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Walker's World: Russia's 'hypermortality'

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by Martin Walker
Paris (UPI) May 27, 2008
An alarming new word has been born. It is "hypermortality," which might be defined as an extraordinary tendency toward death. It jumps from the first page of the U.N. Development Program report entitled "Demographic Policy in Russia."

"The Russian phenomenon of hypermortality comes to be observed primarily in working-age populations," it says.

"Compared to the majority of countries that have similar levels of economic development, mortality in Russia is 3-5 times higher for men and twice as high for women."

What this means, the report says, is that the size of the working-age population "will fall by up to 1 million people annually already by 2020-25."

The effect of this will be to raise the dependency load (the number of young and old people dependent on those of working age) to 670 to 750 per thousand by 2020 and to 900 to 1,000 per thousand by 2025.

"This will inevitably influence economic growth rates," the report notes.

"At the moment, there are no grounds to believe that the crisis will be overcome and the size of the population will be stabilized," it adds.

The report, while commissioned and published by the U.N. agency, was entirely prepared and written by Russian experts led by Professor Valery Yelizarov, head of Moscow State University's Center for Population Studies. It was peer reviewed by Germany's Max Planck Institute.

In precise and formal scientific language, the report suggests that Russia is suffering the kind of hypermortality that is normally only associated with the effects of a major war.

In wars, young men die. That is also happening in Russia. The report says: "Without factoring the impact of AIDS, the number of males age 15-24 could decline by nearly half over the next 20 years."

But factor in the effect of AIDS and the picture is even more grim.

"Russia has experienced a dramatic spread of HIV in just over a decade. In 1997-2007, there was a 370-fold increase from less than 1,090 to 405,427 officially registered cases," the report says. It adds that this represents the minimum of those in contact with the HIV reporting system.

Russia's Federal AIDS Center estimates that up to 1.3 million Russians are living with HIV, and last year women of childbearing age accounted for 44 percent of known new infections.

What led to this dismal state of affairs? The report does not attribute blame, but it is specific about the timing of the demographic disaster that has overtaken Russia, associating it with the "reform period" that began in 1985 with the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev and the tumultuous "reform period" that followed, which included the fall of the Soviet Union.

"In the nearly two decades of the reform period, a segment of the population living on the verge of poverty expanded and multiplied, exhibiting habits and factors contributing to risk: alcoholism, smoking, improper nutrition, avoidance of healthcare, and psychological stress," it says, seeking to explain the "hypermortality" phenomenon.

This may be disputed. Western demographers like Murray Feshbach were writing of the demographic collapse in the mid-1980s and citing data from as early as the late 1960s. But there is no doubt that the disruptions of the Soviet Union's death throes exacted a fearsome toll. Even now, when Russia is becoming rich with its oil and gas wealth, the death toll continues to be unnecessarily high.

Many lives could be saved, the report says, by "providing economic and geographic access to healthcare services, most of all in medical and social prevention and primary treatment. In 2005, by primary prevention means only, about 150,000 deaths could have been avoided (about 105,000 men and 45,000 women) in the age of up to 65 years."

It is important to consider what this means for the future of the Russian economy. Ever since Goldman Sachs devised the concept of the BRIC nations, identifying Brazil, Russia, India and China as the key emerging markets, great hopes (and considerable investments) have been placed on them. But a very large question mark must be placed on the economic prospects of a country whose young male workforce looks set to fall by half.

Moreover, a large proportion of the Russian workforce may be too drunk to function. Almost one male death in three is alcohol-related.

"The increase of alcohol consumption from 10 to 15 liters and an almost simultaneous increase in mortality suggests the central role played by alcohol to mortality, in average up to 426,000 per year in 1980-2001. Alcohol-related deaths total 29.6 percent of total mortality for men and 17.0 percent for women," the report says.

Last year President Vladimir Putin launched a crash program to try to tackle Russia's hypermortality by increasing maternity leave to 18 months and cash benefits for mothers that would go as high as $9,000 for a second child. But noting that there is a current shortage of around 1 million day-care facilities in Russia, the report hints that the Putin plan lacks credibility.

"Quantitative indicators that describe set ambitious goals and tasks make one doubt if they are correct, agreed and realistic," the report concludes.

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