Monday, January 4, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Life Expectancy Figures Failing to Recover in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 4 – Most post-communist countries experienced major declines in life expectancy figures during the 1990s, but only the three Slavic countries – Russia, Ukraine and Belarus – have not seen a significant recovery in those figures over the last decade, a pattern that reflects continuing “super-high” mortality rates among working-age males in all three.
That is one of the conclusions offered by Elena Paliy in the current issue of Moscow’s “Demoscope Weekly” in an article devoted to the situation in Ukraine, where she says, birthrates are now at European levels but where “mortality rates correspond to the worst examples of the post-Soviet space” (
Arguing that while “it might be logical to suppose” that improving economic conditions would have changed that, in fact, in these three countries, life expectancy figures have remained stagnant and thus have fallen ever further behind the numbers not only in Europe but even in many other parts of the post-Soviet world.
In her article, Paliy focuses on the situation in Ukraine in particular. There, she writes, during the 1990s, there was an increase in mortality among almost all age groups, although she notes that Ukraine “was able to achieve definite successes in preserving the lives of newborns,” something that prevented the overall figures from being even worse.
During that decade, “the most unfavorable shifts” involved working-age people and especially working-age males. While there were differences within this latter group, she continues, it is appropriate to speak about “super-high mortality” among that category as a whole.
In 2008, she reports, “more than a third died before reaching age 65; that is, as measured by the standards of the World Health Organization, they died prematurely,” with 73 percent of those deaths taking place in the working-age cohorts. And despite some improvement in survival rates among the young, life expectancy for men thus fell by four years after 1990.
Health experts have made it clear what Ukraine needs to do – provide better health care to all age groups, reduce alcohol consumption, improve diet and so on – but Paliy notes with regret, “despite the obviousness of the recipe,” Ukraine, as a result of the systemic social crisis has not been able to adopt it.
In particular, she says, increased income differentiation and social inequality have led to serious health problems among the poorer and less-well-placed groups, and especially among male members of the latter. But “judging from everything,” she concludes, “it is difficult to expect an essential improvement in mortality figures” anytime soon.
The Moscow Institute of Demography and Social Research projects that life expectancy for Ukrainian males is likely to increase by only four years by 2020 -- for women, the increase will be two years – although some projections suggest that Ukraine may not achieve even those increases over the next decade.
Looking out even further, Paliy says, “even if Ukraine is able to realize the high variant of the prediction – an increase in average life expectancy of men and women to 76 and 81 years respectively by 2050, with a fertility rate of 1.9 children per woman, the population of Ukraine will decline by three million.”
But using what she says is “a more realistic mid-range” projection, the population of the second Slavic republic will decline to 36 million and the percentage of those above working age will increase from 30 percent now to 36 percent in 2050, putting additional burdens on the working age population.
In short, she says, Ukraine “is entering into a special stage of demographic development,” one in which there will be fewer workers to support more non-working age people. This trend, which also exists in Russia and Belarus, she says, “must serve as a warning to politicians about the impermissibility of further delay in pension reforms and in the social sphere as a whole.


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