But despite COVID-19 being the latest iteration in these deadly infectious diseases to strike, we are experiencing it in a very different public health context than past pandemics throughout history.
A New Era of Medicine
Since the onset of the 1918 influenza pandemic, humans have seen a monumental and undeniable leap forward in the health sciences.
Advancements in everything from sanitation to pharmacology have spread globally, resulting in a health landscape that is almost unrecognizable from those during past disease outbreaks.
While it’s not possible to demonstrate every life-saving advancement in medical knowledge in just one chart, the rise of life expectancy at birth can be a useful proxy. In just 65 years, modern medicine has propelled countries around the world to see a rapid surge in this crucial measure:
The above animation, which comes to us from Reddit user u/karthikvcp, provides a helpful reminder of just how much has changed in public health over recent decades.
And although countries seem to move up following a linear line, here’s another look at this surge in global life expectancy on a much longer timeline - since the dawn of human civilization:
Yes, for most of human history, it’s been estimated that global life expectancy at birth has bounced between 20 and 30 years.
Beginning approximately in the year 1820, global life expectancy started its exponential ascent, seeing its most impressive gains after 1950 as modern sanitation and medical advancements began to trickle down to developing nations.
Life Expectancy: Interactive Version
While the 13-second animation is a fast summation of the revolution that has occurred in public health, here’s an interactive version from Our World in Data that plots the exact same data:
Still at the Mercy of Nature
Although our understandings of epidemiology and disease treatment are better than they’ve been during previous pandemics, other aspects of modern society have still compounded to make COVID-19 a complex challenge for public health officials.
Population density, frequency of travel, and a modern tendency to gather in large groups are all factors that have contributed to an initial spread of the virus that was faster and more widespread than anything humanity has ever seen.
And so, even with our increased level of medical sophistication, it seems we are still at the mercy of Mother Nature - just in a very different set of circumstances than in pandemics past.