Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Living Long Not Easy in Lean World  

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, May 5 / 14

Zack Gross

How long we live and how much we enjoy our lives often comes down to how well off we are. 

A recent story on The National reported that homeless aboriginal people in Toronto are lucky to live into their forties.  Other Canadian statistics show the prevalence and impact among both poor and aboriginal populations of diseases such as diabetes, suicide, malnutrition, smoking and more, leading to shorter lives than their fellow citizens.  If these seem like extreme examples, let’s examine how your wealth affects your overall health.

First of all, here are some baseline statistics.  In Canada, life expectancy has steadily increased since our federal government began tracking around 1920.  In the Twenties, males and females generally lived to the age of 60.  In the Thirties, women took a lead which they have maintained ever since, at this point 60 and 62.  In the Forties, it was men 63, women 66; the Fifties, men 66, women 71.  You can see the numbers take off after the Second World War.

The Sixties saw life expectancy grow to 68 and 74, and the Eighties to 72 and 79.  The Nineties stood at men 75, women 81 and the first decade of the 21st Century, 77 for men and 82 for women.  Projections for 2017 are men at 79 and women at 83.  For Inuit, Metis and Aboriginal Canadians the figures are at least 5 years lower and as mentioned in extreme cases are half of what the general population can expect. 

Many factors are at work in the rise in life expectancy in the general population – better medical care and pharmaceuticals; safer equipment and safety regulations; decreasing violent crime rates (despite the perception that it is getting worse!), fewer war-time casualties, and so on.  But not everyone is able to benefit!

Globally, according to the CIA World Factbook, the most current statistics put Monaco as the highest in human longevity at 89.5 years, followed by Macau, Japan and Singapore at 84.5.  Most of the next group of countries in the list are European, but include Canada (#14), all in the low 80s.   The United Kingdom is #29 at 80.5, the United States is #42 at 79.5, Russia is #151 at 70, Tanzania #190 is at 61, and Chad brings up the rear at #223, 49.5 years.

The website Give Well describes itself as a service to help donors to better understand the causes they contribute to and the ultimate impact of their generosity.  In our case, we are asking what social and economic factors determine the length of a person’s life.  In Sub-Saharan Africa, one of the poorest parts of the world, the challenge is to live past the age of five.  If your family can manage to get you there, then you will likely make it to 60.  One-third of the children who are under five years in this region suffer from malnutrition, causing diarrhea, pneumonia, parasitic worms, malaria, and more.  Thus, many funders including the Canadian government aid branch are now focusing on maternal and children’s health.

A large proportion of people in the developing world live on $1 to $2 per day.  Collectively, they have little economic or food security, few if any social or educational programs provided by government as we do, and suffer the effects of disease and disability, conflict and lack of capital or assets to move ahead with their lives.  This isn’t to say that they are helpless.  For many, this difficult life makes them able to make due on less, appreciate it more and find ways through informal networks and mutual reliance to find a way forward.

Poorer people might own a small plot of land, but they are kept poor because they can’t afford a tractor, a sewing machine or a bicycle.  TVs and radios, which could be used for both education and entertainment, are owned by just a minority of people.  They lack basic infrastructure – electricity, water, sanitation, good roads – something that has been targeted by many African leaders in looking ahead to the next set of UN Millennium Development Goals.

A Lack of electricity means that a woman must have a baby in the dark with no medical aids.  A lack of good roads means that a woman at risk in childbirth can’t get to a clinic nor can help get to her in a timely fashion.  A lack of sanitation means not only that disease may always lurk on the surface (of everything) but that children, especially girls, won’t attend school as a lack of privacy for sanitary purposes puts them at risk.

Another factor that spreads and deepens poverty is that poorer people must take on multiple occupations.  They own and work a small plot of land, work away from home as day labourers and maybe also earn money from some kind of small personal business.  This might be selling food in the market or on the street, or even selling phone cards.  Income is irregular and unpredictable and being unregulated is often also dirty and dangerous.

We all want to live a healthy and satisfying life.  The trend is marginally on the upswing right around the world, but as is often the case, the rich are getting richer and the poor, while a little better off, are lagging further and further behind.  By knowing the stats behind the stories, we can try to target our programs and our personal giving to make improvements.


Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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