Things can be both Bad and Better

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, I have often thought: what would Hans Rosling have said about advice of epidemiologists, decisions of global leaders, cases counting and data readings by experts, as well as the media coverage of it all? 

We will never know, as Hans Rosling unfortunately passed away in 2017. But his legacy is particularly valuable when living through this crisis. Before he died, he managed, together with his son Ola Rosling and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund, to finish the book “Factfullness” and his memoirs “How I Learned to Understand the World”, both on top of my must-read list.

The first time I saw Hans Rosling was in Stockholm, at the European Development Days, in 2009. He was on a stage enthusiastically explaining global development while piling up colourful IKEA storage boxes to illustrate how the world population over time moves out of extreme poverty. Hans Rosling was a Professor in International Health and a public speaker with not less than ten TED Talks

What distinguishes Hans Rosling from many other scientists and academics is that he was, as he defined himself, a “possibilist”. He dedicated his life trying to make people understand that the world is in fact getting better. 20 years ago, 29% of the world population lived in extreme poverty, today that number is down to 9%. Some might have accused him of being an optimist. Hans defended himself by saying “things can be both bad and better”, saying that the world is getting better is not the same as telling that everything is fine. He agreed, everything is not fine, but we cannot look away from the progress that has been made. He advocated a responsible, clear and constructive worldview. He wanted to help people to realise that things are not as gloomy as it appears due to all the bad news that overwhelmed us. 

In “Factfullness”, he explains why it is difficult to see the world as it is. We have a tendency to dramatise our worldview. Moreover, while our attention filter protects us against the noise of the world, it unfortunately only lets through information that fits our dramatic instincts. On top of this, when our minds are occupied with fear, there is no room for facts. Ironically, the image of a dangerous world has never been broadcast more effectively than it is now, while the world has never been less violent and safer. The fear instinct is a terrible guide for understanding the world, and we should make as few decisions as possible until the panic has subsided, urged Rosling. He gives the example of persistent fear despite the fact that terrorism in high-income countries kills least people in the world. One week after 9/11 2001, half (51%) of the US public felt worried a family member would become a victim of terrorism. Fourteen years later, the figure and the fear remained the same. Another example illustrates how reporting leads to a skewed worldview. In his native Sweden, a fatal bear attack is a once-in-a-century event. Meanwhile, a woman is killed by her partner every 30 days. This is a 1,300-fold difference in magnitude. And yet one more domestic murder had barely registered, while the hunting death was big news.

Good news is almost never reported and gradual improvement is not news, and sometimes, bad news is not a sign of a worsening world but due to better surveillance of suffering. The world is almost always more complicated than blaming the “bad guy”, the scapegoat. A dramatic worldview creates a constant sense of crisis and stress and it is rarely now or never and either or. We tend to confuse slow change with no change, find simple ideas very attractive and divide the world into two distinct groups: “us” and “them”, making “us” think of “them” as all the same.  The dramatic stories tend to take place on the two extreme ends, but the majority is usually to be found in the middle, and it tells a very different story. In fact, 75% of humanity lives right where the gap is, between low and high-income countries. (It took Rosling 17 years and 15 lectures to convince the World Bank to move away from dividing the world into two extremes, and instead look at four income levels.) Dollar Street is a lovely project by Hans Rosling, his son and daughter-in-law showing the diversity in the world through the camera lens of 264 families from different income levels in 50 countries. We need both the individual stories and statistics to understand the world and get things in proportion, numbers alone are not sufficient. 

The world is changing, but our worldview is not, and we tend to forget how things really did “used to be”. What you learned about the world at school is outdated 10-20 years later. As adults, we must update and upgrade our knowledge.

Hans Rosling was an important global voice, not only because he was a “possibilitist”, also because he defended sexual reproductive health and rights. He stood up for the rights of women, migrants and minorities. This was how I got to know and admire his work. 

The majority of the world population lives somewhere in the middle of the income scale. Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated, they live in two-child families, and they want to go abroad on holiday, not as refugees. Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving. Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. This is the world that Hans Rosling tried to convey but that people unfortunately rarely believe in.

Hans Rosling’s final Factfullness” words were: be humble, be happy to say “I don’t know”, be prepared to change an opinion when you discover new facts. Let your mistakes trigger curiosity instead of embarrassment. Be open to new information and actively seek it out. 

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, somewhere between lockdown and its lifting, it helps me to think of Hans Rosling and his reassuring words that while things are bad, they are also better. 


Photo: Aljoscha Laschgari (Unsplash)

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