December 28, 2020 - 9:00am

If we’re lucky, 2020 will be remembered as the worst year of the 21st century.

But, believe it or not, it could have been worse. Here are ten things that could have happened over the last 12 months, but didn’t:

  1. Covid-19 is a dreadful disease. 1.7 million people have lost their lives to it so far — and that’s almost certainly an underestimate. And, no, it doesn’t just kill people who were about to die anyway. On average, its victims would have lived for another decade or more. And yet — unlike, say, the Spanish flu — this is not, for most part, a killer of the young and healthy. Could we have coped if it had been?
  2. Let’s not forget, tens of thousands of younger people have died. One of them was Li Wenliang — a 33-year-old doctor from Wuhan. He was among those who warned the world of what was happening in his home city. But what if the Communist government had managed to hide the truth for as long as they’d wanted to?
  3. Of course, it’s not that most western governments acted fast enough on the warnings that we did get. But, again, things could have been worse. For instance, the British government could have followed its worst instincts and adopted the Swedish strategy — which didn’t even work in Sweden, and would have failed harder over here.
  4. And where would we be without the furlough scheme and other emergency support measures? Yes, we’ve massively increased the debt burden; but mass unemployment plus a domestic debt meltdown would have done far deeper damage. Thank goodness we had a Chancellor who realised that there’s a time for fiscal conservatism — and that 2020 wasn’t it.
  5. Dare I say it, but Boris Johnson did his bit too — especially by prevailing in his own battle with the virus. That strange and silent April was unsettling enough without having a Prime Minister in intensive care. His recovery was a vital boost to national morale — and the alternative outcome doesn’t bear thinking about.
  6. Meanwhile in America, Donald Trump was voted out office. Joe Biden’s win may seem inevitable to us now, but it really wasn’t. Back in February, the Democrats were poised to choose Bernie Sanders as their candidate. Biden got through more by luck than design, but what if he hadn’t? We’d have had a US election pitting radical Left against radical Right in the year of Covid and the George Floyd protests. Instead, we got Sleepy Joe — a poor result in another year, but a blessed relief in this one.
  7. Even the Trump versus Biden contest could have gone horribly wrong. The sitting President came pretty close to winning the electoral college, despite losing the popular vote by more than seven million votes. A crisis of legitimacy would have resulted had a few toss-up states gone the other way. Or even worse, the margin in these states could have been much smaller, turning the quixotic legal proceedings of the last few weeks into something more dangerous.
  8. While most eyes were on America, the European Union was having its own bitter political dispute — over the rescue package for the countries hit hardest by the pandemic. The deal that was eventually hammered out takes the EU further down the road to fiscal integration. However, the absence of a bail-out for countries like Italy and Spain could have provoked a new Eurozone crisis — which is the last thing the global economy needs right now.
  9. As we limp towards 2021, the pandemic is still raging. Just when we think we’ve got the virus under control, it surprises us — making a mockery of our plans and policies. But as grim as the outlook is right now, we have hope. There’s not just one vaccine riding to the rescue, but a whole cavalry. While we still have much to endure, we need not despair.
  10. The fact that the UK vaccination programme is leading the way is something we shouldn’t be ashamed to celebrate. Just for once, something worked out for us. Like so much else, it could have been botched — and yet it wasn’t. In a future full of public inquiries into the things that went wrong, I hope we find time to honour those who got it right.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.