Was 2016 the worst year ever in the annals of human misery? Not even close

Peter Kammerer refuses to be swayed by the explosion of news – mostly negative – that comes via social media. Not only does the ‘bad’ pale in comparison to major tragedies of the past, but we’ve also ignored much of the ‘good’

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 January, 2017, 12:56pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 January, 2017, 6:52pm

How bad can a year be? Many have been saying that 2016 was the worst ever. They point to Donald Trump’s election to be the next US president, Britons’ vote to leave the European Union, Islamic-State-inspired terrorist attacks, the rise of the far-right, and the war in Syria. To add to the gloom, they recall beloved celebrities who died. Words of the year picked by media agencies, dictionary companies and the like confirm the sense of misery, with the entries “surreal”, “chaos” and “xenophobia”.

The New Year headlines since 1997

The year just gone surely wasn’t that bad. For those who voted for Trump or Brexit, prayers were answered. For now, neither of those “shocks” have negatively affected Hong Kong and our part of the world and may yet turn out to be positives.

Watch: Hong Kong’s 2016 in 60 seconds

An entertainer or sportsperson we like can sometimes feel like part of the family. Growing up with their songs, movies and sportsfield heroics gives an attachment that leads to a sense of loss when we learn of their death. I felt that during the year with the loss of singers David Bowie and Prince, and Leonard Cohen, boxing legend Muhammad Ali, actors Gene Wilder and Carrie Fisher and comedian Garry Shandling. But they have left legacies that I can readily turn to through digital technology.

Let’s put the so-called bad news of the past year in context

Both pairs of my grandparents, who lived through two world wars, a population-devastating pandemic, extreme poverty and, for those from Munich, political extremism of the most repugnant kind, would object to the claims about 2016 being so terrible. They have long passed on, but could have countered with some of the most horrendous events humankind has suffered. Until July 1914, Europe was peaceful and prosperous; the assassination of Austria’s Franz Ferdinand sparked a tinderbox that killed 17 million over the next four years. The final 11 months coincided with the deadliest flu epidemic the modern world has known, in which 50 million lives were lost. In 1919, the first shots of the Irish war of independence were fired, the Russian civil war continued to rage and the Treaty of Versailles was signed between Germany and the victors of the first world war, setting conditions for an even more devastating conflict 20 years later. And what about 1942, when the second world war was at its height in Europe, the genocide of the Holocaust at its fiercest and the imperial Japanese army bloodily smashing its way across Asia?

Hong Kong’s everyday heroes of 2016

Let’s put the so-called bad news of the past year in context; perceptions have been largely driven by social media, the way many people are now informed. News, by nature, is often negative. Until a few years ago, the majority obtained it from traditional media – print newspapers, TV and radio. Smartphones have changed that, and coupled with social media like Facebook and Twitter, we’re now bombarded with news at all times of the day. That can readily give an impression of crisis, especially in an event-packed year like 2016.

Watch: Fireworks light up city skylines around the world to usher in the new year

But while many economies are faltering and terrorism is ever-threatening, the world can hardly be said to be in crisis. It could not be, given these other events of 2016: the Paris agreement on climate change became international law; Russia and Turkey took charge of efforts to end the civil war in Syria; China banned new coal mines; the giant panda and humpback whale were taken off the endangered species list; Myanmar swore in its first elected civilian leader in half a century; the Colombian peace deal with Farc rebels seems to be sticking; ebola was eradicated from West Africa; and, world hunger fell to the lowest level in 25 years.

The ramifications of all that point to a world determined to improve lives, not tear them apart.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post