The Upside of Plague

Too many people died, but when we step back and look at the broad sweep of history, there are reasons to be very hopeful.

One of the most impactful books I’ve read in the last couple of years is “Enlightenment Now” by Harvard Professor Steven Pinker. In the book, Pinker makes a convincing case that virtually everything is getting better. Most importantly, the incidences of war, disease and poverty are decreasing rapidly. Of course, any given number can tick up or down over a year or even a decade, but the long term trends are all positive and the rate of improvement is gaining momentum.

Pinker wrote his book a few years before the Covid 19 outbreak, but if anything, the events of the last year only add credence to his argument.

First, let’s consider the death rate. The latest estimate is that 2.6 million have died due to Covid 19 worldwide. That’s out of a population of 7.6 billion people. By contrast, in the last major pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918-20, anywhere between 17 million and 100 million died out of a population of only 1.8 billion.

(By the way, Spain gets a bad rap here. The only reason it was known as the Spanish Flu is because Spain was neutral during WW I, so it had a free press that was able to report on the deaths there. That led people to believe it had originated in Spain. In fact, there’s evidence that the flu started near an Army base in Kansas and was spread through the world by American troops training there.)

Life expectancy remained the same for centuries, but has now doubled in less than 200 years.

So, yes, Covid 19 has been horrible and every one of those deaths is a tragedy. But when compared to the pandemic of a century ago this was not nearly as bad. That could be because the strain was less virulent, but it’s also certainly because human beings as a whole are healthier than they were a century ago.

Then consider the rapidity with which vaccines were developed. It took less than a year. But historically, it’s common for vaccines to take 10 to 15 years to be developed, tested and approved. That, in itself, is remarkable and the implications for future pandemics and other diseases are incredibly encouraging.

Lastly, we’ve learned a lot in a year about public health strategies, but maybe even more importantly about the social, cultural and political aspects of these measures. It did not go smoothly and everything from the culture wars to unfounded fears of vaccines got in the way. But this means that we’ll be better prepared next time, not just on the science, but on the human challenges of fighting a pandemic.

There was nothing good about the pandemic, not the deaths, not the sickness, not the lives damaged, the income lost or the year of just common living that most of us will never get back. But, in the broad sweep of human history, the sum total of the damage and the pace at which we were able to respond should give us hope for the future.

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