The pandemic has people thinking, some of them apocalyptically. “Times have never been as frightening or as bad”, they say. But are times truly worse? It’s an interesting and valid question. I’ve heard many people paraphrase this question, mostly in my age group – late baby-boomers. To address this question, let’s do a factual comparison between the present and past. Comparisons with the Middle Ages, 1917 or 1939 would be melodramatic and the answer to this question would be too obvious. Rather, let’s use the “liberated and peace-loving 1960’s and ‘70s as our point of comparison and compare it with 2010 and after.
Infant mortality (number of children in 1,000 dying before their first birthday) has been heralded as a key indicator of the well-being of populations by institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF. These numbers give insight into factors as diverse as the environment, health care, sanitation and nutrition. The rate of infant mortality in Canada was 23.9 per thousand in 1965 and a mere 4.4 in 2019. In Asia, the same rate was 160 in 1965 compared with 26 in 2019. In the entire world this rate has plummeted from 110 in 1965 to 31 in 2019.
As we are facing a pandemic health crisis, let’s look at global life expectancy. It would be hard to argue that life expectancy does not represent an amalgam of health variables. According to the United Nations, life expectancy in Canada was 71.7 years in 1965 and 82.4 in 2019. In Asia, life expectancy increased from 48.3 years in 1965 to 73.6 in 2019. For the entire world, the average increased from 53.2 in 1965 to 72.6 in 2019. Some would say that these indicators are “all good and well”, but what about our ability to sustain a burgeoning population experiencing greater longevity?
Is enough food being produced? Contrary to the prophets of doom, food production over time has increased. The eighteenth century cleric and mathematician, Thomas Malthus, surmised that the ability to increase food supply would trail in comparison to population growth. This general refrain was echoed by 1960s and ‘70s prognosticators such as E.F. Schumacher (Small is Beautiful) and Paul and Edna Ehrlick (The Population Bomb). They were all wrong. World food production per capita has increased from 2,310 kilocalories per person daily in 1965 to 2,884 in 2013. In Africa, production has gone from 2,042 kcals. to 2,624 for the same years.
Has the world become more war-torn? The opposite is true. The number of people perishing in state-based battles has declined from a global average of about 2.8 deaths per 100,000 during the 1960’s and 4.1 per 100,000 throughout the 1970’s to approximately 1 in the 2010s. Much of this data has been compiled by Steven Pinker in his The Better Angels of our Nature. Genocide has also diminished. The 1960s had approximately three million genocidal murders carried-out in Indonesia. It is estimated that the ‘70s had roughly 6.3 million, made up mostly from Cambodia and East Pakistan. From 2010 to present, these deaths number in thousands.
Alluding to increased global degradation can be a powerful political tool. When practiced at a greater magnitude, such rhetoric can become apocalyptic. The historic highway has been littered by leaders who have used this mechanism for nefarious purposes. The facts demonstrate real progress since the end of the Second World War. Are there still difficulties? Yes, there are. Now, however, we have greater comfort and safety through which we can confront them. We also have the advantage of historic reflection to be grateful that we aren’t living during a more dangerous generation.
Jeff Itcush is a High School Teacher at Bialik High and former President of the Federation of Teachers of Jewish Schools.