Can we call 2020 the worst year ever?

As the year comes to an end, WSS staffer Katherine Shoppa ’23 debunks a common phrase many people are using: “2020 is officially the worst year ever.”


Image from Unsplash by Kelly Sikkema used with permission.

With a pandemic, extreme weather and inequality, 2020 hasn’t shaped up to what everyone thought it would be.

2020. The year started off with fireworks and excitement as people were filled with hope and plans for the new year. People attended big parties together with no masks in sight, a foreign idea to us now, and partook in the typical New Year’s festivities, but little did anyone know what was coming next.

It all started with COVID-19. After the first reported U.S case on Jan. 20, 2020, it continued to spread from there. COVID has not only taken over a million lives worldwide and overworked medical professionals everywhere, but it has also caused economies to crash and U.S unemployment rates have reached numbers that haven’t been seen since the Great Depression. Entire nations shut down and people started to stock up on supplies as schools closed and people started to work from home. Family members and friends said “I love you” for the last time through plastic shields to each other as the number of ventilators needed and cases continued to rise to new highs.

As COVID-19 spread like a wildfire, so did actual wildfires. In California alone, there were 9,729 fire incidents and a record-breaking number of total acres burned at over 4 million this year. The earlier onset of warm temperatures and more volatile weather allows the fires to intensify and it can also cause snow to melt sooner. Increased amounts of droughts and rain irregularities cause dryer land, which acts as more kindling to start fires easily. Similarly, with higher temperatures, snow melts sooner, also causing dryer land to start fires easier. Along with wildfires, natural disasters such as hurricanes reached new highs. With 30 tropical storms and 12 officially classified as hurricanes, 2020 officially had the most active hurricane season recorded. 

With 30 tropical storms and 12 officially classified as hurricanes, 2020 officially had the most active hurricane season recorded.

— Katherine Shoppa '23

Social injustice was brought to the forefront this year, inspiring civil unrest. The deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police officers sparked protests not just across the country, but across the globe. Following the death of George Floyd, protests consisting of marches and demonstrations started in major cities, which in some cases, including in Iowa City, led to the use of tear gas on protesters. Many inequalities other than institutionalized racism, such as gender inequalities and the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals, have been highlighted this year. The Trump Administration has sought to block health care from Planned Parenthood, in turn making it more difficult to not only have abortions but also to access other reproductive healthcare. After the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she was replaced with Amy Coney Barrett, a known conservative. With a new conservative majority Supreme Court, many landmark cases such as Roe vs Wade, which legalized abortions in the United States as well as access to birth control, and Obergefell vs Hodges, a case that legalized same-sex marriage, are at risk of being overturned.

In the midst of all of this, the 2020 election was thrown into the mix. The first week of November was filled with four grueling, sleepless nights for many until Nov. 7, 2020, when President-Elect Joe Biden was declared the winner. The four days Americans had to wait for results were filled with uncertainty. False claims of victory were tweeted out and lawsuits were filed against states to stop counting their votes. It was a nail-biter in key states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona. In the weeks following the election, the Trump Administration has still not officially conceded which continued to further divide the American people.

Alongside all of this, came extreme feelings of isolation and anxiety. From being surrounded by the effects of a raging pandemic anytime you step foot out of your house, being stuck in isolation, fearing for the rights of so many people and an earth that is continuing to get warmer, it’s safe to say that a lot of people felt loneliness and amounts of anxiety they’ve never experienced before.

So is 2020 really the worst year ever? From a historical standpoint, no actually. I would argue the worst year ever was 536 AD. In 536, an Icelandic volcano erupted which plunged the world into a fog as the sun was dimmed for 18 months causing summer temperatures to drop by around two degrees celsius. Crops failed in Ireland, Scandinavia, China and Mesopotamia causing people to starve to death. Following 536 was the coldest decade on record in the past 2000 years.

The problem is no one now was alive then. So while there were so many traumatic events from 536, no one living in 2020 will ever be able to understand what it was like. Even after knowing what happened in 536, people would likely still see 2020 being worse because it’s what they’re actually living through. Even though we are living through this time, it shouldn’t dismiss the awful things that the people in 536 went through. Historically, as a whole society, 2020 technically is not the worst.

However, for a lot of people, this year can be boiled down into one sentence: “2020 is the worst year ever.” How many times have you heard that this year? For so many people, 2020 has been the worst year of their lives. While for individuals, this year can be classified as the worst, as a society, it’s super easy to just blame it on destiny as if 2020 is some year that was meant to be cursed right from the start. We can’t continue to use the year as an excuse for all the problems that have happened because if we do, they will never get solved.

We can’t continue to use the year as an excuse for all the problems that have happened because if we do, they will never get solved.

— Katherine Shoppa '23

Declaring 2020 as the worst year ever is a form of collective commiseration, sharing our sympathy and grief over this year. It’s a coping mechanism. It’s a way to make us feel less alone by giving a name or reason to a traumatizing and difficult experience. It’s a way to mask all the ugly truths facing us under the name of a year and expecting our problems to go away when the ball drops and the calendar flips.

The problem with referring to 2020 in this way is that it uses 2020 as a scapegoat for the problems going on that we don’t want to face. When the clock strikes 12 on Jan. 1, 2021, it’s not like all the problems will magically be gone. There will still be a raging pandemic to get under control, incredibly high carbon emissions causing extreme weather and many inequalities in our society that are yet to be addressed. A new year alone isn’t going to fix them, we need to.

In some ways, this isn’t far off from a typical New Year’s occurrence. Every year, people make New Year’s resolutions and set goals for things that they are certain they will start working on or achieve the next year, only for them to give up a few weeks in once they realize it actually takes work instead of a magical new year instantly transforming them. We can’t let this be us.

Instead of continuing to call 2020 the worst year ever and expecting that 2021 will be better, it’s our responsibility to actually turn it around.

— Katherine Shoppa '23

Instead of continuing to call 2020 the worst year ever and expecting that 2021 will be better, it’s our responsibility to actually turn it around. Start off the new year right by wearing a mask, socially distancing from people, finding ways to reduce your carbon footprint and advocating for change in any way you can because, at the end of the day, that’s the only way that 2021 will be any different.