scientists had honed in on 536 AD as the worst year ever. Harvard University historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick made the case in 2018, warning that the beginning of the Dark Ages marked “one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year”.

A volcanic eruption in Iceland is believed to have been the trigger for a fog that plunged Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia into darkness for 18 months. As Byzantine historian Procopius put it: “The sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year.”

Temperatures plummeted 1.5C to 2.5C to usher in the coldest decade in the past 2,300 years while crops failed and people starved to death. The years that followed were tough, with the Northern Hemisphere struggling to recover while the first bubonic plague broke out in 541 to compound matters. It’s a compelling candidate for the title of worst year ever.

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