Russia's growing health crisis
Many know about Africa's severe health problems, but few are aware of a parallel tragedy building in Russia.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Devastated by disease and alcoholism, mortality rates have risen dramatically since the fall of communism. Furthermore, very little is being done either by the Russian government or the world community.
At the moment, deaths exceed births by about 700,000 a year. Some experts say Russia's population could drop to 80 million in 50 years from 150 million today.
"The loss of life from this quiet crisis in Russia has been a catastrophe of historic proportions," says Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "Mortality and disease will pose major obstacles to economic development ... for decades to come."
"If demography is said to be destiny, the destiny of Russia for the next 50 years or more is appalling," says Murray Feshbach, a research professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Washington.
These grim views are based on economic, health, and demographic trends in Russia since the fall of communism, and no rapid way out of the disaster is easily visible. One hopes these views will serve as warnings. Will Russian politicians and citizens, seeing the flashing red lights of danger, change direction and break through the damaging fog of alcoholism, sexually transmitted diseases, sharing of drug needles, and corruption?
Already the breakup of the Soviet Union has greatly diminished Russia's might. "In barely a decade, Moscow has plummeted from the status of an imperial superpower to a condition of astonishing geopolitical weakness," notes Mr. Eberstadt in Policy Review, a Heritage Foundation publication. Furthermore, Russia's gross domestic product halved in the 1990s.
So far Russia hasn't adequately tackled its catastrophic health scene - nor does it appear to be a matter of public concern.
While there are more than a dozen political parties fighting for votes this election season, none has chosen to make public health a major campaign issue. It wasn't mentioned much in the recent parliamentary elections.
Nor are many Russian citizens, perhaps unused to participatory democracy, organizing a push for improved spending programs for health or demanding temperance measures.
The Soviet Union was infamous for its staggering vodka consumption. Contemporary Russia's thirst for vodka has gotten worse. Russian men on average are drinking about five bottles of vodka per week.
The World Health Organization (WHO) stipulates that eight liters of alcohol per capita is the upper limit for consumption before major health problems ensue. Russians - adults and children alike - consume 14 to 15 liters per capita per year. And Vodka output rose 65 percent in the first half of 1999.
In effect, many Russians are drinking themselves to death.
More than 35,000 people died from accidental alcohol poisoning in 1996. In fact, daily headlines in Moscow during the winter include body counts of the inebriated people who died of exposure. In the United States, which has almost twice the population, about 300 a year die from the same cause.