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Cornwall Alliance / March 16, 2020

Will We Survive the Coronavirus? Lessons From History

The ongoing global emergency over coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused considerable fear. As of March 16, there were about 175,000 confirmed cases. About 6,700 deaths and 80,000 recoveries have been reported.

By Vijay Jayaraj

The ongoing global emergency over coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused considerable fear. As of March 16, there were about 175,000 confirmed cases. About 6,700 deaths and 80,000 recoveries have been reported.

The fatality rate of COVID-19 — deaths per number infected — appears to be about 0.25–3.0%, with elderly and immune-suppressed people being especially vulnerable.

The drama surrounding COVID-19 should remind us that the world is better equipped to deal with it today than ever before. Here are some examples.

Improved Healthcare, Disease Control, and Longevity

Epidemics such as leprosy, plague, syphilis, smallpox, cholera, yellow fever, typhoid fever, and other infectious diseases were common before the 21st century.

These diseases killed hundreds of millions around the globe. The worst was the plague of the 14th century. Commonly known in Europe as the Black Death, it is estimated to have killed between 75 and 200 million people in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

The Spanish flu of 1918 was the last big pandemic and is estimated to have killed at least 50 million people.

With the advent of modern medicine, pharmaceutical industries, and biotechnology, the healthcare system around the world has improved. The discovery and use of vaccines worldwide led to the eradication of many life-threatening diseases.

We have become efficient in dealing with highly infectious and contagious diseases, eradicating most of them and increasing longevity.

Global life expectancy stood at around 72 years in 2017. It was only 52 years in 1960 and about 29 years in 1770.

We are now likely to live longer and healthier lives than those who lived during the 1700s and 1800s.

Improved Agriculture, Better Nutrition, and Less Poverty

Our ability to cope with diseases and other natural challenges is contingent on factors other than medical progress. Access to basic amenities, healthy nutrition, and a robust energy infrastructure all play an important role in the prevention and containment of diseases.

People around the world are increasingly gaining access to clean drinking water, less polluting energy sources, housing that protects from adverse weather, and nutritious and hygienic food that can meet their bodies’ needs.

In 2017, 90% of the global population had access to basic, and about 70% to safe, drinking-water sources.

The global agricultural sector has improved by leaps and bounds in the past five decades, thanks to improved agricultural technology and careful genetic breeding of crops. These advancements resulted in high-yielding, disease-resistant crops.

The yield of all food crops has increased during the past seven decades. As a result, more people benefit from adequate nutrition, making them less susceptible to fatal diseases. The malnutrition percentage in developing countries fell from 35% in 1970 to just 13% in 2015.

People across the world now have better access to energy (except for Africa). Affordable energy, from fossil fuels, means people can protect themselves from deadly cold in winter and deadly heat in summer.

In 1820, 84% of the world lived in extreme poverty. By the 1990s only 24% did. World Bank data suggest that fewer than 10% of the global population lived under extreme poverty in 2015. 

Almost all measures of human health and welfare in our world have improved over the years. The coronavirus scare is here for the time being, but it won’t be long before we find medical breakthroughs for COVID-19 and other diseases.

Vijay Jayaraj (M.Sc., Environmental Science, University of East Anglia, England) is a research contributor for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.

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