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What were (really) the worst years in history?

7 min read

2020 is now over, and many have the feeling that it was one of the worst years in history.
But are you really sure?
We start from Ancient Greece, which could also include 1628 BC among its worst years, with the famous Minoan Eruption, on which, however, science has yet to provide sufficient answers to statistical analyzes to fully understand its extent.
Then there are the war years, including both World Wars and, in any case, to make a comparison with the just ended 2020 is absolutely wrong.
But the years of the plague were really terrible, even if perhaps not everyone knows that the term “Plague” does not necessarily indicate the disease caused by the bacterium “Yersinia pestis”, but the whole series of epidemics and pandemics that hit people of the past. Often it was Typhus, Smallpox, Measles or even the Plague itself, Bubonic or pulmonary, even if the studies of paleopathologists do not allow us to identify with certainty all the different epidemics that hit the populations over the years.

Athens: we are in 430 BC, when the Peloponnesian war started very recently, and the Greek leagues will face each others for many years to come. At the head of the Athenians is the great Pericles, author of a memorable speech at the Acropolis in 431 BC, which in 429 BC. will die under the blows of the deadly infection. The Peloponnesian war was the trigger of the epidemic, which spread due to the concentration of a huge number of people within the city walls.
Sparta, strong with an unbeatable army, prevented the Athenians from supplying themselves by land, and ships departed from Piraeus to supply themselves throughout the Greek world. From the countryside, the Athenians poured into the city to have access to food, and a very high density of inhabitants leads, as we all know today, to the spread of epidemics. The first infected Athenians arrived from Piraeus and passed on the disease to all the others.
Athens, squeezed within its walls, was decimated by disease, cause of a huge number of deaths, who were buried in mass graves or burned on burning pyres, perpetually lit.
The plague killed an estimated 75 or 100,000 people, 25% of the population it came in contact with, and was crucial in deciding the fate of the Peloponnesian War, which ultimately saw the victory of Sparta.

If the Plague of Athens had great consequences on the conflict between the Peloponnesian league and the Delian-Attic league, the Antonine Plague was an event that greatly influenced the fate of the Roman Empire.
We are in the year 169.
Erupted under the Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Vero, the latter died in this period and who had the patronymic “antoninus”, the plague decimated the population of large parts of the Roman Empire, with a number of deaths estimated between 5 and 20 millions.
Rome found itself in crisis not only in terms of health but above all military, as the legions were unable to have a sufficient number of soldiers to contain the pressures of the Germanic tribes, who were pressing from the North to enter the borders of the Empire, especially in the Limes of the Rhine river. The pestilence, which lasted about 12/13 years, killed about 25% of the infected, and Cassio Dione tells us that, in Rome, the dead numbered about 2,000 per day.
It is difficult to say if that was the real beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire, but certainly the lack of troops to be employed on many fronts did not facilitate the containment of the pressures of the barbarian populations, who were able to understand that the invincible Empire was not, actually, really invincible.

Over the years, 536 is unanimously defined “the worst year in history”, and not for a particular epidemic, as the disaster came directly from the sky, in the form of fog that covered the whole of Europe, the Middle East and some areas of Asia with a blanket of darkness. For 18 months, “the sun gave its light without brightness, like the moon, throughout the year”, wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea. Temperatures plummeted drastically, even throughout the summer. It was the beginning of a long decade of cold, the coldest in the last 2300 years.
The cause was probably a volcanic eruption in Iceland, but scientists have not yet obtained certain proof of this. In those freezing years followed the Plague of Justinian, in 541 AD, which halved the population of Constantinople and spread throughout Europe, killing half of the inhabitants of the regions involved.

Fast forward to the Middle Ages, 1347 and 1348 were the years in which the famous “Black Death” or “Black Plague” spread, an epidemic of plague, this yes, caused by the bacterium Yersina pestis. Perhaps the most popular pandemic in history, it is enough to provide some data to understand its extent: coming from Asia, it killed about 20 million people, a third of the European population, which since then was hit by recurrent waves of the disease, which greatly limited the demographic growth of our continent.

If for us Europeans 1492 is a crucial year, linked to a positive event such as the discovery of the Americas (or it would be better to say re-discovery, after the explorations of the Vikings), it is certainly not to be considered a happy year for the populations of Native Americans, exterminated by the Europeans themselves. But perhaps not everyone knows that they were not actually killed by the explorers, whether they were Spaniards, Portuguese or English, but by the most powerful weapon they carried with them: diseases. In fact, it is estimated that between 80% and 95% of the indigenous population of the Americas perished in a period of time ranging from 1492 to 1550 due their effect, and in less than 60 years about 50 million people died, one tenth of the world population, of diseases such as Smallpox, Rubella, Measles, but also a simple flu, which killed the vast majority of Native Americans, delivering a depopulated continent to conquer without difficulty to the conquistadors and European settlers.

After the events of the Middle Ages we reach the last century. 1918 is the year of the end of the First World War but it is also the beginning of the massive spread of the Spanish flu, which in a couple of years will kill from 50 to 100 million people.
The flu, far from being of Iberian origin, was called “Spanish” because only the country’s newspapers, which was not involved in the world war and therefore with an uncensored press, spoke of the pandemic.

But the years of the end of the war were not characterized only by the Spanish flu. At that time, another pandemic of global significance afflicted mankind: lethargic encephalitis.
Described by the psychiatrist and neurologist Constantin Von Economo, in 1931, the pandemic killed about 500,000 people worldwide, and its causes remain, to this day, unknown.

If 1959 in the West can only be considered a very normal year, or even a positive one for the economic-financial explosion of the period, it cannot be considered as such for over half a billion people, the whole Chinese population. Following the policies of the “Great Leap Forward” (大躍進, 大跃进 ) promoted by the dictator Mao Zedong, the population went through a dramatic period of famine, which lasted from 1959 to 1961 and caused the death of an unspecified number of people, with estimates ranging from 18 to the 55 million deaths, with about 15/20 million people who died starving and others as a result of the famine. This is considered the last great world famine, the proportions of which, however, were demographically the most devastating of all.

And finally we come to 2020, the year we have just left behind. At the time of writing, on 1 January 2021, the total cases from COVID-19 are about 83,5 million with 1.82 million deaths.
It’s clear that the lethality of the disease (therefore the people who died out of the total number of infected people), is very low worldwide, especially thanks to the innovative medical therapies we have today. If the same pandemic had occurred in another historical period, the people who died would certainly have been many more, as well as the infections, which today we are able to contain thanks to prevention strategies such as lockdown, the obligation of a mask and quarantine (even if not everyone respects them).
In conclusion, as regards the dead, this was certainly not a year of the worst in history, but in any case the world economy has stopped to allow for social distancing, a revolution never seen before, and that can define 2020, for many, as a year to be forgotten.

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