Russia Tanks In Global Health Ratings: Blame Vodka, Cigarettes And Budget Cuts

A cigarette stall in Yekaterinburg, Russia.
A cigarette stall in Yekaterinburg, Russia.
Sergei Melnikov

MOSCOW - Although the World Health Organization (WHO) has been monitoring the state of health in various countries for the past 60 years, it has never explicitly compared countries with one another. So Bloomberg news, using WHO data as well as other data from the World Bank and the United Nations, put together a rating of the healthiest countries.

The comparisons were based on complex criteria - the first one was called “general health level,” which included life expectancy, mortality rates in different age brackets and many other demographic questions. The second criteria had to do primarily with risk factors - the percentage of people who drink and smoke as well as the number of people with high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

The unexpected number one was Singapore, followed by Italy, Australia and Switzerland. The first 20 countries at the top of the list were also all countries with a generally high standard of living.

“It’s logical, that at the top of the list you would have countries with a developed economy,” said Vladimir Shkolnikov, one of the editorial directors of the WTO Russia bulletin. “But it is interesting to notice that, for example, Norway is in 18th place and Israel is in 6th, although Norway is richer. For the population’s health, the government’s social orientation is the most important thing. For example, in Germany it is impossible to imagine having to raise money for a child with leukemia or another serious illness - if someone’s life is in danger, the government will take care of its citizens.”

Russia wound up in the rankings behind many of its neighbors, winding up at 97th place out of 145 countries. Among the former Soviet countries, Russia managed to outstrip only Ukraine, Kyrghizistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Experts were unanimous in saying that the biggest challenges for health in Russia are limited access to health care, heavy drinking, smoking, unhealthy eating and a sedentary lifestyle.

“This is not at all to say that Russia is a doomed territory,” Shkolnikov said. “If you take the right measures, then you can see a real increase in life expectancy, and an increase in health among the population - for example, the results of the 1985 campaign against alcohol consumption. More recently, starting in 2004, mortality rates in Russia have been decreasing. In the past year there was a decrease in the number of deaths from heart disease and strokes. Russians started seriously controlling blood pressure, and the quality of drugs and medical care increased. So there are positive changes.”

On the other hand, experts can’t help but be wary of the government’s commitment to health. The budget for 2013 proposes an 8.7 percent reduction in health expenditures in comparison with 2012, and there are even more cuts planned for 2014-2015. Still, health care professionals do note that it is ultimately up to each individual Russian citizen to choose between a generally more active lifestyle or sticking with the same old bad habits.

Elsewhere in the comparative study, a notable disregard for social protections put the United States in 33rd place. Although the country spends the most money on healthcare in the world (17 percent of GDP), tens of millions of Americans don’t have enough money to buy medical insurance.

In terms of general health, the United States came in behind Costa Rica (24th place) and Cuba (28th). Americans often go to Costa Rica for medical procedures - the procedures in the Latin American country are done at an international level, but are much more affordable then in the United States. Cubans have access to universal and free health care, and have an active lifestyle.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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