A week ago, we said goodbye to 2020, and we turned toward what we hope is a better year in 2021.
If you were sickened by the COVID-19 virus or lost family members or friends to the virus, you might feel that 2020 was one of the worst years in history.
The pandemic forced businesses to close, many of them permanently, and unemployment skyrocketed. The shutdowns angered many who felt that their rights were violated as they were told to stay home and wear a mask in public.
If you contracted the virus and you were one of the unlucky ones who became violently ill, or you lost a friend or family member to the virus, you were angry at those who refused to comply with the stay-at-home orders and mask mandates.
The year was marred by a contentious presidential election fight that has spilled over into 2021. 2020 indeed had some very dark moments, but it was far from one of the darkest years in human history.
If we examine our history, we can put 2020 into its proper perspective. Many of the darkest years can be traced to three different types of events: death from plagues, starvation from natural catastrophes, and the spread of civilization across the globe into isolated regions bringing wars and viruses that wiped out entire civilizations.
The Justinian Plague that ravished large parts of the world between 541 and 542 led to an estimated 25-50 million deaths. Around a quarter of the world’s population was wiped out in the space of two years. A mere five years earlier, the year 536 has been called the worst year of the worst century in human history, thanks to natural disasters, famines, and widespread warfare.
Scientists have shown that a vast volcanic eruption caused world temperatures to plummet as ash blocked out sunlight for most of the year. As if freezing temperatures, a lack of sunlight, and the total failure of crops weren’t enough, large parts of the world were engulfed by war. Both halves of the Roman Empire had finally fallen, leaving chaos and uncertainty in their wake.
The year 1347 marked the high point of the bubonic plague in Europe and parts of Asia. For months it had been killing thousands in the Black Sea region.
Then, at the start of 1347, it was brought to the rest of Europe on trade ships and went pandemic. Estimates on the total number of casualties vary. However, most guesses put the total number of victims at 200 million, meaning as much as 60% of Europe’s population was wiped out in a few months.
1492 may have been a high point for European explorers, but it was a very dark year for the native peoples of North America. It’s believed that 1492 marked the beginning of the end for many indigenous people. Between then and the start of the 16th century, 90% of the indigenous population was wiped out, with many cultures lost forever.
1919 may have brought peace as World War I ended, but millions died from the Spanish flu, and in retrospect, it can be argued the war was only put on hold for 20 years. The Treaty of Versailles ended the war, but it planted the seed for what was to become World War II.
1919 also saw Russia descend into its own bloody civil war, a conflict that would lead to the creation of the Communist Soviet Union. The Spanish flu was at its peak in 1918, but millions also died in 1919. An estimated 500,000 Americans died as a result of the epidemic during 1919.
If you survived the Spanish flu, you could not toast your good fortune because the 18th Amendment, which introduced prohibition, was passed in 1919.
In our modern era, there have been many other dark years. The Great Depression started in 1929 and peaked in 1933. In 1939 World War II began. In 1943 the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis was fully underway.
Within the first half of 1943, an estimated 1.2 million Jews had been deported from Nazi-occupied lands, many of them sent to death camps.
1968 saw the U.S. drawn deeper into the Vietnam War and civil rights leader Martin Luther King and presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy both tragically assassinated. 2001 ended a period of world peace that started in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union.
The terrorist attacks in the United States left thousands of people dead and led to wars in the Middle East, which continue today.
Yes, 2020 was a bad year, but good things happened in 2020 too. It wasn’t all bad news. Babies were born, people got married, new businesses started, people found ways to connect while isolated, and vaccines for COVID-19 began to roll out.
2021 will be the same but different. The virus may not get controlled until well into this year, and there will be a new president in office with a different political agenda. The economy will begin to recover. As the virus wanes, we will eventually be able to travel and socialize in groups again. History has taught us that even in the worst years, we can survive and move forward. Here’s to moving forward in 2021!
Tim Burke is a businessman, philanthropist, educator and Pahrump resident. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org