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October 12, 1999, was a Tuesday, and for the most part, it was not an unusual day. The twelfth of October was Columbus Day in many of the Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas and had once also been in the United States, but the holiday had been shifted by law to the nearest Monday to stretch out the weekend. The people of Equitorial Guinea and Spain were celebrating their respective national days. Individually, the day marked the birthdays of some 16,438,356 people, give or take a few, around the world.
For all the prevailing "just another day" sense of October 12, though, it was a day of importance to humans and the Earth they inhabit. For somewhere in the world on that day, a first cry heralded the arrival of the baby who brought the global population to 6 billion. Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF, dubbed the infant, "6 Billionth Baby."1
When the world population reached five billion just 12 years, 3 months, and 1 day earlier on July 11, 1987, the UN decided to designate a child born on that date as the 5 billionth baby. The chosen symbol was Matej Gaspar, an infant born in Zagreb, in what was then Yugoslavia and what is now the capital of Croatia. One hopes that Matej is now a teenager and escaped the killing that engulfed and still plagues some parts of crumbling Yugoslavia.
In the intervening twelve years, the UN thought better of bestowing what is not necessarily an accolade of being the next billionth baby on another child. Thus there was no symbolic baby named, and, in truth, there is no way to tell which of the approximately 312,329 babies born on October 12, 1999, was, indeed, the 6 billionth baby.
Thus it is impossible to know for sure if the child was a boy or a girl, whether he or she was born to wealth or poverty, or even if the baby lived or died quickly. Statistically, however, we can conclude that the chances are that the child's health, educational, economic, and other prospects are not very good. How could they be when only about 15 percent of the world's population lives in the relatively prosperous North and 85 percent lives in the less economically developed South? In fact, so many of the people in the South are so poor often living on less than a two or three dollars a day that there is a 30 percent chance the 6 billionth baby was born into extreme poverty.
If in the birth lottery the baby was born in the South, then he or she, compared to a child of parents in the North, is half as likely to have been delivered by a health professional, is twice as likely to have had a dangerously low birth weight, and is four times more likely to die before age 5. The baby is also 16 times more likely to have had his or her mother die from pregnancy or delivery complications, is 30 percent less likely to learn how to read and write, and, even if he or she does survive infancy, is still likely to live eleven years less than if he or she had been born in the North.
Whoever the 6 billionth baby is, then, we should all wish him or her luck. He or she will probably need it given the vast gap between the economic, health, educational, and other conditions in the North and South.
1. Carol Bellamy, "The Progress of Nations 1999: The Roll of the Dice," UNICEF, at: http://www.unfpa.org/modules/6billion/facts.htm.