Sam Holstein

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Why the Last 2 Years Have Been Some of the Best in Human History

Many people online are complaining about the last few years. “The past two years have been some of the worst in human history.” “If you’re feeling overwhelmed, go easy on yourself. After all, it makes sense! The last few years have been some of the worst in human history!”

Claims like these make me want to gag.

The past two years have been some of the worst in living memory. That is without dispute. And we should all be more compassionate toward ourselves because of it. We’d all be better off if we did.

But there’s a big difference between “the worst in living memory” and “the worst years in human history.”

Why COVID-19 Is Weak Sauce In Human History

Before taking you on a journey through history, let’s set some context for the stats of our current moment in human history. Here are some global statistics:

Let’s be clear. 5 million deaths thanks to COVID-19 is a big deal. 269 million cases is a big deal. 9.5% of the global population in extreme poverty is 712 million people. These are huge numbers for huge problems. I’m not trying to minimize these tragedies.

Quite the opposite. If you consider these to be massive global tragedies, what must you think of these numbers?

Smallpox

The greatest accomplishment of human history can be summed up in two words: “Smallpox was.” Even thinking these words can bring me to tears.

OK, so we eradicated smallpox. Why is this the greatest accomplishment of human history?

Smallpox was a disease that plagued humanity for as long as humanity existed. According to Wikipedia, “Smallpox was an infectious disease caused by one of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor.”

Smallpox was also so dangerous and deadly it made COVID-19 look like a joke. The minor variant had a mortality rate of 1–2%, like COVID. The major variant had a whopping mortality rate of 30%. There were no effective treatments.

Sadly, the major variant was far more common. From Wikipedia, “The risk of death after contracting the disease was about 30%, with higher rates among babies. Often those who survived had extensive scarring of their skin, and some were left blind.”

Smallpox was successfully eliminated from the world by enterprising scientists, most notably global hero Louis Pasteur. He was the father of modern germ theory and the inventor of vaccines for diseases like smallpox, anthrax, and rabies. People knew that inoculation and exposure to cowpox could help prevent death by smallpox, but he turned that knowledge into a commodified vaccine that could be shipped throughout the world.

He could have patented that knowledge and slapped a steep price tag on it. But he didn’t. He donated the technology to the public sphere instead, enabling enterprising scientists and doctors around the world to distribute the vaccination. Over the course of a few decades, the entire world was vaccinated for smallpox. The last naturally occurring case happened in 1977.

Scientists estimate that if Smallpox were not eliminated, it would kill 5 million people per year. Double what COVID-19 has done. Countless more would be left scarred and blinded. That’s 200 million lives that have been saved since the elimination of smallpox.

The global pandemic that’s reducing us to broken heaps huddling inside our houses? That was a sideshow compared to daily life in human history until the mid-1700s.

Spanish Flu

When the pandemic started, tons of articles came out comparing this to the Spanish flu. Maybe the virology is similar, or the nature of the palliative treatment, but when it comes to the impact on society, COVID-19 looks like the Spanish flu’s trembling cousin.

According to Wikipedia, “Spanish flu, also known as the Great Influenza epidemic or the 1918 influenza pandemic, was an exceptionally deadly global influenza pandemic caused by the H1N1 influenza A virus. The earliest documented case was March 1918 in Kansas, United States, with further cases recorded in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom in April. Two years later, nearly a third of the global population, or an estimated 500 million people, had been infected in four successive waves. Estimates of deaths range from 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.” The pandemic ended in 1920. “By 1920, the virus that caused the pandemic became much less deadly and caused only ordinary seasonal flu.”

OK. Spanish flu went from 0–500 million cases in two years. COVID-19 has only reached 268 million cases in the same time.

No doubt this is because we have a better grasp of germ theory now. We have access to things like hand sanitizer. During the Spanish flu, people would shelter in their houses but still have friends over for small gatherings and didn’t worry about washing their hands or being careful about breathing space, so their social distancing efforts were for naught.

And, of course, all the soldiers in trenches fighting WWI were doing the total opposite of social distancing. Spanish flu aside, disease was rampant in the boggy and disgusting trenches. There is even a disease called trench foot named after the WWI trenches.

Consider the deaths. COVID-19 has killed 5 million in two years. Spanish flu killed anywhere from 17 million — 100 million in two years. Even the lowest estimate, 17 million, is still three times more than COVID-19. Probably closer to five or ten times more.

Comparing COVID-19 to the Spanish flu is a total overstatement of the situation. COVID-19 is the most deadly pandemic since the Spanish flu, and that certainly deserves our attention, but it’s not even the most deadly pandemic of the last 200 years, let alone all of human history.

The Black Death

Astonishingly, neither Smallpox nor the Spanish flu holds the title for the deadliest pandemic in human history. That award goes to the Black Death, the bubonic plague in Africa and Europe during the 1300s. It killed 75 million — 200 million people, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351.

And that wasn’t during a world war, either. The Black Death did that all by itself. “Without treatment, plague results in the death of 30% to 90% of those infected. Death, if it occurs, is typically within 10 days.” Yet another mortality rate that makes me vastly prefer COVID-19.

The Black Death was not the first time the bubonic plague struck the world, nor would it be the last. The first outbreak was during Justinian’s reign of the Roman Empire, killing 25 million people. The Black Death was the second. The third, called the modern pandemic, killed 12 million people across China and India. Any one of these three plagues would have been unquestionably worse to try to live through than COVID-19.

The bubonic plague still kills people today, although treatment with antibiotics is effective and deaths are rare. “Several antibiotics are effective for treatment, including streptomycin, gentamicin, and doxycycline. With treatment, the risk of death is around 10%. Globally between 2010 and 2015, there were 3,248 documented cases, which resulted in 584 deaths.” That’s only 110 deaths per year, so you don’t need to fear dying from the bubonic plague anytime soon.

Let’s Step Back a Second

The three plagues I just outlined for you all happened in the last 1000 years. That sounds like a long time… until you consider recorded human history goes back 7000 years. We could spend all day tracing plagues back through the millennia, watching mortality rates climb with each century farther back we look.

And that’s just death by plagues. Deaths by non-plague diseases were astonishingly common through most of human history. One of the most common causes of death for all humans who have ever lived is diarrhea! The global extreme poverty rate through history was above 90%, making causes of death like diarrhea very real for most people who have ever lived. But in the modern world, very few people have to fear dying of diarrhea anymore, and our global poverty rate is below 10% — yes, even during COVID-19.

What about deaths not caused by disease? Deaths by violence are the lowest they’ve ever been. Annual deaths as a result of battles have — aside from the spikes during WWI and WWII — been falling for centuries. Dramatically falling, too, to less than 1 per 100,000 people worldwide. Dying in battle is not a fear most young men in the world have anymore, and this amazing improvement in the quality of life of men has gone mostly unnoticed.

Infant and child mortality has risen rapidly as well. In ancient empires, children weren’t given names for their first year of life because the chances they would die were so high. Disabled children were routinely mercy-killed, a decision which makes sense when feeding a child who couldn’t work put the rest of your family at risk of dying by starvation.

By every measure, the world is becoming an increasingly wonderful place to liveStatistically speaking, COVID is a temporary negative blip on what has otherwise been a three-century rocket flight toward global utopia.

It’s cliche to say that utopia is possible. But by the standards of most of the humans who have ever lived on the earth, we’re living in it right now. War, a way of life for most civilizations, has mostly died out. Major diseases can either be treated safely at a hospital or have been eradicated entirely. We are so sure our children will live that we name them before they’re even born, and the state doles out money to help us care for the disabled ones.

We Aren’t Taught This Stuff In School

If the world is such a great place, why didn’t you know this before? Why didn’t anyone tell you? Why is everyone so invested in spreading a doom-and-gloom narrative about why the world is such an awful place?

You already know the answer. Outrage sells. Drama drives clicks. Newspapers can’t run articles with headlines like “Global poverty rate at a new global low for the 21st year in a row.” Who will click on that? Political campaigns have to convince you huge problems exist so you’re motivated to vote.

There is no individual person conspiring against you. The system just has broken incentives. Good, honest, hardworking people want to make money. They make money when you click and view. You click and view when you feel strong emotions. The strongest and easiest emotions to access in most people are frustration, anger, and outrage. So they find stuff that makes them outraged and share it with you. They think they’re keeping you informed. They don’t know any better.

We’ve created a society where everyone is misinformed and nobody knows it.

In Conclusion

Most people are powerless against the outrage machine. But now you know. Now you know the world is actually a pretty great place where things get better all the time. You know that while COVID-19 is bad, it is far from the end of the world.

Noticing things are good now doesn’t mean they can’t get better. I’d love a world where child mortality and global poverty rates were 0%. I’d love a world where COVID-19 was eradicated, or at least managed so well it was as rare as the bubonic plague is today.

We know we can do it because we have. Everyone who came before us has already done so, one step at a time. We are the latest people in an intellectual tradition that stretches back generations, all dedicated to improving the conditions of humanity everywhere.

It’s our turn to carry progress forward, one step at a time. We can extend rights to the disenfranchised and promote liberal democracy. We can fund public works to eradicate disease and feed the world’s poor. Every year, 220 million people contract Malaria, and 400,000 die from their infection. Malaria is a totally preventable and treatable disease. We can eradicate Malaria just like we eradicated Smallpox. And we can get our damn COVID-19 vaccinations while we’re at it.