By Steven Johnson
The New York Times Magazine
The period from 1916 to 1920 marked the last point in which a major reversal in global life expectancy would be recorded. (During World War II, life expectancy did briefly decline, but with nowhere near the severity of the collapse during the Great Influenza.) The descendants of English and Welsh babies born in 1918, who on average lived just 41 years, today enjoy life expectancies in the 80s. And while Western nations surged far ahead in average life span during the first half of the last century, other nations have caught up in recent decades, with China and India having recorded what almost certainly rank as the fastest gains of any society in history. A hundred years ago, an impoverished resident of Bombay or Delhi would beat the odds simply by surviving into his or her late 20s. Today average life expectancy in India is roughly 70 years.
In effect, during the century since the end of the Great Influenza outbreak, the average human life span has doubled. There are few measures of human progress more astonishing than this. If you were to publish a newspaper that came out just once a century, the banner headline surely would — or should — be the declaration of this incredible feat. But of course, the story of our extra life span almost never appears on the front page of our actual daily newspapers, because the drama and heroism that have given us those additional years are far more evident in hindsight than they are in the moment. That is, the story of our extra life is a story of progress in its usual form: brilliant ideas and collaborations unfolding far from the spotlight of public attention, setting in motion incremental improvements that take decades to display their true magnitude.
Another reason we have a hard time recognizing this kind of progress is that it tends to be measured not in events but in nonevents: the smallpox infection that didn’t kill you at age 2; the accidental scrape that didn’t give you a lethal bacterial infection; the drinking water that didn’t poison you with cholera. In a sense, human beings have been increasingly protected by an invisible shield, one that has been built, piece by piece, over the last few centuries, keeping us ever safer and further from death. It protects us through countless interventions, big and small: the chlorine in our drinking water, the ring vaccinations that rid the world of smallpox, the data centers mapping new outbreaks all around the planet. A crisis like the global pandemic of 2020-21 gives us a new perspective on all that progress. Pandemics have an interesting tendency to make that invisible shield suddenly, briefly visible. For once, we’re reminded of how dependent everyday life is on medical science, hospitals, public-health authorities, drug supply chains and more. And an event like the Covid-19 crisis does something else as well: It helps us perceive the holes in that shield, the vulnerabilities, the places where we need new scientific breakthroughs, new systems, new ways of protecting ourselves from emergent threats.
Picture: Smart Servier, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons