This column was published in The Myanmar Times on Monday 18, July 2016.
In 2016, around a million babies will be born in Myanmar. Too often we forget the prospects and possibilities of these new lives, instead focusing almost all our attention on those who have already grown up.
Babies born this year will take their first breaths with a more-or-less democratic government in-charge.
If Myanmar manages to complete its transformation to a prosperous and inclusive society, then these babies will be some of the greatest beneficiaries.
Of course, for a small child, lofty matters of abstract politics rarely figure in the calculations. They want to be loved, fed, kept clean and made safe. Fathers and mothers in Myanmar dote on their little ones, hoping for the best at a time of ongoing flux and uncertainty.
So what is it like to be a baby born in Myanmar this year? According to UNICEF data, 8.6 per cent of babies in the country are born with low birth weight. Intriguingly, in Thailand this number is higher: 11.3 per cent. In Bangladesh it is 22 per cent.
Even though that statistic is promising, Myanmar’s under-five mortality rate still deserves serious attention. It has dropped from 109 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 51 in 2013, the last year for which data is available. In 1970 the figure was 178.
However, compared to Thailand, where the under-five mortality rate is 13, Myanmar’s numbers are still too high. Moreover, consider Bangladesh, where in 1990, 144 out of 1,000 children died under the age of five. By 2013 in Bangladesh, that figure had dropped to 41.
The top causes of child mortality in Myanmar nowadays help to illustrate the big challenge. They are often preventable: diarrhoea, respiratory infections and malaria. In almost all cases, underlying malnutrition and poverty can exacerbate what might otherwise be relatively straightforward medical situations.
The under-five mortality rate has dropped steadily, except in 2008 when it spiked back to mid-1990s levels. We should never forget the devastating effects of Cyclone Nargis; so many young children could not survive the storm.
In the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, whole villages confronted the unbearable reality that their youngsters were gone. The UN estimated that about 40 per cent of those who died were children.
Notwithstanding that heart-breaking loss of so many fragile lives, significant progress is being made around the country to support the chances of the next generation. Myanmar can be proud of its ongoing efforts to provide better healthcare, nutrition and nurturing to its newest citizens.
Under the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the ambition is to bring the under-five childhood mortality rate down to at most 25 per 1,000 in every country on earth.
To meet that goal, much creative effort will need to focus on building better lives for the more than nine million people in Myanmar who are aged 10-19. They need the educational, economic and personal security to, one day, create their own functional family units.
It has never been easy to start a family and bring up the next generation. Yet those who are coming of age in the decades ahead will need to adjust their expectations to match an entirely new technological and economic landscape.
Just to show how quickly things change, the UNICEF statistics from 2013 show that 12.8 per cent of the population had a mobile phone, and 1.2pc used the Internet.
Already, a few years later, this data is a historical curiosity precisely because it is so out of kilter with the experience of people today.
I would guess that the majority of babies born this year will have their first likeness captured and transmitted on a smartphone. Facebook does seem to be a favourite vehicle for happy baby snaps.
What about the prospects for women, the precious mothers of Myanmar’s newborns? In Myanmar the lifetime risk of maternal death is one in 250, which is the same as Bangladesh. That compares to one in 2,900 in Thailand. Norway is one in 14,900. Chad is one in 15; Somalia is one in 18.
Keeping pregnant women healthy is one of the miracles of our technological and scientific age. Further improvement in these crucial statistics will be immensely important for anyone who cares about the overall health of Myanmar society.
And how long might 2016’s babies live? According to UNICEF, a baby born in Myanmar this year has a life expectancy of 65. That is a big leap from 51 years, which was the figure as recently as 1970.
The challenge of managing demographics is that decisions made today will have repercussions for decades, indeed generations, to come. What this means is that we should, whenever possible, remind ourselves of the impressive changes that have helped keep more of Myanmar’s young people alive.
Happily, the key indicators for Myanmar’s children have been getting better over time. With the right leadership and smart policies, there is every expectation that even more significant improvement can follow.
Nicholas Farrelly is the director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University. His column appears each Monday, but he will be taking a break before returning to The Myanmar Times in September.