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From the year without summer to Communism and diseases: With the disasters we have endured over centuries, was 2020 really that bad?

If we look at the past, we cannot deny that we have been far more fortunate than those nameless, faceless victims of countless calamities before our time. Humanity has made some terrible mistakes, but it has also learned and moved forward. 2020 has been bad, but at least not as bad as 1945, or 1943, or 1815, or 1347.

For the most part of the year 2020, nations, people and cultures worldwide have been glued to the news and discussions and given into general fear surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic. Since the early deaths started in Wuhan, China, over 81 million people have been infected and over 1.79 million people have died. Over 46.3 million have recovered as per Worldometre data. India continues to have one of the best recovery rates at nearly 95%.

However, the pandemic, as it was declared by WHO earlier in 2020 has ruled over news space, public, political spheres and private conversations. Words like ‘calamity’, ‘extinction’ and ‘end’ have been used by all platforms, sometimes with good intentions, to make people follow rules. Sometimes with the intention to create more page views, grab attention and screen-time.

Is it really that bad? Will humanity be able to survive this current pandemic or future ones? We don’t know. But is it the worse that has happened to us? No, not at all, not even by a long shot. We as a species, as clusters of humans residing in different cultures, nations and geographical areas, have definitely endured far, far worse than Coronavirus. The world has faced worse and though battered and bruised, it has picked itself up each time and moved on. Every culture, every nation in the world has its own stories of defiance, resilience and endurance. Here, we discuss some of the catastrophes, both natural and man-made, that had dealt heavy blows to humankind. But eventually, we have endured and moved on.

The eruption of Tambora in 1815: The year without a summer

The eruption of Mount Tambora volcano in Indonesia’s Sumbawa in 1815 is widely believed as the worst, most destructive explosion on earth in at least the recent 10,000 years of the planet’s history. The eruption was so dangerous that propelled pyroclastic flows rained upon surrounding areas and seas up to dozens of miles away and a dense cloud of smoke, volcanic gases and debris was flung 25 miles into the sky as the three volcanic peaks collapsed one after the other, creating a huge caldera and killing over 90,000 people in Sumbawa and Lambok, the first few thousands by the burning hell that rained from the sky, the rest by starvation and smoke.

An artistic representation of the Tambora eruption: Image via the Smithsonian Magazine

Tambora’s eruption was so powerful that the deaths and damage were not limited to the immediate impact zone. The blast, given the score of 7 out of 8 in US Georgia University’s Volcanic Explosivity Index, threw up more than 100 megatons of sulphur aerosols into the earth’s atmosphere, a phenomenon that triggered a series of catastrophic events for years to come. It literally changed the earth’s climate.

The sulphur aerosols made a layer around the earth, acting as a solar radiation filter and reflected sunlight away. As a result, the global average temperature dropped. The effects generated cold waves that ravaged crops in the USA, destroyed paddy cultivation in vast swathes of China, and disrupted the Monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean. What followed was hunger, starvation, mass migration, diseases and deaths, all over the world.

The resulting atmospheric conditions caused epidemics in Europe. Millions in China starved to death, sold their children into slavery and suffered. In India, three consecutive harvests failed, famine ravaged eastern India and all that death and destruction then caused a deadly Cholera epidemic, killing millions of people due to starvation and disease. The entire northern hemisphere was gripped by a cold wave and gloom so deadly that the following year, 1816, is called “The Year Without Summer”.

For India, it was also a year without monsoon. The effects of Tambora eruption lasted for years. Governments at that time did not understand it as much as we do today, because geology and climatic studies were still far behind. The next major eruption in Indonesia, that of the Krakatoa in 1883, was much better studied. It is only in recent decades that the destructive and far-reaching consequences of volcanic eruptions are being minutely examined and researched.

Just a reminder, Tambora, and Krakatoa are just two of the 147 volcanoes that Indonesia has. The Sunda Trench sits directly above the subduction zone where the heavier Indo-Australian oceanic plate is pushed under the Asian landmass of the Burmese plate, a geological nightmare that has millions of tons of hot lava swirling constantly for thousands of years. 76 out of those 147 volcanoes have been historically active, meaning, they have a recorded history of an eruption. Also, Krakatoa’s “child”, Anak Krakatoa has been rumbling for years. We are, basically, at the mercy of mother earth’s whims. Before we curse 2020, let us just be reminded that the Krakatoa eruption of 1883 was 10,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima nuclear bomb, and Tambora eruption was far more powerful than Krakatoa. All our efforts to ‘combat climate change’ and plans for ‘sustainable development’ can literally be turned to ash if just one volcano decides to have a little fun.

Earthquakes, floods and Tsunamis

Earthquakes are arguably the worst killers as far as natural disasters go. The death toll is instant and staggering. A major earthquake striking a bustling city means deaths in hundreds of thousands within a few minutes. The Shaanxi earthquake in China in 1556 killed over 8 lakh people in just 20 seconds. The earthquake has been recorded in vivid details in the old records of the province. The local annals say that the massive earthquake levelled mountains, altered the course of rivers and created huge fires that went on for months.

The Antioch earthquake in the ancient Turkish city 526 AD and the Tangshan earthquake in China in 1976 are believed to have killed 3 lakh and 2.5 lakh people respectively, laying waste to bustling cities within just seconds.

The Yellow River in China, known locally as the Huang He, in three devastating floods in 1887, 1931 and 1938, has killed over 8.5 lakh, 9 lakh and 5 lakh people respectively, and those are the lower estimates. These three floods are regarded as one of the worst floods in human history, with the 1931 flood taking the crown for the worst flooding disaster ever in the world. Millions were displaced, and disease and starvation ravaged the region for months.

1931 flood in China, image courtesy: Chinadialogue

India was among the worst affected nations in the 2004 Tsunami. The Tsunami created somewhere in the geological faultiness deep within the sea off Sumatra, engulfed crowded beaches, bustling port cities and holiday resorts bustling with large crowds in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and several other places. Banda Aceh of Indonesia was swallowed by 100-foot waves, the rolling mountains of water that just kept coming. The 2004 Tsunami is considered the worst in recorded history, killing over 2,30,000 people within a few minutes along the busy coasts of the Indian Ocean.

The above names are just some of the worst of the many, innumerable natural disasters that have stuck humanity again and again. Every year, floods in several Indian states kill and displace millions of people. Modern technology, relief measures, early warning systems and infrastructure developments have made our responses better. But there is no denying that no matter the progress we make, our efforts will always be minuscule before the wrath of nature.

Communism

The above-mentioned disasters were natural. However, when it comes to kill-count, there is a global disaster that has plagued the world for decades, killing millions mercilessly by starvations, famines and torture. That disaster does not come from nature. It is a pandemic of the human mind, one that spreads like a virus, infects healthy nations and brings the population to its knees, inflicting death and violence wherever it travels. It is called communism.

Joseph Stalin

As explained by Ilya Somin in his articles, communist states have killed over 100 million people in a century. In Russia, Joseph Stalin’s attempts to collectivise agriculture and production caused 6 to 10 million deaths. Stalin mandated collective agriculture, banning independent farming by the masses, and sending dissenters to Siberian prison camps. Millions starved in Russia and Ukraine, hundreds of thousands perished in the prison camps. When the Ukrainian production could not meet Stalin’s quota, he punished them further by taking away whatever they had. In Ukraine, Stalin’s forced famine is termed ‘Holodomor’ by joining the words for hunger (holod) and mor(extermination or mass-murder).

Images from Ukraine’s ‘Holodomor’, the famine caused by Stalin, courtesy: The Morning Sun, The Ukrainian Week and orthochristian.com

Stalin’s atrocities were not limited to the Soviet famine, he followed it by the ‘Great Purge’ where anyone who he disliked was sent to prison to be tortured or killed. Wealthy peasants, politicians, military personnel, ethnic minorities, none of them were spared. The death toll from the Purge alone is estimated to be over 1.2 million.

Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’: The greatest mass-murder ever

The same model was adopted on a bigger scale by China’s Mao Zedong, which he called ‘The Great Leap Forward’. Like Stalin’s collectivisation in Russia and Ukraine, Zedong’s collectivisation caused man-made famines, food shortages, starvation and poverty, which the communist rulers made worse by rationing food, torture and brutalisation.

Mao Zedong’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ is called the single largest mass-murder in the history of the world. Over 45 million Chinese were killed, starved, punished and left to die. He killed over 45 million people in just four years, between 1958 and 1962. The worst part, the mannerism in which Zedong’s orders were enforced. 3 million people were killed just for the slightest infraction, like stealing a potato, hiding a handful of grains and crimes as such. Such was the plight of the people that instances of cannibalism were reported from Chinese villages, people had tried to eat each other out of hunger. The great irony? Even after so many years, it is still problematic to talk about the greatest mass-murder in history in today’s China. The CCP just refers to it as a ‘series of natural disasters’.

Ethiopia, Cambodia, North Korea etc etc

Marxist leader Mengistu Haile Mariam ruled Ethiopia from 1977 to 1991 after the communist ‘revolution’ overthrew the regime of king Haile Selassie in 1974. What followed was a macabre reign of terror, mass murder, political purge and brutality that is known as the ‘Ethiopian Red Terror‘. Mass killings of civilians, dumping the bodies in mass graves and widespread state-sponsored killings were the norm. Known as the “Butcher of Addis”, Mengistu was the leader of the ‘Derg’, a military junta that had taken over the country. Civilians, dissenting politicians and just about anyone suspected of not being supportive of the Marxist regime, were rounded up and killed, often entire families along with small children. 500,000 people were said to have been killed by Mengistu’s Derg, between 1976 and 1978.

After the Derg’s fall in 1991, the subsequent governments had worked to bring Derg culprits to trial. However, Mengistu had fled to Zimbabwe and still continues to live a comfortable life there. In 2007 he was declared guilty of genocide in absentia. But the efforts to extradite him from Zimbabwe have not been fruitful so far. He lives in a lavish government property with high security.

In Cambodia, the ‘Khmer Rouge’ led by communist Pol Pot, brought in a dreadful, macabre genocide that is estimated to have killed 2 million people between 1975 and 1979, just four years. It was almost 1/4th of Cambodia’s population at that time. Pol Pot, called ‘Brother Number One’, like his other Communist predecessors around the world, was apparently trying to create a ‘classless society’. That included forcefully evicting city dwellers into the countryside to work as labourers. As it had happed before in Russia and China, millions starved to death because the comrades messed up the country’s economy. Christians, Buddhists, Muslims were all killed equal fervour. 70% of the Cham Muslim ethnic group was wiped out.

Skulls of the prisoners of S-21 on display at the museum in Cambodia. Image via BBC, AFP

In the infamous Khmer Rouge torture prison of Tuol Sleng, known as S-21, of over 14,000 inmates, only 15 people survived. When two journalists had reached there after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, they had found bloated up dead bodies, tied up in chains and hundreds of photographs of torture victims all over the walls. Cambodia now has converted the old high school into a museum to remind itself of the past.

North Korea is still a communist state. Man-made famines, resulting from the regime’s policies have killed millions. An innumerable number of civilians, South Korean prisoners and peasants have been murdered. Estimates vary. A number of events of mass-murder have occurred. There have also been reports of mass rapes of women by DPRK officials, along with reports of forced abortion and infanticide. Since the communist DPRK doesn’t bother itself about the ‘liberal’ views of transparency, communication and democracy, we will probably never know how many have perished inside the prison state.

Colonialism

The Europian colonisation of the Asian, African and American lands made the colonising countries rich beyond their imagination but brought only misery, diseases and slavery for the native populations. When Spanish conquistadors arrived in South America, they were astounded seeing the wealth of the native empires. Shiploads of gold, silver and gems were brought back to Spain, but in exchange, the natives got smallpox, Jesus, wars, starvation, slavery and in the process, their entire civilisational history was brutally wiped out. City after city, village after village, kingdom after kingdom fell to Spanish guns, and the virus that the Spanish ships brought to the natives, deadly smallpox. About 8 to 10 million of the population was wiped out to wars, atrocities and smallpox.

But far worse than the loot and plunder, what made the Conquistadors’ acts more abhorrent was the brutal, swift and systematic cleansing of the indigenous culture, stories, literature and artefacts. The Spanish didn’t just loot their gold and silver, they destroyed the Mayan, Aztec and Incan civilisational memories. They made the natives forget their gods, their language and their history.

In 1562, Catholic priest Diego de Landa had carried out brutal religious persecution of the last remaining Mayan descendants. As the war-trodden, defeated, diminished Mayans watched, the priest burned thousands of idols, religious artefacts and codices in large pyres. The codices were the written records of the Mayan civilisation, their stories, their practices and their faith. Landa not only forced the natives to convert into Christianity under brutal torture, he turned their culture into ash right before their eyes. The same fate came for innumerable Aztec treasures and Incan wealth.

Bishop Diego de Landa burning Mayan codices, image via Twitter

India is often hailed as the ‘colonial success story’. Colonial apologists cite India’s thriving democracy, railways, relative prosperity and culture to emphasise how the British Raj ‘enriched’ India. However, in this rose-tinted narrative, they do not mention the brutal invasion of Indian lands, the loot and plunder and the famines that were forced upon the brown people by the Raj. A Cambridge University study states that between the 200+ years of the British raj, there was no increase in the per capita income of the Indian people.

Be it the British colonisation of India, the British, French and Spanish colonisation of Americas, or King Leopold’s rule in Congo, the stories of loot, plunder and exploitation of the native population are more or less the same. The British may not have been the Catholic fanatics like their Spanish friends, but they did loot and plunder India with equal fervour and zeal.

The Bengal famine of 1943 killed over 3 million people. Research has proved now that the famine had no reason to be there, no natural cause. The Bengal famine was caused purely because of Churchill’s policy failure. And he was well aware of that. When asked about the millions of Indians starving to death, he had famously stated that the famine was due to the Indian’s own fault for “breeding like rabbits”. Indians are a ‘beastly people with a beastly religion’, as per the British hero.

King Leopold II of Belgium ‘owned’ the ‘Congo Free State’ from 1885 to 1908. He was not the ruler, he was the owner of the land which he held as his private property. He extracted ivory and rubber from the land to sell in the international market and the rules were so brutal that 10 million natives died. Their hands and feet were chopped off for not meeting the daily collection quota, even those of children.

A Congolese man staring at the chopped off hand and foot of his 5-year-old child, a punishment for not meeting the rubber collection quota. Photograph by Alice Seeley Harris, courtesy: rarehistoricalphotos.com

World Wars

The first World war saw the deaths of 20 million people. Of them, 9.7 million were reportedly military personnel and 10 million were civilians. Over 21 million were injured. By the Second World War, humanity had progressed to far more lethal weapons and far more effective bombs. Hitler killed over 6 million Jews in his concentration camps before WWII even started. When the wars were over and the murder frenzy ended, the world had lost 75 million more humans. Lost between the list of casualties are countless tales of pointless violence, deliberate genocides and a million stories of depravity and barbaric human behaviour.

Diseases

Compared to the macabre shadows of hopelessness and death that the epidemics of the past have inflicted on human history, the current Chinese virus almost seems puny, feeble. The plague of Athens had started around 430 BC and had lasted about 5 years. The Black Death that struck Europe and Aisa in 1347 is believed to have wiped out entire cities, killing almost half the population in some European countries. The Smallpox that the Spanish had gifted the native Americans, along with the Spanish conquest, nearly killed 90% of them. Throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, plagues continued ravaging the newly industrialised cities, leaving millions dead in their wake.

The Spanish Flu of 1918 is said to have killed all over the world, WWI proved to be the ultimate super-spreader, taking the Flu wherever soldiers went and wherever civilians fled. Kill count is estimated to be between 30 and 50 million. The plagues also instigated research, studies and various treatment and prevention methods. Even today, epidemics like Ebola, Zika and Swine Flu continue to threaten us.

All the above-cited instances are mere glimpses, a random sampling of the vast experiences of deaths, disaster and calamities endured by humanity as a whole. We have not even discussed civil wars, invasions, religious persecutions and thousands of other conflicts, calamities that have, and continue to hit us. Humans have been enduring all these since millennia and will continue to endure till our species roam this planet. Compared to the instances cited above, we are far better equipped, better informed and more prepared for coming challenges.

Yes, Coronavirus did deal us a massive blow. Yes, so many have died and suffered. The global economy has struggled. But it is also true that we will bounce back faster, stronger than ever. We adapted quicker, we communicated better and we did fight back. 2020 is going to be ‘the blank year’ for most of us. The year of no holidays away from home, the year of no parties, the year of no school picnics, the year of no large family gatherings. But if we look at the past, we cannot deny that we have been far more fortunate than those nameless, faceless victims of countless calamities before our time. Humanity has made some terrible mistakes, but it has also learned and moved forward. 2020 has been bad, but at least not as bad as 1945, or 1943, or 1815, or 1347.

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