Nicholas Kristof recently took to The New York Times to deliver some good news: for “humanity overall,” 2019 was the “best year ever.”
Kristof’s assessment, while correct, is no reason for fireworks and fanfare. Many people suffered in 2019. So much was lost. To deny the prevalence of such adversity is to look back on human progress with a congratulatory and uncritical eye.
If last year was our best yet, let it serve instead as a hopeful reminder of how far we’ve come—and how capable we are, when put to the test, of changing the world for the better. In the face of collective tragedy, hope is a catalyst for change far more potent than complacency or despair. After decades of witnessing and responding to global health crises, this is something I know to be true.
In 1955, nearly 70 percent of the world lived in rural areas. The bustling metropolises that span the American Midwest today were dusty, rundown towns. New York City, though ever populous, was black with soot—breeding grounds for infectious diseases, curable now, that killed millions.
Average life expectancy was a mere 48 years, and across Africa, Asia, and South America, one in three children—sometimes more, depending on the country—died before the age of five. It was common, even expected, to lose multiple children over the course of a lifetime.
Traveling Europe and Asia, I found neighborhoods and cityscapes bombed flat. On a trip to Calcutta in 1966, I saw bodies of the dead and dying piled high outside my hotel room window. Many had succumbed to sickness and starvation.
Systemic poverty, intractable conflict, and massive gaps in healthcare coverage continue to plague the world as we know it. Human progress, like human history, has been anything but neat and tidy, and progress in global health is no exception. Our greatest achievements, like our greatest downfalls, are caught in the same tangled web of circumstances.
What, in the apocalyptic aftermath of the Holocaust and World War II, were we able to accomplish? Between 1950 to 2015, global child mortality fell from 22.5 percent to 4.5 percent; in Africa, from 32 percent to 8 percent. As of 2016, global life expectancy is 72 years. Smallpox was eradicated, immunization campaigns succeeded, and the spread of infectious diseases—among them, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and polio—halted and slowed.
Improvement across these global health indicators and more, according to research aggregated by Our World in Data, can be attributed to worldwide vaccination programs, major healthcare investments, public health policy, and health related social movements. Credit is also due, however, to the resilience, ingenuity, and compassion of the people who brought each invention and intervention into being.
It is my hope that with the right mix of innovation, urgency, and—most importantly—humanity, we’ll stay on track to make every year in global health the best ever. My grandchildren will come of age in a world that I never could have dreamed of as a young boy growing up in postwar America. Our task today is making sure that is true for all generations to come.