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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The biggest pandemic in decades serves as a reminder of just how big a role infectious disease has played in human history — and will continue to play in the future.

The big picture: Without victory over infection, humanity wouldn't have developed the globalized and populous civilization of today. Yet that civilization is vulnerable to COVID-19, which can only be fought by decoupling the connections that underpin the modern world.

COVID-19 is, ironically, a function of the richer, more connected and more populous world created by the defeat of disease.

  • Medical technology like artificial ventilators will keep the death rate from COVID-19 lower than in past pandemics like the 1918 flu.
  • But the social distancing needed to slow its spread will exert a much worse economic toll than it would have a century ago because our much larger economy is far more dependent on global trade and uninterrupted human connection.
  • "Globalization is both a vulnerability and a reason why our response to this, even with all the economic pain, will be much more effective than it was in the past," says Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and the author of a forthcoming book on the history of disease.

Background: For most of humanity's history, disease and infection kept a check on human development. Population growth, economic growth, even the spread of people across the planet — all were curbed by the threat of contagion.

  • As late as 1800, average global life expectancy was just 29 years. This wasn't because human beings couldn't live to an old age but because almost half of all people born died before their 50th birthday, mainly from contagion.
  • Death from disease in urban areas was so rampant that up until the 19th century, cities were only able to maintain their population through a constant influx of migrants to replace the dead.

All that began to change in the 19th century, with the sanitary revolution and later the widespread development of vaccines and antibiotics.

  • Untold numbers of lives were saved. Global life expectancy rose — to 71 years on average today — and with it, global population.
  • Freed from the constant reaping of their citizens from infection, cities exploded, their larger populations becoming engines of rapid innovation. Global travel became safer and with it, the global trade that has helped drive startling levels of economic growth over the past century.
  • "Our defeat of infection overcame the barriers to human development," says Kenny.

Yes, but: That defeat has been so total that we often take it for granted, especially in the developed world, where we are far more likely to die from heart attacks or strokes — conditions human beings rarely lived long enough to suffer from — than infectious disease. As a result, we've let our guard down.

  • Global vaccination rates have stagnated and declined for diseases like measles in recent years, partially driven by anti-vaxxers who have no memory of a world threatened by childhood diseases.
  • As antibiotic resistance grows because of overuse, we desperately need new drugs. Yet in January the World Health Organization warned the pipeline for new antibiotics was essentially dry.
  • And of course the explosive spread of COVID-19 has shown just how unprepared the world was for a contagious, new infectious disease.

The bottom line: The reason COVID-19 feels so disruptive is because our world was built on the idea that events like this no longer happen. We won't get that world back until we beat this disease. And we can't safeguard that world unless we ensure it won't happen again.

Go deeper: The pandemic highlights the man-made disasters to come

Go deeper

Biden will reverse Trump's attempt to lift COVID-related travel restrictions

Photo: Tasos Katopodis via Getty

The incoming Biden administration will reverse President Trump's last-minute order to lift COVID-19 related travel restrictions, Jen Psaki, the incoming White House press secretary, tweeted.

Why it matters: President Trump ordered entry bans lifted for travelers from the U.K., Ireland, Brazil and much of Europe to go into effect Jan. 26, but the Biden administration will "strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19," Jen Psaki said. Biden will be inaugurated on Wednesday, Jan. 20 and Trump will no longer be president by the time the order is set to go into effect.

Dominion sends cease and desist letter to My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell

Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Dominion Voting Systems on Monday sent a cease and desist letter to My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell over his spread of misinformation related to the 2020 election.

Why it matters: Trump and several of his allies have pushed false conspiracy theories about the company, leading Dominion to take legal action. It's suing pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell for defamation and $1.3 billion in damages, and a Dominion employee has sued Trump himself, OANN and Newsmax.

Off the Rails

Episode 5: The secret CIA plan

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer, Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 5: Trump vs. Gina — The president becomes increasingly rash and devises a plan to tamper with the nation's intelligence command.

In his final weeks in office, after losing the election to Joe Biden, President Donald Trump embarked on a vengeful exit strategy that included a hasty and ill-thought-out plan to jam up CIA Director Gina Haspel by firing her top deputy and replacing him with a protege of Republican Congressman Devin Nunes.