Staunton, January 26 – The Russian health ministry has changed its target figures on reducing mortality rates and extending life expectancy by 2020, a reflection experts say of the fact that the Russian government no longer expects to be able to improve the health of the population as much as it did.
Ministry officials, however, in line with Vladimir Putin’s own and oft-expressed illogic, says that it had adjusted these figures because of the aging of the population rather than because of any shortcomings in diet, environment or health care now or in the future (izvestia.ru/news/660035).
But there may two more important factors involved here. On the one hand, Russian officials like officials everywhere often try to lowball estimates about the future in the hopes that they will meet them rather than set higher goals that they risk not being able to achieve and thus being condemned as failures.
And on the other hand, according to the Russia official who tracks alcohol consumption, Moscow knows little or nothing about the situation outside the major cities. It simply doesn’t know how much alcohol Russians in small cities and the villages: It knows only about the situation in Moscow and other large ones (kp.ru/daily/26633/3653052/).
“Izvestiya” reports this week that the health ministry has “corrected a number of goals outlined in the state program on “The Development of Health.” It had specified that mortality among Russians would fall to 11.4 persons per 1000 per year by 2020 from its current level of 12.3. Now it says the number will be 13 per thousand in that year, a small increase.
At the same time, the Moscow paper says, the ministry lowered its projected life expectancy for Russians in 2020 from 74.3 years from birth to 74 years.
Eduard Gavrilov, the head of the Health Foundation, tells “Izvestiya” that some of the increase in mortality does reflect the aging of the population but he suggests that the major cause is that the health ministry now recognizes that it will not achieve the improvements in the health of Russians that it had expected only a year or two ago.
Anatoly Vishnevsky, the director of the Institute of Demography at the Higher School of Economics, however, says that even if the mortality rate change reflects the aging of the population, the reduction in life expectancy “is not connected with the age structure and does not have any relationship to the aging of the population.”
Russia lags far behind the developed world in terms of life expectancy, he continues, and should feel “shame” to have such figures in 2020. Unfortunately, he adds, reductions in spending on health care make it unlikely that Moscow will be able to achieve even the lower figures that it is now offering.
In a related story, Yevgeny Bryun, the government official responsible for tracking consumption of alcohol and drugs, tells “Komsomolskaya Pravda” that “in major cities, Russians have begun to drink less” than they did seven and eight years ago but that he is far from certain about the overall trend.
That is because “what is happening in small cities [and villages] we ourselves do not understand at the present time.” And that means in turn that the progress Moscow trumpeted earlier this week may be far less than it claimed. (In addition, although Bryun doesn’t mention it, Moscow’s figures are only for officially registered alcohol. They do not include homebrew or surrogates to which Russians often turn when prices go up or the economy declines.)
Bryun added that it is a misconception that people typically drink more when their economic situation deteriorates, something that if true would make the government figures even more impressive at the present time. In fact, the expert said, “normal people drink much less” during a crisis.
The reason, he says, is that “they recognize that they need to save, to control themselves in order to earn money and support their families. Thus, the current crisis quite possibly can even help us [in Russia] with regard to the reduction in the number of drinkers.” If that is true, any easing of the crisis is likely to send their numbers up again.