Is 2020 the?worst?year?for civilisation? Here’s what historians say??

Many are convinced 2020 is a cursed?year, the?worst?in the history of human civilisation. But is it really so? India Today Data Intelligence Unit (DIU) went back in time in search of the answer.??

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The year 2020 started off with a terrible bushfire in Australia that killed or displaced 300 crore animals. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic that infected almost 30 million people and killed nearly 10 lakh worldwide till the filing of this story.

Economies around the world collapsed, job losses are at a peak and several sectors witnessed a doom. Natural disasters followed in different parts of the globe, leading to further bloodbath. India, for example, witnessed floods, cyclones, earthquakes, and a bloody border confrontation all in the past eight months.

Many are convinced 2020 is a cursed year, the worst in the history of human civilisation. But is it really so? India Today Data Intelligence Unit (DIU) went back in time in search of the answer.

536 CE and following years

Let’s look at why one must thank their lucky stars that they live now, and not 15 odd centuries ago.

To begin with, the problem with 536 CE was the weather it turned bad when two massive volcanic eruptions covered the Earth with dense fog and blocked out the sun. Temperatures dropped, and in parts of the northern hemisphere, it began to snow in summer. And naturally, it messed up the food supply chain and caused famines all across present-day Europe and neighbouring regions.

Michael McCormick, Francis Goelet Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, says, “The year 536 was bad for food production and much else probably globally, but at least in the northern hemisphere. Even more important may have been the as yet ill-understood links with subsequent volcanism over the following years, the triggering of the Late Antique Little Ice Age in 536 and most important, the outbreak of the Justinianic Pandemic of the bubonic plague, beginning 541 in Egypt.”

What McCormick was saying was that soon after 536 CE was over and people somewhat began to relax, a bad case of plague hit Europe around 541 CE and drove the last nail through the heart of the Byzantine Empire. Even in those dark days when antiquity was making way for the medieval period in Europe, fingers were pointing eastwards, blaming China and the orient for sending them the plague.

Those early Europeans were naturally upset because the plague hung around for some 200 hundred years particularly in the Mediterranean region. By the time it petered out around 750 CE, it had killed around 100 million people.

Plague wise, it was all hunky dory for the next six centuries, but then the black days returned in the West. Between 1347 and 1352, a bubonic plague that originated from Central Asia accompanied Mongol travellers and traders and made its way into Europe.

And once again, a plague that rose in the East did away with about a quarter of Europe’s then population. For nearly 600 years since, though there were smaller epidemics here and there in the West, the world did not see a pandemic till the Flu hit in the early 20th century.

The Spanish flu pandemic

The year was 1918 when H1N1 influenza turned into a pandemic, infecting nearly one in every three people in the world. Some 500 million people were infected and 50 million died. In India, it hit in the northern parts of the country, leading to an estimated 12-13 million deaths, which was around 4-6 percent of the population.

John M Barry, an American historian and author of “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History”, says, “In the 1918-20 pandemic, India suffered at least 10 million deaths from influenza, and it’s quite possible that the toll exceeded 20 million. Case mortality for Indian soldiers in the British Army exceeded 20 per cent. On top of that, crop shortages combined with continued export of food to support British war efforts, caused near-famine conditions in some areas.”

So the years 1918 to 1920 must have been bad for those who lived in those times, but in India, people still speak about the Great Bengal Famine of 1770s with a shudder.

That particular famine wiped out a third of the population of the larger Bengal region, which included parts of present-day West Bengal, all of Bangladesh and parts of Bihar and Odisha. Historians later calculated that at least 10 million people had died out of starvation in the years from 1769 up till 1773. Traces of the pain and trauma of the famine can be found in Bengal’s literary references.

When questioned which would be the worst year for humanity, historian Rana Safvi says misery is subjective, and different people would call different years their worst, depending on their experiences.

Misery is subjective and there are many events that humanity has survived not collectively as a species but as a subset of that identity. Wars, conquests, colonisation and slavery have killed millions around the world subset identities dreadfully impacting humankind as a whole.

Horrors of modern-day war

If we go back a hundred years (that is when our grandparents or great grandparents were living), some 20 million people perished in a span of just four years. About 75,000 were Indians fighting a white man’s war World War I.

Just 30 years later, Adolf Hitler set off to conquer the world. Result: 85 million civilian and military lives were lost in the Second World War. This time, 2 million Indians died for the sake of the King or because of his call for war.

But the Indian death toll did not take into account another famine that primarily happened because the British overlords took grain out of Bengal for their armies at war. The Bengal famine of 1943-44 witnessed three million deaths due to starvation. The older generations still remember those horrid days, and multiple films and books have kept the hunger alive in the psyche of the younger generations.

The year 1943 could vie for the epithet of Bengal’s worst year, but modern-day Bangladesh might object because of ‘Operation Searchlight’ that the Pakistani Army unleashed in then East Pakistan in 1971. This operation was aimed at curbing the Bengali nationalist movement which was opposing Urdu imposition by West Pakistan.

It is another matter that 1971 also turned out to be the year that Bangladesh was born, but estimates say three million people died in the genocide, mainly of Bengali Hindus, and 10 million were driven away across the border into India.

For people of Jewish faith, the years with Hitler at the helm in Germany would be the worst as he evolved a factory system to kill 6 million Jews and usurp everything they owned from life to gold teeth to even the skin on their bodies. It was the worst systematic experiment ever carried out on human beings.

For someone in Japan, 1945 would probably be the worst year in the country’s history because of what ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ did when the US dropped these nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The year 1947 could also be in the running for the worst year ever for the Indian sub-continent. While two countries were born that year, an ancient land bled, shedding tears of blood as centuries-old roots were uprooted and chopped in a gory dance of creation and destruction.

Historian Rana Safvi, when asked which year she believes is the worst in Indian history, said, “For me, though I wasn’t born then, but as I’ve heard and read, 1947 would be the worst year. The Partition displaced 15 million people and killed over a million.”

There is no beginning to the accounting, forget the ending, of indigenous tribes wiped out in Australia and Northern America, the common Flu decimating the Polynesian Islands, colonial armies running amok, slave traders hunting humans in the African bushes, leaders such as Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung dehumanising and killing fellow countrymen by tens of millions, the ethnic cleansing of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottomans of Turkey, the Hutu-Tutsi killings in Rwanda, monuments of empty skulls in Cambodia, and endless other miseries, all of it dependent on who got stuck where and in which year.

Which brings us to our year of being and is it the worst ever. Historian John M Barry says, “2020 is not even close to the worst year to survive.”

Experts have mixed opinions

Professor Michael McCormick, who had claimed 536 AD to be the worst year, had this to say about 2020: “It has clearly been a bad year so far and we are only 2/3 of the way through. And it’s important to realise that medium- and long-term consequences of most events remain hidden for some time as the complex chains of causality form over weeks, months, decades, and even centuries, until astute journalists and historians begin to detect them.”

But according to Professor Burton Cleetus, a medicine historian at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University’s department of history, 2020 is actually the worst year from a psychological point of view.

Professor Cleetus said, “The year 2020 is the worst primarily, if we are measuring the discourse of the disease. With schools shut, businesses running down and restrictions on many activities, people tend to believe that their lives have come to a stagnant situation.”

Professor Syed Irfan Habib, historian of science and modern political history and former Maulana Azad Chair at the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration in Delhi, believes it will be incorrect to call 2020 the worst year in Indian history.

Professor Habib said, “The year 2020 has been bad for sure, but we cannot call it the worst in history. Certainly, the virus has impacted people from all strata of society, though we are hoping that this will be over by the end of this year. If it continues to spread like this, then we might have to think afresh.”

So there we have it; the jury is out on the current year. Whether 2020 is the worst year ever will only be known retrospectively. Sometime in the future, there will be debates on whether 536 AD, 2020 or some other tumultuous year in the future is the worst.

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