Human progress stumbles on, pandemic or no pandemic

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In most years the world gets better. It seldom feels that way, admittedly, but that is human nature: we worry about the catastrophe in the news — the earthquake, war, famine or pandemic — and miss the gradual but relentless growth of production, technology and understanding. During recent decades, as charted by social scientists such as Hans Rosling, Max Roser and Steven Pinker, those forces have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. By stopping to do a careful accounting, you can see the process in action, year by year.

When I last did this exercise in 2019, it was easy to conclude life had improved. But some years are different. The chaos wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic has been the greatest challenge to humanity’s grip on its own condition since the height of the nuclear stand-off during the cold war. It is interesting then to ask: did the world get better during 2020 and 2021? Or did the pandemic mark an actual setback to human progress? My answers are: probably and no.

Perhaps the best place to start is with the pandemic itself. Although the statistics are mere estimates, it has directly caused about 275m infections and 5m deaths, as well as having a drastic secondary impact on living standards, with lockdowns and travel restrictions keeping us from our families.

The emergence of Omicron makes it particularly tempting to feel miserable right now, but in the long perspective, Covid-19 could be far worse. First, after decades with no great pandemic, what emerged could have been more infectious and more lethal — plenty of diseases in the past, including Sars in 2003, killed more than 10 per cent of those infected. What we have is survivable for most. Second, the development of vaccines was a spectacular success. Doctors pioneered the new technology of mRNA and administered almost 9bn doses in just 21 months since the outbreak began. Covid-19 is horrible, yes, but it is no cataclysm.

Third, it is important to note that our very prosperity is what makes the virus so disruptive. Advanced countries are willing and able to pay a high price to save a small number of lives. Fifty or 100 years ago, life would have gone on as normal while the disease ripped through a much younger population. Whether lockdowns were good or bad, we could afford to make the choice.

The damage done to the global economy is smaller than the scale of the Covid-19 event might suggest. In fact, remarkably so. In most rich countries, output in 2021 was still less than in 2019, but overall the world economy grew by 2.6 per cent during the pandemic. It is testament to how well the capitalist system works that even during the most extreme health emergency in a century, it still delivered enough growth to lift people out of poverty.

There are countries, especially in tourism-dependent or island economies such as Thailand or in the Caribbean, where living standards have slipped, and some very poor countries, such as Afghanistan and Myanmar, have suffered fresh political crises that threaten to set them back many years. But they are offset by other emerging economies, such as Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya, which lost some growth, but are still richer now than they were a couple of years ago.

Humanity has survived the pandemic thus far with its material prosperity intact or even improved. Against that, however, many threats to our future security and prosperity have got worse.

Carbon dioxide concentrations at the Mauna Loa observatory went up relentlessly, from a peak of 414 parts per million in 2019, to almost 420 ppm in 2021. Although carbon emissions did fall during the pandemic, they quickly bounced back. The observatory said it saw no discernible signal from the pandemic when measuring the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere.

The COP26 summit in Glasgow was as disappointing as ever. What encouragement there was on the climate came from private enterprise: 2020 and 2021 were the years when electric vehicles began to go mainstream. They provide another technological building block for an emission-free future. Many more are still needed, but that progress inspires hope.

Geopolitics, by contrast, does not. One defining ingredient of global growth since 1989 is peace and security. In Taiwan and in Ukraine, that no longer seems guaranteed, calling into question the whole global trading system on which prosperity relies. There are disturbing signs of a new nuclear arms race between the US, Russia and China — nuclear weapons are still a leading contender for how humanity will eventually destroy itself.

Worst of all, it was a period of retreat for democracy. According to Freedom House, 2020 was the worst in a 15-year run of decline for democratic governance. The pandemic has been a boon for authoritarians and a difficult challenge for liberal democracies. In the long-run, freedom and prosperity are intertwined.

Overall, then, humanity grew somewhat more prosperous, but the foundations of that prosperity in peace, environmental stability and liberal democracy deteriorated. Call it roughly even. It is the worst assessment one would give in decades. Since it was achieved in the face of a pandemic, however, perhaps there is still reason this Christmas for some good cheer.

robin.harding@ft.com



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