My big brother turned 30 last week. I saw him on Skype but not in person, and it made me sad. I’ve been pining for social freedom, mass gatherings and for a simpler time when the word ‘tier’ was used almost exclusively in reference to Bake-Off showstoppers. Today I have chosen to redirect my thoughts to what the world was like when my brother came along. Is 2020 really that different from 1990?
Ah, 1990. Pizza-eating Ninja Turtles were massive, as were the riots against Poll Tax, and the average UK house cost just £72,290. It was the year that Tim Berners-Lee created the first ever web page – I wonder if he had anticipated TikTok? A time of oversized sweaters, Vanilla Ice and the Kindergarten Cop. Let’s have a look at some of 1990’s biggest headlines:
On January 7th 1990, the Leaning Tower of Pisa was closed over concerns that it might fall down (I kid you not). This certainly rings some modern-day bells. How many world-famous landmarks have shut their doors this year? The Italians did some building work on the Tower and apparently it was good to go for the next 200 (now 170) years. If only it were so simple for our fluctuating COVID restrictions. The speed at which diagnostics, research and vaccine trials have taken place is, however, not to be sniffed at. It was in 1990, the year 'The Simpsons' first aired, that the Human Genome Project was launched. Nowadays gene sequencing and protein analysis are major players in medical diagnostics.
On 11th February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from Robin Island. A historic day in the fight against apartheid, which was abolished 4 years later. Africa has met its challenges over the last 3 decades; one of the big ones has been HIV. In 1990, the year that gave us ‘Ghost’, ‘Pretty Woman’ and ‘Die Hard 2’, little was known about this deadly virus. Globally, new cases rose to a peak of 3.16 million in the year 2000 (1). Many believed it to be a death sentence; thankfully they were wrong. With the introduction of antiretroviral therapy, people are living with HIV and, in some countries, they’re living longer than those who aren’t infected. Tremendous amounts of research has gone into optimising regimes, reducing side effects, and rapid diagnostic tests. It’s paying off: in 2017 deaths due to HIV/AIDS dropped below a million for the first time since 1995 (1). There's lots to do, of course, but the progress is staggering.
On 4th July 1990 England played West Germany in the FIFA World Cup Semi-Finals. In that very game Paul Gascoigne openly cried in front of his team, his country and everyone else who happened to be watching. Gazza’s tears have become football legend. It was unheard of for a footballer, a man, to cry. Has this changed? Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year-olds globally (2). Recent years have seen a big push towards mental health awareness, something that simply wasn’t talked about 30 years ago. Its impact is gradually being realised and the WHO finally launched a special initiative into mental health last year. Conversations are happening, but is this enough with major events – conflict, displacement, global pandemics – taking their toll on the mental wellbeing of the world? Compared to the progress we have seen in other areas of medicine over the last 3 decades, mental health seems to be lagging behind.
29th-30th September 1990 was the UN World Summit for Children, the first of its kind. Over 70 world leaders met to discuss the welfare and health of the world’s children. Since then, the global health community has rallied to make incredible progress in decreasing child suffering. Annual child deaths have fallen dramatically, from 12.6 million down to 5.2 million in 2019 (1). Worldwide, child immunisation rates have increased to 85% - up almost 10% since ‘Home Alone’ hit the big screen in 1990 (3).
Accomplishments are not just limited to child health. Global infection rates have decreased, with a third of lower respiratory tract infections and half the diarrhoea in 2017 than there was 3 decades ago (1). Measles is decreasing (1), polio is nearly gone. Since the year Madonna released ‘Vogue’, the average life expectancy of any person living on the planet has increased by 8.4 years (1) – due to global health interventions rather than any pose-striking.
The world is a better place to live now than it was then (or ever has been). As much as my brother would like to claim a correlation with his existence, the reality is that these changes were made by everyday people who saw a problem and tried to fix it. There is so much more still to be done, but in an era of doom and gloom let’s not forget what can be achieved if we are determined, even in a mere 30 years.
- Esteban Ortiz-Ospina (2016) "Global Health". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved on 25 October 2020
- Progress and Challenges with Achieving Universal Immunization Coverage 2019 WHO/UNICEF Estimates of National Immunization Coverage. Retrieved on 25 October 2020
- Mental Health. WHO Health topics. Retrieved on 25 October 2020