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Till death do us part: strange facts on life expectancies in Fiji [The Fiji Times, 21 Jan 2001]


Cartoon and graph:

Darling why don’t you take the joint pension when you reach 55 (says man to his wife).

Wife replies: Stupid! Look at the graph.  You will die well before me.




Anywhere else in the world, the graph opposite would have caused an uproar, a panic, much wringing of hands.

Demographers and actuaries employed by life insurance companies and pension schemes like the Fiji National Provident Fund, would be frantically looking for the answers.

Ministers of Health for the last thirty years would be tortured on the rack.  The current one would be sacked, if he had not resigned of his own free will.   Hey, in some countries, ministers do resign when things go wrong.

For something is certainly wrong in the state ofFiji.

How could the “life expectancy” (or average years expected to live, at birth), for Indian males and Fijian females  be declining by more than one whole year, between 1986 and 1996?

While some health experts have worried here and there, the rest of the general public in coup-ridden and devastatedFijihave not been particularly concerned.

We plough on with our everyday humdrum lives, stupified by kava and booze.

Even before the stressful coups and mutinies, we hardly noticed, much less debated, the damning data produced by the demographers in the Fiji Bureau of Statistics.  And there is much to debate.

There is much to think about

The fact that for some groups, life expectancy is declining, is very much against the normal rules of economic and social development and contrary to all expectations.

Between 1986 and 1996,Fiji’s national income and income per capita is supposed to have grown significantly.  Government expenditure on health and education has been steadily rising.  On average, our standard of living and hence our life expectancies, should also have improved.

Indeed, the Government’s official publication in 1997 (Development Strategy forFiji), claimed that life expectancy had increased from around 67 in 1986 to around 72 in 1996.

This also is supposed to have improvedFiji’s ranking in the world, going by calculated “Human Development Indicators” (which take account of life expectancy as well as other factors, such as per capita income and literacy).

But not so.

The Bureau of Statistics Reports suggest that life expectancy for Fiji people as a whole, may have gone down slightly, from 66.9 in 1986, to 66.6 in 1996.

For Fijian males the decline is fairly small (about a month or two) and for Indian females, there is a small increase (of a month or two).  Certainly not the big increases expected.

But what is startling is that for Indian males (see the graph) and Fijian females, the decline in life expectancy at birth may be as much as one full year, or even more.

Indian male decline understandable

For Indian males, this is not really surprising, is it?  We lead highly stressful and sedentary lives, with more income than common sense.  We booze away, without any food in our stomachs.  Or accompanied by “chasers” of spicy, oily, fatty, lamb, chicken, goat and duck.  Add a few packets of deadly cigarettes.

For many, the drinking and smoking will continue until the booze, cash, or stamina runs out.

Damage to liver, kidney, and pancreas and lungs is not surprising, nor the resultant heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, cancers.  All predictably leading to early departures from this planet, and hence lower life expectancy.

But why decline for Fijian females?

But why should the life expectancy of Fijian females also have gone down by one whole year, between 1986 and 1996?

  Lives of Fijian females have also become more sedentary, especially in urban areas.  There is less of the daily exercise associated with searching for firewood, marine and river foods.   The higher cash incomes are now spent on processed foods, and fatty corned meats and mutton flaps, instead of the more nutritious indigenous foods.

Obese (spatially challenged) Fijian ladies are now a common sight.  And it may also be true that Fijian females have become more susceptible to some non-communicable diseases.

Are Fijian females also more stressed out?

More of them are now in formal and informal sector employment, hustling to raise cash for children’s education, house mortgages, and household knick knacks.   And most continue to bear the biggest burden of household duties, as housewives. Double jobs, more stress, shorter life expectancies.

Aah.  But why have similar pressures not had the comparable impact on Indian women, whose life expectancy is supposed to have risen slightly? And the picture is even more complicated.

Infant mortalities?

Infant mortality (those dying between birth and age one) has risen slightly for Fijian females,  but more so for Indian females.

Are female infants feeling the brunt relatively more, of increased economic pressures and reduced real incomes for many of our low income people?

What is the complicated interaction between changes in infant and child mortality, and changes in adult mortality?

Indeed, are our data accurate, and our calculations correct?

Why difference between Bureau and Health data?

The Bureau reports suggest that the conclusions to be drawn from the 1996 and 1986 census data, are not necessarily the same as those derived from data generated by the Department of Health.

The census data seem better in some respects and weak in others, and the Department of Health data seem better in others and weak in others.    There continue to be serious inexplicable  discrepancies?

Why so in this modern day and age?

Most Government departments have the latest computers, software and data gathering systems just pouring out of everybody’s ears, most set up by donor funding.   They work well when the donor funded expatriates are around, they collapse when the expatriate leaves.

Do our own civil servants suffer from a lack of technical capacity, inclination, curiosity or just plain work ethic to use the available technology to their full potential?  Many old-timers think so.

Perhaps some are demoralised by the coups and associated crises.  Perhaps some see no point in bothering with a work ethic when the superiors themselves could not be bothered.

We should be bothered

But those of us who continue to live on in this country, should be bothered, should be worried about what happening to our life expectancies.


Life expectancies are a very profound “summary” indicator of the quality of our lives.


Stagnant or falling life expectancy spells deep-seated problems: perhaps worsening income distribution, nutrition, lifestyles, health services.


If people die in the economic prime of their lives, the country loses years of service of experienced engineers, architects, accountants, doctors, electricians, plumbers and other productive people. Losses we can ill afford, especially when we are losing such valuable skills to emigration.


Not to mention the incalculable losses to children and grandchildren who are denied the comforting and guiding presence of parents and grandparents, at critical times in their lives.


So let us investigate more.  Analyse more.  Ask more questions of our demographic and health experts.  And debate more.


[Appeared as “Till death do us part” The Fiji Times, 21 Jan 2001


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