Before COVID-19 changed the world as we knew it six months back, a man named Tom Rach – most likely unknown to anyone reading this – was preparing to attend his 50th high school reunion.
It was to have happened this month but has been postponed now due to the pandemic, and he won’t make it. He died Aug. 1 at the age of 68.
Back in high school days, Rach and I were such good friends a favorite hunting dog, “Tom”, was named in his honor, but we hadn’t seen each other since I split for Alaska in 1973.
And now we won’t.
No, COVID-19 didn’t kill him. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). another respiratory ailment, did. COPD is often linked to smoking, but you don’t have to be a smoker to suffer the illness.
Air pollution is thought to be a possible instigatator, and there are indications genetics put some people at greater risk of suffering the disease.
The WHO in 2005 predicted the disease, which was the world’s fifth-leading cause of death at the start of the decade, would climb to third by 2030 largely due to “increased tobacco use among women in high-income countries and the higher risk of exposure to indoor air pollution (such as biomass fuel used for cooking and heating) in low-income countries.”
Sadly, COPD beat the deadline, and now comes COVID-19.
Seven months into the year, worldwide COVID-19 deaths have topped 800,000 and are racing toward 1 million, according to Our World in Data, a website maintained by the University of Oxford. With new deaths still coming at the rate of 3,000 to 4,000 per week, COVID-19 appears likely to post a fatality rate of near half that of COPD by the end of the year.
The numbers are large and scary in part because we have become conditioned to living in a world where death is a private affair little noticed by anyone outside the small circle of people it touches, and mainly because the disease now killing people is knew and unknown.
The unknown is almost always frightening.
Close to 60 million people die around the globe every year in normal times, according to Our World in Data,and the collective size of that death toll is never noticed.
More than 140 million are born each year.
As a species, we are in an ecological sense handily winning the battle for survival. There are now almost 8 billion humans inhabitating the planet. How many it can support is an unknown.
In 1968, a book called “The Population Bomb” written by Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich with a lot of help from his wife, Anne, triggered worldwide fears humans on earth were on the verge of overtaking the planet’s carrying capacity.
“Published at a time of tremendous conflict and social upheaval, Ehrlich’s book argued that many of the day’s most alarming events had a single, underlying cause: Too many people, packed into too-tight spaces, taking too much from the earth,” Charles C. Mann wrote for the Smithsonian Magazine on the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication. “Unless humanity cut down its numbers—soon—all of us would face ‘mass starvation’ on ‘a dying planet.’
“Ehrlich, now 85, told me…the book’s main contribution was to make population control ‘acceptable’ as ‘a topic to debate.’ But the book did far more than that. It gave a huge jolt to the nascent environmental movement and fueled an anti-population-growth crusade that led to human rights abuses around the world.”
Thanks to the “Green Revolution,” which brought new and improved technology to agriculture, the book also proved to be wrong. And it did little, if anything, to slow the growth in a global population then nearing 4 billion.
The world hit the 4 billion mark in July of 1974, according to the word population clock at Worldometers. Thirteen years later, it hit 5 billion. The 6 billion mark was passsed in 1999 and the 7 billion mark in 2012.
When graphed, human population looks like your classic hockey stick.
At the time the modern Christian calender began, there are believed to have been 200 to at most 600 million people on the planet or a maximum of six-tenths of a billion. It took 1800 years to reach that first billion.
The United States was then home to 5.3 million people, according to the U.S. Census, and the Industrial Revolution was just beginning. The Civil War would soon follow along with the end of slavery, two world wars that drove huge booms in technology, then the Cold War, the aforementioned Green Revolution and the Space Age , all of which accelerated the technological revolution that had begun in the early 1800s.
As technology constantly and steadily improved, U.S. child mortality rates fell from 463 per 1,000 births in 1800, according to the website Statista, to seven today. And the average U.S. lifespan increased from less than 40 to almost 80.
How times change
Had COVID-19 arrived in 1800, it might have gone almost unnoticed given that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) numbers indicate that only about 2 percent of the nearly 158,000 Americans dead of the disease as of Aug. 15 were under age 40.
Back in 1800, about 98 percent of the people dying now due to the pandemic would have already been dead, many of them long dead. Death was all around in those times.
Just think about that infant mortality rate. Only 220 years ago in this country, almost every living child had a brother or sister who didn’t make it.
Back then, most people never got to meet their grandparents, and today most Americans expect to make it to retirement and enjoy the “golden years” after.
They have every reason to believe that will happen, too, or did before COVID-19.
The actuarial tables for the Social Security Administration say (or said) that a man who makes it to age 65 in good health will on average live to 83 and a woman of the same age will out live him by a couple years.
COVID-19 appears likley to push that number down a bit, but probably not all that much.
Tom, sadly, didn’t make it to 70, let alone 83. He was one of those who dragged the average down. So, too, his wife, Patti, another old classmate who preceded him in death.
When your 50th high school reunion rolls around, you start noting those who died. What is amazing is how many didn’t. We now expect people to live to old age, and we don’t usually get it shoved in our face how many don’t even if almost everyone reading this knows people who have died.
According to the CDC, 2.8 million people per year die in this country; about 650,000 of them from heart disease, which is often preventable; 600,000 from cancers, some of which are preventable; and 170,000 from accidents, nearly all of which are preventable.
Listening to CNN’s Don Lemon the other night fretting about the latest University of Washington projection that COVID-19 deaths could hit 310,000 by Dec. 1 because of how the government has mishandled the epidemic (as if there were a democratic government in the Western world that has handled it all that well), I was struck not by how badly the country was doing but by how well.
The Imperial College of London warned in March the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19 could kill 2.2 million people in the U.S. by the end of the year. Even if the death toll were to go as high as 400,000 by then, it would be but a fifth of that.
The country has done a lot better with SARS-CoV-2 than our ancestors did with the Spanish flu. It killed 195,000 Americans in September of 1918 alone, according to History.com. By the time it was over, it has killed about six-tenths of a percent of the U.S. population.
Were COVID-19 to prove that deadly, it would leave about 2 million Americans dead. COVID-19 doesn’t appear that deadly, and thankfully it isn’t killing children and young people the way the Spanish flu did.
The disease is killing some of the middle-aged and a lot of the old.
As one of the latter, it would be nice to think all of us alive here now could live forever. I’d have loved to see Tom again. But it would be an ecological disaster for the planet if people didn’t age out.
Life and death are the breath of nature. They are as fundamental to the system as the inhalations and exhalations that keep us alive. And at some level, what is happening now has long been predictable.
No animal population can go on expanding unchecked without nature trying to reign it in. But it’s easy to forget that in an age when we have in so many ways freed ourselves from nature’s constraints.
We can turn night into day. We can make deserts bloom. We can enable the infertile to give birth. We can even, in many cases, save people from COVID-19, but we can’t save them all.
And we can’t save any from the inevitability of death. That nature still controls.