Seriously, WTF. Is it just me or did anyone else notice how one of the most shocking stories of the week has largely gone unnoticed by the local media and the general public.
No, I’m not talking about the fact that Forbes Magazine named Kylie Jenner (one of the youngest members of the Kardashian cabal) as the youngest ever “self-made” billionaire on earth (that’s a whole other story though). I’m talking about the recently published, 2019 Global Wellness Index, which assesses global living standards in an attempt to gauge how healthy, happy and successful humans are depending on where they live.
The Global Wellness Index focuses on ten key metrics: blood pressure, blood glucose, obesity, depression, happiness, alcohol use, tobacco use, exercise, healthy life expectancy and government spending on healthcare.
The index, an attempt by economists to evaluate the world beyond economic growth, puts South Africa dead last out of the 151 countries measured. We scored especially poorly on obesity, alcohol consumption, blood pressure, diabetes, activity levels and happiness measures.
Now, we are used to seeing South Africa in the mid to lower half of the rankings tables on just about everything when it comes to global measures. But this is something else. Let’s put it this way, if we were an English Premiership club, we’re used to being the Everton of the league, maybe even Brighton or Southampton. But no, we’re frikkin’ Huddersfield. If you’re a local soccer fan, we’re Maritzburg United.
We’re rooted firmly to the bottom of the log, the only difference being that there is no lower league for us to be relegated to, unless NASA or Elon Musk finds the answer to commercial space travel and we can join the Mars Wellness League next year.
While unsurprisingly, Canada topped the rankings, what I found interesting was that many of the highest rated countries were not ones I would have expected.
Nations like Laos, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Peru, Guatemala and Honduras – all of which are ranked below South Africa on GDP per capita – made the top 20.
According to Richard Davies, an economist who compiled the Global Wellness Index; “The low scores for countries like South Africa—an economy lauded for its growth rate in the 2000s—shows that simply ranking an economy based on traditional economic metrics like GDP alone can miss important parts of the story when it comes to the well-being of a nation.”
Economies of the future may end up being judged on three levels, Davies says. “Those could include traditional measures of the whole economy, such as GDP and employment rates; indicators that point to how equitable and fair a country is; and a new layer including measures of health, happiness and well-being.”
I believe he is absolutely right. GDP, including GDP per capita really doesn’t tell the full story about the state of a nation. For example, even though South Africa sits mid-table in terms of GDP per capita, we were rated as the world’s most unequal country by the World Bank in 2018. Until we are able to address this situation, it’s unlikely we are ever going to lift ourselves off the lower rungs of the Wellness and happiness tables. I mean, there aren’t too many people who are thinking about exercising when they can’t put food on the table.
It’s important to think about that because there is a tendency for those with means (the haves) to squirm and wave their hands in protest every time issues of redistribution, empowerment and equality are raised. But ask yourself, do you really want to reign in hell?
However, inequality alone doesn’t explain our position of anchoring the Wellness tables. For example, Honduras, Peru and the Philippines all score pretty badly on the inequality stakes, but extremely well in the Global Wellness Index rankings.
So how have these countries done it? Hopefully Government is running these correlations and is willing to engage with these countries to find learnings which can be applied at home.
Already there are some signs that effective Government interventions are shifting the dial. I don’t think there is any co-incidence that the one area we scored reasonably well on – prevalence of smoking – is also the area where much of the Health Ministry’s best work has been over the last few years. It will therefore be interesting to see if initiatives such as the recent implementation of a sugar tax may have similar benefits on obesity and diabetes levels.
Slightly worrying is that we actually don’t rank that badly on Government spending on healthcare compared to other countries, especially considering that a big chunk of the country is on private medical aids. So there is also the question of how much is being lost to inefficiency and corruption.
I spoke to Craig Comrie, Principal Officer and CEO of Profmed Medical Scheme, who has a wealth of experience in the healthcare industry. He says that more effective spending by government on healthcare, particularly on improving primary healthcare facilities, is vital. He adds that as new technology, such as genetic mapping, becomes more affordable, it should be integrated into the system in the form of preventative healthcare..
Comrie says that while socio-economic factors play a major role in our wellness ranking, South Africans need to take more accountability for their own lifestyle choices. “Some of the poor behaviours come down to choices made by individuals and these have knock-on effects into other areas of wellness. Substance abuse is a massive problem in South Africa, often resulting in depression, lower life expectancy, criminal activity, abuse and ultimately, unhappiness. The same is true of inactivity to an extent.
He believes education and incentivisation is key to improving these behaviours. “In the private sector, we’ve seen education and incentive programmes making a huge difference to the health of the individual. The more educated you are about your health, the more you tend to focus on it. There needs to be more intervention by the healthcare industry, corporate South Africa and Government in this regard.”
We all make a huge fuss every time GDP and other economic data is released, but it seems clear to me that measures of broader wellness and happiness levels, rather than just GDP is something that we all need to be paying much more attention to – Kylie Jenner be damned.