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Saturday
Jul012017

Good News, Despite What You’ve Heard

John Brimah, on the back of a motorbike, had leprosy as a child and is now in charge of a leprosy,
hospital in Ganta, Liberia. Photo credit Monique Jaques for The New York Times.

REPRINT > Nicholas Kristof for The New York Times

GANTA, Liberia — Cheer up: Despite the gloom, the world truly is becoming a better place. Indeed, 2017 is likely to be the best year in the history of humanity. 

To explain why, let me start with a story. I’m on my annual win-a-trip journey with a university student, who this year is Aneri Pattani, a newly minted graduate of Northeastern University. One of the people we met is John Brimah, who caught leprosy as a boy.

At the age of 12, Brimah was banished by his village and forced to live in an isolated grass hut. His father would bring food and water once a day to a spot halfway between the village and the hut, and then pound a stick on the ground to let him know that it was there.

For a year and a half, he lived in complete isolation even as his leprosy worsened. Then a missionary from Ohio, Anthony Stevens, happened to pass by. “He heard me crying and investigated,” Brimah recalled. Stevens took him to a leprosy center where he received treatment, and Brimah has never seen his family since. 

Brimah was cured, received a missionary education and became a nurse. Now he is in charge of the leprosy hospital here in Ganta, on the Liberia-Guinea border. He presides over men and women missing fingers, toes and sometimes feet, gnarled reminders of why leprosy has terrified people since biblical times.

Yet we are defeating leprosy. Worldwide, cases have dropped 97 percent since 1985, and it is now easily treatable. A global plan set 2020 as a target for no more children to become deformed by leprosy.

The progress against leprosy reflects the larger gains against poverty and disease — which I believe may be the most important trend in the world today. Certainly it’s the best news nobody knows about.

Perhaps the optimism doesn’t feel right. You’re alarmed by President Trump (or Nancy Pelosi), terrorism and the risk of rising seas, if we’re not first incinerated by North Korean nukes. Those are good reasons for concern, but remember that for most of history humans agonized over something more elemental: Will my children survive?

Just since 1990, more than 100 million children’s lives have been saved through vaccinations and improved nutrition and medical care. They’re no longer dying of malaria, diarrhea or unpleasant causes like having one’s intestines blocked by wriggling worms. (This is a good news column, but I didn’t say it wouldn’t be a bit gross.) 

“There are deworming campaigns now, so it’s much rarer that we go into surgery for obstruction and see a big mass of worms,” explained Agatha Neufville, the nursing director at the Ganta United Methodist Hospital. 

Nine out of 10 Americans say in polls that global poverty has been staying the same or worsening. So let’s correct the record.

There has been a stunning decline in extreme poverty, defined as less than about $2 per person per day, adjusted for inflation. For most of history, probably more than 90 percent of the world population lived in extreme poverty, plunging to fewer than 10 percent today.

Every day, another 250,000 people graduate from extreme poverty, according to World Bank figures. About 300,000 get electricity for the first time. Some 285,000 get their first access to clean drinking water. When I was a boy, a majority of adults had always been illiterate, but now more than 85 percent can read.

Family planning leads parents to have fewer babies and invest more in each. The number of global war deaths is far below what it was in the 1950s through the 1990s, let alone the murderous 1930s and ’40s. 

Aneri and I are reporting from a country whose name, Liberia, evokes Ebola, civil war and warlords like General Butt Naked. That’s partly because we journalists have a bias toward bad news: We cover planes that crash, not planes that take off. 

Together in Liberia, Aneri and I saw children missing school or suffering from excruciating ailments, but the larger narrative is the opposite — less death and more literacy. 

Journalists and aid organizations need to highlight conflicts, disease and suffering, but we also need to acknowledge the backdrop of progress. Otherwise, people perceive global poverty as hopeless and simply tune out. 

The truth is that the world today is not depressing but inspiring. We met a man named Fanha Konah who had lost all his fingers and toes to leprosy, yet somehow has managed to become a master wood carver: He grips a piece of wood between his knees, holds the chisel between the stubs that are left of his hands, and art ensues.

Konah reflects the tenacity and resilience of so many survivors in the world’s poorest countries, and the consequences will be enormous as they enjoy better health and education.

Aneri and I also met an 18-year-old who had never been to school but had somehow built an astonishing three-foot electrical fan mostly out of cardboard scraps. It had a little motor, powered by a battery, and it worked. When kids like him are educated, imagine what they can accomplish — for themselves and for their countries!

So let’s pause from our pessimism for a nanosecond of celebration about a world that is actually getting better. The most important historical force in the world today is not President Trump, and it’s not terrorists. Rather, it’s the stunning gains on our watch against extreme poverty, illiteracy and disease; it’s all those 12-year-olds out there who never catch leprosy and instead go to school.

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