What ails the world? Income inequality and acute illnesses

No one is immune to the effects of economic inequality, regardless of their socioeconomic status or the GDP of their country. The degree of economic inequality is an excellent predictor of the average quality of life within a nation, measured by rates of violent crime, strokes, teen pregnancy, high school completion, etc. Quality of life and level of income inequality are inversely proportional; the greater the income inequality, the worse a country fares on overall measurements of quality of life. Of course, as has been drummed into our heads by many teachers, correlation does not prove causation, but one of the main sources of this health disparity has been identified: chronic stress, which has two identifiable root causes. The first is a lack of concrete resources (the definition of stress is when demands exceed available resources), such as good food, health care when it is needed, etc. A low status within social hierarchies is the second cause of stress, due to the threats to our self-esteem and our perceived social status. This constant and chronic stress manifests itself as the host of social ills previously mentioned, which creates illness within society as a whole and therefore affects everyone. Looking at what ails the world and interpreting “ailment” as more of an abstract concept, income inequality tops the list. Richard Wilkinson, Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, provides a compelling presentation of just this subject.

On a more concrete note, what ails the world depends on what world you’re looking at. The leading causes of death in third-world countries are lower respiratory infections, HIV/AIDS, and diarrheal diseases. As infrastructure improves and incomes grow (i.e. developed nations), ailments shift away from acute diseases that are generally preventable with improved sanitation and access to healthcare and toward chronic illnesses. In developed nations, the major killer is heart disease, followed by strokes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

One way of determining what is most pressing, or where we should focus our resources, is to use the tenets of effective altruism: scale, tractability, and neglectedness. If you live at or above the poverty level in the United States, you earn more than 85% of the world’s population. Therefore, the scale of those subject to acute diseases is massive – by tackling these diseases, we could benefit a huge number of people. Furthermore, two out of the three leading causes of illness within developing nations are easily and inexpensively remedied or altogether prevented; this problem is highly tractable, meaning a solution is exists and it is certainly possible to implement it. Finally, many of these problems are severely neglected on a global scale; for example, half a billion people contract malaria yearly, and a million of those people die from a disease that is easily prevented and treatable if caught early. This points to a serious problem of neglect. Therefore, if the most pressing ailments are defined as those that create the greatest and most easily prevented amount of negative effects, treating the acute illnesses of developing nations is paramount. If we focus our resources and efforts, we could benefit a vast number of people and create a huge impact on global health.