COVID-19 scare stories continue, sensationally spurred by media, even as we collectively reopen and return to a more normal existence. To provide context, TV talking heads often mention the devastating Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.
The reference ignores health challenges over the intervening decades. In fact, pandemics have plagued the world’s populations throughout time, including the 20th century. During 1957-1958, the Asian Flu was a major public health problem. The pandemic originated in China, as the misnamed Spanish Flu of 1918 probably did as well.
The Hong Kong flu came to the United States in 1968, spread by several hundred thousand mostly young men in our military rotating home, generally after one-year duty tours in Vietnam during our long war. The disease spread rapidly. Like many, President Lyndon B. Johnson became seriously ill and hospitalized, for a time in intensive care.
Mercifully, young people appear to be relatively immune to COVID-19. That was not the case with these earlier pandemics. Yet generally, there were no mass isolations, detailed severe restrictions or media fear mongering.
People viewed disease as an unfortunate part of life. After all, the Salk Vaccine to defeat the horror of polio had only become available in 1955. The last case of smallpox in the U.S. was also recent: 1949.
In that earlier time, for the vast mass of employed people there was no alternative to going to work, in literal terms, in a group location. If you failed to show up, you would be out of a job. The extraordinary computer and telecommunications revolutions that permit remote work were just beginning, and public health problems in any case were regarded with stoicism.
The good news is we are so secure today that anything less is a shock. The bad news is we have become extremely vulnerable to fear.
Extraordinary prosperity permits the extraordinary measures taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, and other ills once regarded as unavoidable. Greg Ip of The Wall Street Journal is particularly insightful regarding this important neglected dimension, along with the Brookings Institution, the World Bank and others.
As recently as 1980, approximately one-half of the population on the planet lived in “extreme poverty.” The World Bank defines that condition as below $1.90 per day valued in 2011 dollars, an estimate that endeavors to include drastically different cost and price structures in various countries and regions. Less than that amount prevents essential conditions of human life.
That is not news. Through the long sweep of human history, the vast majority of the population lived in undernourished, often dangerous environments. That reality drove powerful reform movements, some of them extreme, violent and destructive.
Destitution no longer is the norm. Under 10% of the world’s population is now in extreme poverty, though there are serious disruptions. COVID-19, climate change and armed conflict are among current challenges. The long-term downward trend nevertheless continues.
As this implies, the poorest parts of the globe are successfully playing economic catch-up. The influential, respected Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. currently is devoting instructive in-depth attention to the “Africa Growth Initiative.”
Related to economic progress and development, democracy is becoming the desired way of life for the world’s population overall, not just the privileged few. As recently as three decades ago, the people of Latin America lived almost uniformly in authoritarian regimes. Today, Cuba’s dictatorship is isolated.
Nonetheless, fear remains an infectious public menace. If unchecked, fear can kill individuals, institutions and eventually civilization.
Arthur I. Cyr is author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He is also director of the Clausen Center at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc., and a Clausen Distinguished Professor. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arthur I. Cyr
The author is a Wisconsin professor