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The final curtain falls earlier in the east.

Of People and Numbers - Eastern Europe in your pocket

Magazine > Facts > The final curtain falls earlier in the east.

In terms of life expectancy, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe haven’t quite caught up to the West. You can draw on many factors to prove the fact that the West and East have been growing closer together since 1989, in the sense that prosperity levels are converging: whether you look at spending power statistics, GDP per capita, or journeys abroad – countries that more recently joined the EU have steadily caught up to old EU members. Even leaving aside economic parameters, you will find telling indicators, and none reflects more success than the decline in infant mortality. Four million children worldwide still die within the first few months of their lives. The number of infant deaths is, however, continuously dropping in Eastern European countries.

Infant mortality is often used as an indicator of socio-economic conditions. It reflects factors such as health care, hygienic conditions and maternal education levels. If fewer children die, a country is on a good track overall. In Eastern and South-Eastern European countries, infant mortality has dropped significantly over the past 30 years, with the Czech Republic now having some of the lowest rates in the EU.

In a country where in 1996, six out of one thousand infants did not live to see their first birthday, the number declined to less than three infants in 2016. While 1930s’ Romania saw one in eight children die before reaching the age of one, the mortality rate declined to 44 per one thousand live births in the 1960s, but dropped to less than ten per one thousand only after 2008 – shortly after Romania had joined the EU. Neighbouring Hungary had achieved this feat ten years earlier. The Republic of Moldova shows the significance of this indicator: here, more children still die before their first birthday than anywhere else in the region – eleven per one thousand. Albania is approximately at the same level.

Birth is the beginning of life, and death its end. Citizens from Eastern and South-Eastern Europe die earlier than their counterparts in the West. If you take the furthest geographic ends of the spectrum, the life expectancy gap is twelve years: that’s how much longer people in Portugal live on average than residents of Bulgaria in the far east, who can expect to live to only 73 years. The reasons are many: an unhealthy lifestyle, coupled with excessive smoking and drinking, contributes to this, as does a poorly functioning health care system.

In Romania and Bulgaria, the rural population in particular receives insufficient medical care; there is a lack of country doctors and hospitals that are at least modestly equipped. The situation is exacerbated by environmental factors such as highly polluted air – above all in big cities where discarded vehicles from the West still tend to end up. 50 per cent of all cars registered in Romania are over 15 years old. In May, the European Commission took Romania, but also Hungary and Italy, to the European Court of Justice over persistently high levels of particulate matter. And the many road casualties also affect the statistics.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that at least the recent EU member states are narrowing the gap on the older members when it comes to life expectancy. In particular, cardiovascular disease as a cause of death is declining: people eating vegetable oils instead of animal fats, a healthier lifestyle with lots of exercise, and advanced medicine, all contribute to this. Also, countries like Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina have recovered from war-related drops in life expectancy.

Between the furthest eastern and western ends of the EU there is a life expectancy gap of
12 years.

Russian men can now expect to live longer too, although rates are still not comparable to those of men in Poland, let alone Germany. The collapse of the Soviet Union also meant the end of the alcohol restriction policy launched by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, which had significantly brought down mortality rates of Russian men in particular. Added to this were the pressure that came with the transformation and the collapse of the health care system in the 1990s, resulting in a man’s life expectancy figure of less than 60 years. Even today one in four Russian men die before their 55th birthday.

Original in German. Translated into English by Barbara Maya.

This text and infographics are published under the Creative Commons License: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. The name of the author/rights holder should be mentioned as followed. Author: Eva Konzett / erstestiftung.org, infographics & illustration: Vanja Ivancevic / erstestiftung.org.
Cover picture:Vienna Central Cemetery. Photo: (CC BY 2.0) Robin Jacob / Flickr


Of People and Numbers – Eastern Europe in your pocket

Fourteen years have passed since the European Union set off towards the east. The initial euphoria first gave way to day-to-day life and has now turned into disillusionment on both sides. In some places people have become or remained strangers, despite visible and hidden relationships, and personal, official and business relationships. Despite the numerous similarities and the value chains that now know no borders. And sometimes precisely because of them.

Of People and Numbers aims to highlight the political, economic, cultural and social realities of life in the newer members of the EU and the accession states of South-Eastern Europe on a small scale and compare them to Western European realities, at least as they appear in Austria. Are the two really always miles apart? When does the view from above fall short?

When preconceptions are put aside, a different world emerges. Of People and Numbers brings this world to you in images, figures and words. A monthly serving of Eastern Europe. Delivered to your smartphone each month.