An incorrigible optimist, the late Hans Rosling would have taken on the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic head on in his own inimitable and indomitable way and perhaps even devised an ingenious method to put paid to his rampaging hopes. This Professor of International Health and a veritable superstar in so far as both his work and views are concerned, created a sensation with his TED talk titled “The best stats you’ve ever seen”when he expounded on some jaw breaking information and data that left his audience pleasantly reeling.
Now in the book titled “Factfulness”, Mr. Rosling brings to bear his entire sweep of alacrity, acumen and assiduousness in informing his readers as to why the world is not at all as bad as some have it to believe. Lest one be misled by the preceding statement, the book is not an exercise in ‘Pinkeresque’ Panglossian fantasies. It is a meticulous, measured and methodical expostulation of the strides which some of the most impoverished of the world have taken, thereby cumulatively ensuring that the Earth is in fact a better place to live when compared with what our ancestors or even our grandfathers were made to put up with. As Mr. Rosling himself narrates in the book, his own thinking underwent a paradigm shift when as a young doctor in Mozambique in the 1980’s he was reprimanded by a visiting friend, a fellow medic as well, for not caring better for a seriously ill child in Mr. Rosling’s health clinic. Mr. Rosling provided the child with a feeding tube for oral rehydration, whereas his friend was of the educated and informed opinion that the baby deserved an intravenous drip, which would increase her chances of survival but take more time.
The incident served as an eye opener for Mr. Rosling. He reflected on the fact that while there was no reasonable manner in which a standard and decent level of care could be provided for the relatively small number of children who visited his district hospital, and with the time saved from treating patients at a ‘good enough’ level, Mr. Rosling could instead stop a multitude of children expected to die in his district every year by training health workers, and vaccinating children.
Mr. Rosling poses 13 seemingly innocuous questions at the start of his book, the answers to most of which turn out to be nonlinear to the conventional modes of thinking. Try answering some of these questions if you can:
- What is the is the percentage of girls who finish primary school in low-income countries – 20, 40 or 60 per cent?
- What is the life expectancy today – 50, 60 or 70 years?
- In the past 20 years, has the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty almost doubled, remained the same, or almost halved?
Mr. Rosling is of the view that it does not make any sense to divide or label the world into developed and developing countries. Alternatively, he envisions the world as being amenable for classification into four logical and informed income strata, each continuously advancing. The poorest of the poor, mainly in Africa, subsist at Level 1; but even their fortunes are depicting an upsurge. Then there are the Level 2 countries where there is a burgeoning lower-middle-class. Many of these Level 2 nations will soon make the leap to Level 3, where people can boast savings, own consumer products, and avail themselves of secondary education. Finally, there are the Level 4 countries, the abode of the 1 percenter where opulence and ostentatious consumption represent a way of life. There can be no more startling example of the progress mankind collectively has made than an assimilation of the following facts:
- Worldwide since 1800, the percent of children who die before age 5 has steadily declined from 44% to 4%. Over the same period, global literacy grew from one in ten to nine in ten;
- Just since the 1970s, the undernourished share of the population has dropped by two thirds, while children surviving cancer diagnoses have increased more than a third, to 80%; and
- Today, 90% of primary-school-age girls around the world are enrolled in school.
However, as Mr. Rosling emphasizes stories chronicling incremental albeit telling improvements, are not front-page fare. Sensationalism, pessimism and downright negative happenings are devoured by people and it is these tragedies that embellish the TRP ratings of television channels and newspapers. To paraphrase Ohio State University psychologist John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D. “your brain is simply built with a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news. The bias is so automatic that it can be detected at the earliest stage of the brain’s information processing.” As Mr. Rosling illustrates, even though violent crime rates in the United States have been steadily dropping since the year 1990 each time something horrific or shocking happened – pretty much every year – a crisis was reported. People still believe that violent crime is getting worse.
The book has an arresting reference to Rosling’s tryst with studying in India. This incident also exhibits the negative, stereotypical and banal mindset harboured by the West towards the East. While studying public health at St. John’s Medical College, Bengaluru in 1976, he recounts his first lesson there as a fourth-year medical student: “How could they know much more than me? Over the next few days I learned that they had a textbook three times as thick as mine, and they had read it three times as many times. I suddenly had to change my worldview: my assumption that I was superior because of where I came from, the idea that the West was the best and the rest would never catch up.”
Stories about gradual improvements rarely make the front page even when they occur on a dramatic scale and affect millions of people. And thanks to increasing press freedom and improving technology, we hear about more disasters than ever before. This improved reporting is itself a sign of human progress, but it creates the impression of the exact opposite. At the same time, activists and lobbyists manage to make every dip in an improving trend appear to be the end of the world, scaring us with alarmist exaggerations and prophecies. In the United States, the violent crime rate has been falling since 1990. But each time something horrific or shocking happened – pretty much every year – a crisis was reported. Most people believe that violent crime is getting worse.
Mr. Rosling also backs up the evidence for advancement by using some of his own family’s experience in Sweden. For example, in a moving passage, he talks about his grandmother, “My parents had been saving money for years to be able to buy that machine. Grandma, who had been invited to the inauguration ceremony, was even more excited. She had been heating water with firewood and hand-washing laundry her whole life.”
This physician, academic and statistician unfortunately died in the year 2017, not living to see his work in print. However, his exemplary work is being carried out by his son Ola Rosling and daughter-in-law, Anna Rosling Ronnlund. There is every reason to believe that they will take things up from where exactly Mr. Rosling left them.