Southern Africa
Life expectancy down in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana

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afrol News, 24 July - While social indicators slowly but progressively have improved all over the African continent since the 1970s, new statistics show that four southern African countries are experiencing dramatic drops in life expectancy; up to 13 years. The spread of AIDS explains some, but far from all of these unprecedented trends. 

Rwanda, experiencing genocide in 1994, has suffered a drop in life expectancy of 5 years since the 1970s. This is almost equalled in Namibia. The drop in life expectancy in Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe is much higher; in Zimbabwe, the newborn can expect to live 13 years less than his parents. 

These new numbers were presented in the statistic appendix of the 'Human Development Report for 2002', recently published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP):

  • Life expectancy at birth in 1970-75 in Namibia was 49.4 years. This dropped to 45.1 years in 1995-2000. 
  • Life expectancy at birth in 1970-75 in Botswana was 53.2 years. This dropped to 44.4 years in 1995-2000. 
  • Life expectancy at birth in 1970-75 in Zambia was 47.2 years. This dropped to 40.5 years in 1995-2000. 
  • Life expectancy at birth in 1970-75 in Zimbabwe was 56.0 years. This dropped to 42.9 years in 1995-2000. 

These four countries go totally against the trends in Africa at large and also against the trends of Southern Africa. In Sub-Saharan Africa, life expectancy increased from 45.3 to 48.8 years during the same decades. The only larger region on a global scale registering a shorter life expectancy includes some counties of the former Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies. 

In Southern Africa, the trends are diverging. In South Africa, life expectancy increased from 53.7 from 56.7 years from the 1970s until now. This is paralleled by longer life expectancy in Swaziland (from 47.3 to 50.8), Lesotho (49.5 to 51.2) and Angola (38.0 to 44.6). However, in Malawi (down from 41.0 to 40.7 years) and Mozambique (42.5 to 40.6), lesser drops in life expectancy were registered. 

Life expectancy in Southern Africa


Life expectancy at birth 1970-75 Life expectancy at birth 1995-2000 Difference in life expentancy Infant mortality rate 1970 (1/1000) Infant mortality rate 2000 (1/1000) Adults living with HIV/AIDS (%) Under-nourished people (% of population) Physicians per 100,000 people Health expenditure per capita (US$)
Angola 38.0 44.6 +6.6 180 172 5.50 51 8 ..
Botswana 53.2 44.4 -8.8 99 74 38.80 23 24 127
Lesotho 49.5 51.2 +1.7 125 92 31.00 25 5 ..
Malawi 41.0 40.7 -0.3 189 117 15.00 35 .. 11
Mozambique 42.5 40.6 -1.9 163 126 13.00 54 .. 8
Namibia 49.4 45.1 -4.3 104 56 22.50 33 30 142
South Africa 53.7 56.7 +3.0 80 55 22.10 .. 56 230
Swaziland 47.3 50.8 +3.5 132 101 33.44 12 15 46
Zambia 47.2 40.5 -6.7 109 112 21.52 47 7 23
Zimbabwe 56.0 42.9 -13.1 86 73 33.73 39 14 36
Sub-Saharan Africa 45.3 48.8 +3.5 135 107 9.00 34 .. ..
World 59.9 66.4 +6.5 96 56 1.20 .. .. ..

Source: All data from UNDP report

A typical explanation to low life expectancy in developing countries is the high infant mortality rate; still claiming the life over one tenth of every newborn African. Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe however have infant mortality rates far below the African average; in Namibia and South Africa one in every six newborn dies within the first year. Southern African countries over the continent's average are Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Angola. 

The infant mortality rate has even been cut back in Southern Africa during the last three decades. It has been halved in Namibia and been reduced significantly in Botswana and Zimbabwe, in line with general trends in Sub-Saharan Africa. Only Zambia experienced a slightly higher infant mortality rate - in itself a sign of a totally failure in public health policies. Also the "under-five mortality rate" is significantly down in all the region's countries, except Zambia. 

The remaining explanation to the lowered life expectancy in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Botswana is therefore that adults live shorter. Historically, this only has happened during extreme warfare (World Wars 1 and 2 in Europe), extreme growth in poverty (the fall of the Soviet empire) or extreme pandemics. 

For Botswana, with an HIV prevalence of about 38.8 percent and a longer history with high HIV rates, the AIDS pandemic may be the most logical explanation to the 9 years drop in life expectancy. One is however astonished that Swaziland - with an HIV prevalence of over 33 percent - does not note the same trends. In Swaziland, life expectancy has grown by 3.5 years, even if successes in lowering infant mortality have been smaller than in Botswana. Lesotho and South Africa somewhat parallel Swaziland, leaving further question marks behind the Batswana trends. 

Zimbabwe - where the average citizen now can expect a 13-year shorter life than his parents - has an HIV rate equal to Swaziland. While a 33.3 percent HIV prevalence must have affected life expectancy, the dramatic drop must also be explained by other factors. The rapid spread of poverty in the country seems to have cut back life expectancy from being the region's highest to the bottom end of developing countries. The economic dissolution seems to the main reason behind the extreme drop. 

Zambia has an HIV prevalence of 21.5 percent - a very high number, but below the region's average. The 7-year drop in life expectancy seems hard to explain, but the increased infant mortality rate gives an indication. Also Zambia has experienced a spread of poverty, mismanagement, and obviously, a worsening health sector at a time as HIV is spreading. Zambia only has 7 physicians per 100,000 inhabitants, half of Zimbabwe and one forth of Namibia. 

Namibia, equal to Botswana, is one of the region's good economic performers and additionally has an average HIV prevalence (22.5 percent). With infant mortality halved and relative political and economic stability, the 4-year drop in life expectancy runs against all odds. Increased social differences during the economic growth may however play a role, and Namibia - although one of the richest countries in sub-Saharan Africa - has a high number of under-nourished people; one third of the population. 

The spread of AIDS in the region in any case seems to have reversed many positive human development trends in Southern Africa at large. Several countries however demonstrate that life expectancy can be upkept and even increasing while the AIDS pandemic takes its toll. Bad governance, the spread of poverty and failing investments in the health sector are not affordable while the pandemic is ravaging. 

Sources: Based on UNDP and afrol archives

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