The first rule of ‘wellness’ – don’t be poor


    By the time this issue of Gulf News is a day old, the United Kingdom will have a new prime minister. 

    The UK likes to anoint its new PMs by vehicle; so Keir Starmer will likely arrive at Buckingham Palace in his own hybrid Toyota, to be whisked away in one of the fleet of £400,000 prime ministerial armoured, custom built Range Rover Sentinel supercharged V8s.

    It would be funnier if he arrived in a wheezing Ford Escort, or better still, the second car he ever owned: a green half-timbered Morris Oxford Traveller 1962 with moss growing on it which started with a crank handle, to rub in the transition from the party of useless, clanking antiques to something which… goes.

    Although the effects of the long and dismal Tory mis-rule are nothing to laugh about.

    In a recent BBC interview, current PM  Rishi Sunak claimed that the UK is a better place to live after 14 years of Tory government. Social media erupted in incredulous memes. Even conservative media raised an eyebrow. The interviewer responded with metrics showing the UK population is poorer and sicker than they were in 2010.

    Being poor is terrible for your health, a blunt reality measurable in indicators from the height of your children to your life expectancy. ‘Social determinants of health’ include things outside your control, like your ethnicity, or the place where you were born. 

    Few places in the world show this with such disturbing clarity as Glasgow. 

    In Calton, a down-at heel Glasgow suburb, life expectancy for men between 1998 and 2002 was 54; a few streets away in leafy Lenzie, it was 82. I first came across these jaw-dropping stats in a book on global health inequalities called The Health Gap (2015). 

    “The result of unequal distribution of life chances is that health is unequally distributed,” says the book’s author, Michael Marmot, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London. 

     “If you are born in the most fortunate circumstances [in the UK] you can expect to have your healthy life extended by 19 years or more. And the effect is graded – the greater the disadvantage, the worse the health.” 

    A study reported in The Guardian in 2023 found that children “raised under UK austerity have become shorter than their European peers. Height is sensitive to diet, illness and stress – the effects of poverty.

    The British are now seen by health experts like Marmot as one of the poorest and most vulnerable populations in Europe. The prof blames the cost of living crisis and decade-long cuts to social services and public health for a surge in diseases long seen as proxies for malnutrition. 

    “The idea we are starting to suffer the same diseases that in Victorian times people on long ocean voyages suffered because of the shortage of citrus fruits is simply horrendous,” he told The Guardian this year.

    In New Zealand, figures released in May suggest that 485,000 Kiwis need food support every month, and 12.5 percent of children live in households in material hardship. 

    Despite this, the government is unconscionably cutting aid to the Auckland City Mission, and budgeting services throughout New Zealand – to pay for tax cuts. City Missioner Helen Robinson says that if funding cuts go ahead, the Mission will have to cut food boxes by 30,000 annually. 

    “That’s 27,000 fewer meals every week for families relying on us for basic nutritional needs. The need is urgent, and the consequences are serious.”

    In New Zealand, as in other countries, ethnicity is one of the ‘social determinants of health.’ 

    “Explanations [for the long legacy of poorer Māori health] include institutional racism (where organisations and structures discriminate against certain ethnic groups, either overtly or unintentionally) and the ongoing effects of colonisation” says Te Ara (The Encyclopedia of New Zealand). 

    Between 2017 and 2019, life expectancy for Māori was 73.4 years for men and 77.1 years for women, compared to 80.9 years for non-Māori men and 84.4 years for non-Māori women: a difference of 7.5 and 7.3 years respectively. 

    In terms of deprivation rather than ethnicity, women in wealthy areas in Aotearoa can expect to live nine years longer than women in the most deprived areas (87.5 versus 78.5), and 13 years and four months longer than a man in the most deprived areas (74.1).

    The best way to live a long life? Avoid being poor.

    “Every time there’s an economic shock the closing of the gap [between Māori and non-Māori] slows down. You can see that starkly in the life expectancy trends in the 1990s [when the gap between Māori and non-Māori rose to over nine years]. We had huge unemployment, benefit cuts, rising housing costs and Māori life expectancy stalled, while non-Māori kept rising”, Bridget Robson (Ngāti Raukawa), an Otago University research fellow studying the social determinants of health, explained to me. 

    The shameful effects of ‘Rogernomics’ and ‘Ruthanasia’ are forever etched into New Zealand’s mortality statistics. Austerity kills.

    • Jenny Nicholls

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