Since we’ve been dealing with a pandemic for more than a year, we’ve learned a lot of medical information, but there is so much more to learn in the past.

Last Sunday, The New York Times magazine published The Health Issue. At first, I thought at times it is overwhelming to understand what is going on concerning COVID-19 and its growing numbers of variants. But that’s what viruses do, apparently.

But beyond the virus, taking a look about what was going on centuries ago, there was a story titled “How Humanity Gave Itself an Extra Life: Between 1920 and 2020 the human life span doubled. How did we do it? Science mattered – but so did activism.” 

The writer is Steven Johnson, and this story is excerpted from his 13th book: “Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer.” (The magazine also noted he was host of a four-part PBS/BBC series of the same title airing this month. I’ll keep an eye out for it on when we can see it here.) 

Reading this lengthy story was so engrossing (and sometimes gross, when reading about cholera), there was no way to stop reading this piece. There was cowpox, which was a harbinger of finding a way to stop the terrible scourge of smallpox. There was pasteurization of milk, chlorination of water, the horrible situation in terms of cholera with something called oral rehydration therapy, and penicillin, which could beat back even the most dreadful cut. And, of course, more. 

When we were kids, we had polio shots and TB shots, then came later shots for mumps and measles and diphtheria and pertussis and tetanus: All of this research was helping to keep people alive. As someone who had mumps, measles and chickenpox in a row, my mother was exhausted (and so was I. It was boring). 

This paragraph made me think:

“Another reason we have a hard time recognizing this kind of progress is that it tends to be measured not in events but in nonevents: the smallpox infection that didn’t kill you at age 2; the accidental scrape that didn’t give you a lethal bacterial infection; the drinking water that didn’t poison you with cholera. In a sense, human beings have been increasingly protected by an invisible shield, one that has been built, piece by piece, over the last few centuries, keeping us ever safer and further from death. It protects us through countless interventions, big and small: the chlorine in our drinking water, the ring vaccinations that rid the world of smallpox, the data centers mapping new outbreaks all around the planet. A crisis like the global pandemic of 2020-21 gives us a new perspective on all that progress. Pandemics have an interesting tendency to make that invisible shield suddenly, briefly visible. For once, we’re reminded of how dependent everyday life is on medical science, hospitals, public-health authorities, drug supply chains and more. And an event like the Covid-19 crisis does something else as well: It helps us perceive the holes in that shield, the vulnerabilities, the places where we need new scientific breakthroughs, new systems, new ways of protecting ourselves from emergent threats.”

Just one link, but there is so much going on in this story. Doctors, nurses, and researchers know all of this, but for the rest of us: wow. I could not stop reading, and the images are great – including the photo of Red Cross volunteers during the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, above.

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