More than 90% of countries experience drop in life expectancy - what’s behind this tragic decline?

  • The UN HDI measures average life expectancies, education levels and living standards worldwide. 
  • The latest report shows a global setback that has affected more than 90% of countries since 2019.
  • The worst affected country is South Sudan.
  • But there’s a positive note from UN officials who says that certain actions could help reverse this trend.

“We’re dying earlier, we’re less educated [and] our incomes are going down.”

These words are part of the sombre statement by Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), this month.

The UN Human Development Index (HDI), created more than 30 years ago, has, for the first time, seen a drop for two years straight. 

The latest report found that 9 out of 10 countries’ life expectancies, education levels and living standards have fallen in nearly every country. The global average life expectancy shrunk by a year and a half between 2019 and 2021, from 72.8 years to 71.4 years.

“Yes, we’ve had disasters before; we’ve had conflicts before. But … what we’re facing now is a major setback to human development,” says Steiner.

What’s behind this decline?

The Covid-19 pandemic, which brought most of the world to a standstill; the effects of climate change and the war in Ukraine are the major drivers behind this global reversion. The UN says the world has been “lurching from crisis to crisis” over the past two years, and populations haven’t had enough time to recover.

It’s a new, complex of uncertainties that have emerged for the first time in human history, according to the United Nations.

READ MORE | Life expectancy: For men, it's 60, for women, it's 65.6, according to StatsSA

“The global reversal of human development is happening in nine out of 10 countries, so that gives you a sense of how significant the impact of multiple crises coming together is on human wellbeing across the world,” says Steiner, adding:

“We are seeing the impact of climate change play out before our very eyes, disrupting lives, disrupting economies.”

Countries ranked: best and worst

Out of 191 countries ranked in the UN’s HDI, Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland remain in the top three of the index. On the flip side of the coin, Niger, Chad and South Sudan, sit at the bottom. South Africa ranked 109th on the list. 

In South Sudan, people live, on average, until they’re 55 years old, spend just 5.5 years in school and earn $768 (around R13 300) a year. In Switzerland, people are expected to live to their mid-80s, and annual earnings are, on average, $66 000 (around R1.1 million) a year. 

READ MORE | The longest-living people on Earth eat these 6 foods

More than 80 countries are facing problems paying off their national debt, says Steiner, who is a co-author of the report. 

Hiba Morgan, a reporter for Al-Jazeera, says that the three countries at the bottom of the index appear to have some factors in common, one of them being conflict. “Those countries have been facing conflict for years now that has led to the displacement of millions of civilians.”

The report also mentions the impact of Covid on global supply chains, which, unfortunately, severely impacted these countries at the bottom of the list. 

The fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was not calculated in the latest index, but it will likely have a negative impact on those countries, and their people’s mental health, says Morgan.

READ MORE | In Africa, you can live in a healthy state up to the age of 56 - WHO report

The impact of climate change is another factor these bottom three countries have in common. South Sudan has experienced floods for three years, leading to the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians and loss of lives - the same thing has been happening in Chad for the past few months, she adds. In Niger, drought has been affecting the livestock and livelihoods of its people.

How can the trend be reversed?

The UN says the situation could be improved by countries investing in renewable energy and preparing for future pandemics. 

Steiner says we have a narrow window to “reboot our systems” and secure a future that prioritises climate action and new opportunities for everyone.

“Low carbon, less inequality, greater sustainability, regenerative economies … rewarding recycling so that materials get reused, less waste,” says Steiner. “If you can introduce these metrics into our physical policies, how we tax, how we subsidise, the kind of research we promote, then the transitions in our economies are perfectly possible.” 

READ MORE | Climate change is hitting Africa's staple crops, increasing parasites - UN report

The UN Development Programme’s Pedro Conceição, the report’s lead author, wrote: “To navigate uncertainty, we need to double down on human development and look beyond improving people’s wealth or health.”

“These remain important. But we also need to protect the planet and provide people with the tools they need to feel more secure, regain a sense of control over their lives and have hope for the future.”

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