IN THE very near future I will celebrate my 65th birthday and, in doing so, join the ranks of those who are deemed to have officially entered old age.
Surviving 65 years on this planet is, historically speaking, an unusual event. Humans have, until very recently, tended to have a life that English Philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679) described as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Ironically, Hobbes lived for 91 years in reasonable comfort and good health, a stupendous achievement for his era.
Even in the 19th century achieving 65 years of age was so improbable that German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck (1815 - 1898) felt able to offer a state pension to those few citizens who made the distance. The wily Otto had been assured by actuaries that only 3% or so of the population would actually survive long enough to claim the pension, so the anxious Treasury could be reassured that the financial cost would not be very great.
Now, across much of the world, people are tending to survive a good deal longer than either Hobbes or Bismarck foresaw. This is mostly a tribute to the introduction of basic public health measures like a clean water supply, safe and effective sewage disposal, the prevention of communicable diseases through vaccination programs and, since the early 1940's, the use of antibiotics.
In pre-colonial PNG, the average life span of around 40 years was about the same as that found in Neolithic Europe. The colonial authorities thus put a lot of emphasis on introducing basic public health services such as teaching the value of good personal hygiene, requiring the construction and use of "long drop" toilets, the construction of wells and water tanks to create supplies of clean potable water and the use of a basic array of drugs to treat common illnesses.
On patrol, I liked to have access to a few useful drugs like Neosporin Powder to treat sores, Nivaquine to treat Malaria, Sulphadimidine to treat gut complaints, Procaine Penicillin to treat pneumonia and, of course, the ever reliable Paracetamol for aches and pains. Even 45 years ago these 5 drugs were not front line medicines but were sufficient to deal with most of the health complaints that afflicted villagers. The liklik dokta (Medical Orderly) who accompanied the patrol always had plenty of customers.
As a result of these efforts over several decades, the average life span for Papua New Guineans began to rise so that, by 1975, survival beyond the age of 65 years was an achievable aspiration for many more people than had previously been the case. The vast improvement in the health and longevity of Papua New Guineans was, I think, one of the most profound yet largely unremarked achievements of Australian colonialism.
Now, sadly, it appears that things are going backwards owing to a decline in the quality and availability of basic public health services. Achieving 65 years of age is become harder, especially if you are still living a subsistence based lifestyle in a remote village. The educated and wealthier people are doing better of course, but then they always do.
I am utterly unsentimental about birthdays, so my 65th seems no big deal to me. However, I am not unaware of the fact that, from a historic perspective, I have done remarkably well indeed. Those of us who live in the generally very privileged western world tend not to see things this way: if you are used to a high standard of living it just seems natural and normal and often is not recognised for the miracle that it is.
Statisticians tell us that, pretty soon, centenarians will be as common in Australia as 65 year olds were in Bismarck's Germany. This doubtless is a great worry to the Treasury and one of my new ambitions is to personally fulfil their worst expectations.
Another hope is that the PNG government might rediscover and act upon its legal and moral obligation to provide a decent if basic public health service to the people, thereby giving more of them a chance to exceed the Bismarckian benchmark, as I have done.