For the next 700 words or so, forget airplane crashes, terrorist attacks and earthquakes. There is plenty of bad news out there. But get past the front page, and you occasionally stumble on a story that puts things in perspective. The human condition, it turns out, is not so grim.
Last week, the United Nations International Children’s Fund — better known as UNICEF — released a report detailing the latest survival statistics for children under the age of five. The figures are eye-popping.
In 2006, for the first time in recorded history, the annual global tally of small children who died before their fifth birthday was less than 10-million. Obviously, 9.7-million child deaths — the reported figure — is 9.7-million agonizing personal tragedies too many. But consider that as recently as 1990, the figure was 13-million — even though the world’s population was then 20% less than what it is today. In recent decades, literally tens of millions of children who otherwise would have died have been saved by modern technology, more enlightened public health practices and improved access to medical treatment.
In sheer humanitarian terms, this result is nothing short of epic.
The figures become even more impressive when one converts the data to survival percentages. In 1960, around the world, almost one baby in five died before his fifth birthday — a figure similar to that observed in Europe during the Elizabethan era. Today, just two generations later, the global figure is closer to one in 14.
The improvement has spanned every region, including the industrialized West, where the under-five mortality rate is now just 0.6% — meaning only about one in 170 babies doesn’t make it to his of her fifth birthday, down from one-in-25 in 1960.
Not that there still isn’t plenty of room for improvement. About a third of global under-five child deaths arise due to neonatal causes, which may be prohibitively difficult and costly to address in developing nations. (Even in advanced countries such as Canada, tragic cases of neonatal abnormality arise whereby doctors are powerless to keep a baby alive.) But the same is hardly true of the pneumonia, measles, malaria and diarrhoeal disease that collectively cause more than 4.5-million under-five deaths every year, almost half of the total global tally. Most of these deaths could be prevented if parents had better access to amenities that Canadians take for granted — such as clean water, refrigeration and antibiotics. With Western-quality health standards continuing to make their way into South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa — two regions which together account for 80% of all the world’s under-five deaths — the global child-mortality numbers could be halved within a generation.
The UNICEF report should be required reading for all those who believe globalization is enriching wealthy nations at the expense of the developing world. In Latin America, which since 1960 has made a stunning transformation from protectionist strongman-led autocracy to (generally) free-market democracy, child mortality has fallen by a factor of six in the last four-and-a-half decades. In the tiger economies of Asia, it’s fallen by a factor of four. Far from representing forms of north-on-south “exploitation,” free trade, capitalism and Western technologies have given the spark of life to millions of Third World children otherwise destined for early graves.
Child mortality is not the only statistic we use to measure the health and wealth of the human race, of course: Indices such as GDP, lifespan, productivity, wealth inequality and the like are also worth monitoring. But child mortality stands above and apart. Whatever the gigantic differences that separate the world’s nations, religions and cultures, our common evolutionary programming ensures that an overpowering desire to protest our offspring remains a truly universal constant. Indeed, when all is said and done, raising healthy, successful children is the project that will define most of us as we drift off into our sunsets. Child mortality therefore measures the success or failure of a society in what, in existential terms, is the most important human mission there is.
That’s why the UNICEF report represents such profoundly good news. The fact that we have been able to use our brains to diminish the reaper’s toll of small children so radically provides abundant hope that, despite all evidence to the contrary, humans can make life in this veil of tears slightly less tearful.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here