May 9, 2020

Axios Future

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Today's issue is 1,659 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: The coronavirus could throw global progress in reverse

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

From rising poverty rates to worsening hunger to renewed conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to put a halt to decades of remarkable progress for the world's population.

The big picture: The story of humanity in the postwar era and even further back is largely one of success, of longer lives, lessened poverty, and greater freedom. But the unprecedented shock of the coronavirus could change much of that — unless the world's governments act quickly to protect the most vulnerable.

Driving the news: Economic data released on May 8 showed the U.S. shed a record 20.5 million jobs in April, resulting in an unemployment rate of 14.7% — the worst since the Great Depression.

  • As bad as those numbers are — and they are very, very bad — the situation is far worse for much of the world's population, especially those in developing countries who had just begun to emerge from extreme poverty.
  • According to the International Labor Organization, 1.6 billion workers in the informal employment sector are in danger of losing their livelihoods because of the pandemic.

While nearly 1 in 5 young children in the U.S. are reportedly food insecure — a rate three times as high as the worst figures during the Great Recession — the UN warns the number of starving people worldwide could double this year to some 265 million.

Background: This economic and human catastrophe comes after decades that saw life get better and better for most of the people in most of the world.

Even with those improvements — which appear all the more remarkable if you extend the historical scale to before the Industrial Revolution, when an estimated 94% of the world was poor — there were signs that global progress might be set to stall.

  • Human-made climate change went from largely nonexistent in the mid-20th century to an existential threat that could cost the global economy nearly $8 trillion by 2050.
  • Even before the pandemic, income inequality in the U.S. was at its highest level since the government began tracking it in 1967. And U.S. life expectancy dropped in 2019 for the third year in a row.
  • According to the nonprofit Freedom House, global democracy has been on the decline for years.

What's next: The UN is urging rich nations to set aside $90 billion to protect the most vulnerable 10% of the world's poorest people. That would be paid for with a one-time $30 billion increase in the $150 billion dedicated to official development assistance, with the rest coming from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

  • Reality check: While nations have channeled hundreds of millions in aid to directly fight the coronavirus, finding an additional $30 billion in the midst of a global economic depression is an impossibly tough ask.

The bottom line: The progress the world has seen over the past several decades is nothing short of remarkable. But there is no guarantee that story will continue.

2. Too hot to handle

Photo: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A pair of scientific studies published this week tracked the dangerous increase in heat and humidity from climate change so far — and projected a future that could be too hot for billions of people.

Why it matters: Don't forget the warming in global warming. A more populous humanity will be hard-pressed to adapt to a world where large stretches of land are simply too hot to live in easily.

A study published in Science Advances on May 8 identified thousands of unprecedented periods of extreme heat and humidity in areas around the world, including in the U.S. Gulf Coast region.

  • The study analyzed weather data and found extreme heat and humidity combinations doubled between 1979 and 2017.
  • Along the already brutally hot Persian Gulf, there were more than a dozen times when the mix of high temperatures and humidity temporarily exceeded the theoretical human survivability level.

Of note: Scientists assess the heat and humidity combination using what is known as wet-bulb temperature, which is literally measured by wrapping a thermometer in a wet cloth.

  • A wet-bulb temperature of 95 F is lethal after about six hours.

Another study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on May 4 looked at the next half-century and found one-third of the world's population could end up living in areas considered unsuitably hot for human beings.

  • While today only about 25 million people live in the world's hottest areas, with mean annual temperatures above 84 F, by 2070 extreme heat could have spread to multiple regions, including parts of India, the Middle East and Australia.
  • Coupled with expected population growth, that could mean as many as 3.5 billion people living under extreme heat stress.

Yes, but: The study is based on what the authors called a worst-case scenario, where little is done to curb greenhouse gas emissions. And as the global population gets richer — assuming that trend continues — more people will be able to afford air conditioning, though such adaptation would add to carbon emissions.

The bottom line: The studies show that the livable climate we've taken for granted for thousands of years is not the one we'll be enduring in the future.

3. Coronavirus could be a catalyst for self-driving cars

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Self-driving cars are the kind of speculative, cash-gobbling experiment that typically gets axed at a time like this. But if anything, this pandemic has shown the demand for driverless vehicles could be larger than expected, Axios's Joann Muller writes.

The big picture: Auto and tech companies are focusing on a handful of factors that will influence the movement of people and goods in the future, even as consumer behavior changes.

  1. People might shun public transportation, but they still need to get around.
  2. Widespread use of personal cars isn't practical in cities.
  3. Building trust in shared AVs requires a new dimension in safety: hygiene.
  4. Autonomous delivery is ready to take off.

The bottom line: Creating a self-driving service involves more than building a safe vehicle. It has to deliver value to consumers. The pandemic might be a catalyst for adoption.

Go deeper

4. The kids aren't all right

A young boy in Thailand. Photo: Chaiwat Subprasom/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Image

Experts fear children will be suffering from the psychological effects of the pandemic for decades — even down to the level of their genes.

Why it matters: Children are not exempt from the stress associated with the pandemic and its accompanying economic shock, and we could be reckoning with the scars of the experience for generations.

Driving the news: A new survey of more than 6,000 parents and children in the U.S., UK and other countries by the charity Save the Children found about 1 in 4 children living under COVID-19 lockdowns are dealing with anxiety and are at risk of depression.

Context: Based on past research into the long-term effects of economic stress, experts worry the impacts of the pandemic will be felt by children long after the disease itself is finally conquered.

  • "The poorest households simply won't recover from the effects on education and lost income," says Candice Odgers, co-director of the Child and Brain Development Program at the Canadian NGO CIFAR. "For many children their safety place is school, and that has been pulled out from under them."

How it works: While the anxiety and feelings of depression connected to the pandemic may seem purely psychological, research suggests those intense stressors can affect children's genes and biological development.

  • "These early life experiences literally get under the skin," says Michael Kabor, a professor of medical genetics at the University of British Columbia. "That's why we think the secondary effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are going to be profound."

The bottom line: Experts urge policymakers to ensure that benefits and aid be distributed equitably to children at all income levels. And while they deal with their own coronavirus anxieties, parents should be mindful of what their children are enduring.

5. Worthy of your time

Instacart's frantic dash from grocery app to essential service (Ellen Huet and Lizette Chapman — Bloomberg)

  • The bumpy inside story of how the grocery delivery app added 300,000 workers in eight weeks in the teeth of the pandemic.

The system that actually worked (Charles Fishman — Atlantic)

  • While we struggle to make the physical things we need to fight the pandemic, our online world held fast. Here's why.

COVID-19: What we can learn from wartime efforts (Adrienne Bernhard — BBC Future)

  • What do we mean when we talk about "waging war" on the coronavirus? Less than we think when we compare the effort to real wars.

Is getting pregnant "medically necessary" right now? (Anna Louie Sussman — MIT Tech Review)

  • How the future of fertility has been imperiled by the pandemic.
6. 1 great thing: The defeat of smallpox

A magnified image of the smallpox virus. Photo: BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

May 8 marked the 40th anniversary of the eradication of the deadly disease smallpox.

Why it matters: The successful international campaign to eradicate smallpox is one of humanity's most unappreciated triumphs, and a reminder that when we come together, we can still do great things.

Background: Smallpox first emerged thousands of years ago, a disease that could kill 3 out of 10 people it infected. Its historical death toll numbers in the hundreds of millions.

  • Smallpox was also the first disease to be met by a successful vaccine: Edward Jenner's inoculation in 1796. Yet even after Jenner's vaccine was introduced, smallpox outbreaks continued through much of the world, with an estimated 10 million to 15 million cases and 2 million deaths as late as 1967.

That year, the WHO launched an intensified eradication program, one that united Cold War enemies like the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

  • Thanks to years of difficult field work and vaccine distribution, the last naturally occurring case of smallpox was diagnosed in a hospital cook in Somalia in 1977.
  • On May 8, 1980, the WHO declared smallpox officially eradicated.
"Humanity's victory over smallpox is a reminder of what's possible when nations come together to fight a common health threat."
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General