Humans are shortsighted by nature. We experience something like the climate crisis or Covid-19, and our usual reaction is to look for an immediate solution like emissions technology or a vaccine. But sometimes solving problems – especially global and interconnected ones – takes stepping back and seeing the larger picture.
Decades ago world leaders were faced with a choice: Respond to explosive population growth by promoting smaller families and greater investments in child development universally, or take a relatively hands off approach, and hope that falling fertility trends would continue. Most countries chose the latter, which allowed them to grow and to exploit rather than invest in future generations.
This choice has resulted in a world population that is still skyrocketing towards potentially eleven billion people by 2100. The hands off approach has done little to alleviate poverty and inequity, and has become the fundamental driver behind the climate crisis and every other anthropogenic impact. What’s worse? The hands off approach – pushed by men who controlled their households – did not comply with human rights requirements, which require balancing parents’ right to have kids with an obligation to provide the things all future children need. The human-rights approach to planning families requires that we collectively plan in ways that give all kids a socially and ecologically fair start in life.
The exploit-rather-than invest approach set the stage for the risk and impact of Covid-19, and is setting the stage for the next pandemic, which could be larger in scale. How?
- Overcrowding, or the quantity of people around us, helps pandemics like Covid 19 spread. Worldwide, public health officials are admitting that the failure to contain the pandemic is largely a function of the quantity and civic qualities of the people crowding the planet, which are factors that depend on our family planning policies. India is exemplifying this. Key UN agencies were urged to change modeling well before the pandemic, but did nothing.
- Civic qualities that are largely contingent on the conditions of our birth and early development, like our overall health and risk of comorbidities, as well as empathy deficits which are reflected in the refusal of many to engage in easy and life-saving public health measures like practicing social distancing and wearing masks, substantially contribute to the impact of pandemics like Covid-19.
- The economic disparities we inherit at birth lead to massive disparities in how pandemics impact different communities, and hence determine the average impact of things like Covid-19.
- Our growing population is degrading our natural ecologies, which sets the stage for future and worse pandemics.
- The distribution and efficacy of vaccines is being stymied by population size, the refusal of many to participate, and underlying health conditions that can be traced to family planning systems.
What does all of this mean?
Part of the response to Covid-19 has to be reforming family planning policies to fulfill human rights obligations, and give every child a Fair Start in life. Given that Fair Start family planning is the first and overriding human right and obligation, we may fulfill it by taking resources from both public and private concentrations of wealth and power, and using them to incentivize better and more cooperative family planning, or smaller families working together to invest more time, love, and resources in every child.