Global Pandemics Are Incompatible With Widespread Prosperity

As viewed over the long arc of history, there are lessons to be learned from both pandemics and vaccines that inform our understanding of global prosperity. Good health and longevity are cornerstones of prosperity.

Seventy years ago, in 1952, polio cases exploded in the USA. Grade school students felt the brunt as they were kept at home, unable to play with friends and kept out of swimming pools, all because the consequences were so dire. If it sounds reminiscent of 2020 and COVID-19, it should. Fortunately, the iron lung had been invented to aid breathing for the sick. Unfortunately, there were not enough. People died. Bodies were deformed.

In 1955, Jonas Salk created a vaccine, and became a hero. In a televised broadcast he was asked who owned the patents to the vaccine. He famously answered, “Well, the people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

It took almost no time for a fearful community to accept the vaccine. Shortly thereafter, in the spirit of continuous improvement, Sabine refined the vaccination process. Children returned to playing together and swimming.

But this was not an American story. Polio did not respect national boundaries. Nor did the rapid vaccine adoption in the USA describe a global response. Vaccinations cost money. Distributing vaccine is a supply chain challenge. People are not all receptive to the good intentions of a “Western remedy.” The United States and the United Nations and other organizations championed a global response, funded a global response, and ultimately achieved most of the goal: decades later.

By 1979, the U.S. was declared polio-free. Yet globally, in 1980, only 22 percent of one-year-olds were vaccinated against polio. This increased to a coverage of 86 percent of the world’s one-year-olds in 2015. Cases of polio have fallen dramatically over time. In 1980, there were over 50,000 reported cases of polio worldwide. By 2021, this number was below 1,000 with various small estimates from different sources.

In his book “Enlightenment Now,’’ Steven Pinker focuses on public health and childhood mortality improvements such as the Global Polio Eradication Initiative as examples of global improvements in many aspects of life. By 2015, polio was very rare outside of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. Germ theory, antibiotics, vaccines, and other medical interventions substantially increased life expectancies in the last century. In 1840, life expectancy was about 40 years; in 2020 it had risen to 75 years. Reduced childhood mortality was the major explanation.

In this context, an article in The New York Times (July 16, 2022) headlined ‘Sharp Drop in Global Childhood Vaccinations Imperils Millions of Lives’ catches our attention. A vaccination rate of 94 percent is generally thought sufficient to create herd immunity. From 2019 to 2021 vaccination rates for DTP3 fell five points to 81 percent. While UNICEF continues to be a major supplier of vaccine addressing a broad array of diseases, people must engage with programs to make a difference. There is reason to fear that the loss of herd immunity across an array of childhood diseases will allow them to remerge.

The 1918 flu epidemic, and the 2020 COVID pandemic both briefly shortened the pattern of increased life expectancy. Decreases in global herd immunities may do so again. In recent days, NPR, the AP, The Washington Post and The New York Times have all featured news of the first polio case in the U.S. in almost a decade.

How does all of this affect the UConn School of Business? It reminds us of the importance of history, of understanding human behavior and decision making, and of the global interconnections of lives today. Our students take about 50 percent of their coursework in the liberal arts and sciences. We seek to educate global citizens, as well as prepared professionals. The AACSB, our accrediting body for high aspiration business schools, refers to our collective mission as supporting global prosperity. It is important to frame that goal as a quality-of-life goal, not a personal wealth goal.


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