2020 Is Already the 2nd Worst Year in US History

One concrete way to describe how awful something is is by how many people are killed by it. It’s a measure that all can agree on, and is relatively well quantified. There are many other ways in which things can be bad, but counting the dead is a lot more straightforward than counting, say, corruption or cruelty.

So here we are in the horrible year of 2020. How bad is it compared to other years in US history? Let’s do this by the numbers:

YearUS DeathsCauseSource
2020>210KCOVID-19Covid Trends
201770KPeak drug overdoses. 2018 was down to 63K and more recent years are not listed yetCDC
199586KPeak AIDS deathsCDC (Figure 1)
199027KMost murdersHomicide Rates in the US
196817KHighest year for military deaths in VietnamWikia
1944~150KWorst year for the US in World War IIArmy (pg 10), Navy (tbl 1 & 3)
1918~550K115K lost in World War I, and ~450K in the 1918 Flu PandemicWW I & Flu
1864~150KWorst year of the American Civil Warof 360K Union total

At this point, 3/4 of the way through 2020, there have been 210K official deaths due to COVID-19. There have been an additional 30K to 95K deaths above typical mortality rates according to the CDC, which are likely to be unreported cases. About 700 people are still dying per day. By the end of the year, the official plus unofficial US death toll will be over 300K.

That’s still not as bad as 1918 for the country as a whole. Yet for my state of Massachusetts, 2020 is already the worst year. Mass lost 7000 people to the Great Flu and 974 to WW I in 1918. That’s about 8000 total, and it has already lost 9500 to COVID by official count. Massachusetts has the third-worst rate in the nation, after New Jersey and New York.

So individual years from the worst wars in US history don’t compare to the toll from COVID-19. The only event of similar size was the Flu Pandemic. It killed ~675K Americans over two years, more even than WW II’s toll of 405K over four years. COVID’s overall count probably won’t reach the Flu’s, but it’s likely to be even worse for the US than World War II by the time it finally burns out.

This was not an Act of God. It was caused by the deliberate downplaying of the threat by the Administration and many governors. A lot of developed countries were hit hard by COVID, and they have all gotten past it. For that matter, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts are largely past it. The US is still suffering because of a level of political malice and incompetence not seen since the Civil War. The country will come back from this, but it should remember who did it.

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