By David Mayeda

In December 2012, The Lancet published an interesting article titled, “Healthy life expectancy for 187 countries, 1990—2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden Disease Study 2010” (to see full article, free registration is required). Using data from 2010, the authors’ analyses of studies illustrate a variety of health indicators across 187 countries. In particular the authors address the construct of “healthy life expectancy,” which speaks to the average number of years an individual within a certain country can expect to live from a certain life stage (e.g., from birth) in good health. By good health, the authors mean absence of disability, not acquiring a major disease, and I would presume a variety of other indicators (e.g., free of heavy violence and injuries).

The results, while perhaps predictable, are a telling illustration of global stratification. See visual, below (top image, labelled “A” represents male averages, and image below, labelled “B” represents female averages):

Pretty clear, countries across much of western Europe, Canada, Singapore, and New Zealand have the highest healthy life expectancies — their citizenries expecting to live relatively healthy lives up until their late 60s for males and early 70s for females. And then in Japan, males and females both can expect to live healthy into their early 70s. Of course there would be stratified patterns of inequality within those countries, but on average, their citizens’ healthy life expectancies are very high from a comparative global standpoint. In contrast, across much of Africa, in Afghanistan, and Papua New Guinea, males and females can expect to stay healthy only up to about their 40s or early 50s.

The authors also highlight Haiti, comparing it with Japan as the two countries with the greatest disparities: “Across countries, male healthy life expectancy at birth in 2010 ranged from 27·8 years (17·2—36·5) in Haiti to 70·6 (68·6—72·2) in Japan. Female healthy life expectancy at birth in 2010 ranged from 37·1 years (26·8—43·8) in Haiti to 75·5 (73·3—77·3) in Japan,” also noting the significance that the catastrophic earthquake had on Haiti in 2010. Japan of course also experiences natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tsunamis. However countries like Haiti are much less equipped to cope with earthquakes due to a lack of infrastructure and technology, ultimately tied to poverty, which many critical sociologists would say are tied further to colonial and neo-colonial relationships.

And then there are life expectancy rates as a whole. This a pretty busy table, including life expectancies and healthy life expectancies, for males and females, years 1990 and 2010 across all 187 countries. But the information is extremely useful in demonstrating how social inequalities across the globe result in peoples’ differing lived experiences along clear patterns.

So while we’ve seen both life expectancies and healthy life expectancies rise for males and females in most (if not all) countries from 1990 to 2010, the global disparities are still massive.

The disparities also speak to the concept of “slow violence” that I first saw here, and is further explained by Jacklyn Cock here:

“much destruction of human potential takes the form of a ‘slow violence’ that extends over time. It is insidious, undramatic and relatively invisible. By slow violence I mean what Rob Nixon calls ‘the long dyings,’ a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Both environmental pollution and malnutrition are forms of this slow violence. Both instances are relatively invisible and involve serious damage which develops slowly over time.”

So we don’t think of these colossal disparities as examples of global violence. Instead we see them as unfortunate manifestations of poverty, perhaps reflecting a lack of leadership within the countries on the lower end of our globally stratified world. But really, mass social disparities are a form of violence in and of themselves because the less resources one has, the less they will be able to cope with things when crises emerge, whether the crisis be losing a job, having one’s house broken into, being in a car accident, or coping with a tsunami.

Furthermore, we know that when one lives in a community with higher levels of deprivation, certain crises are more common — physical health concerns, crime, educational concerns, un/under-employment. So the contributions to slow violence add up and have cumulative effects on individuals within those communities.

What I found additionally helpful about Jacklyn Cock’s article was how she spoke of sociologists’ social responsibility to the lived experiences of those coping with slow violence and heavier levels of overt violence/deprivation:

“Sociologists must be willing to extend their experiences into the lives of those they research. They must be willing to spend time in homes, mines, and factories, for extended periods of time. It is from this vantage point, from below, that social processes can be exposed and rigorously analyzed. Similarly, “organic public sociology’ ‘makes visible the invisible’ and works in close connection with a ‘visible, thick, active and often counter public.’ This involves emphasizing collective work and rejecting the call of C. Wright Mills ‘to stand for the primacy of the individual scholar.’ Instead, in this highly individualized neoliberal moment, sociologists have to stand in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed.”

Blogging and publishing in scholarly journals are hopefully helpful, but they sure aren’t adequate. Gotta get outa that ivory tower, cause confining oneself to academic circles is merely another pathway to reproducing inequality.