ASTANA, Kazakhstan — As the former Soviet Union’s biggest and most quickly growing state, Kazakhstan’s recent Olympic bid reflects its upward aspirations to become a player on the international stage.
However, these dreams were dashed as Beijing succeeded in claiming the 2022 Winter Olympics over the Kazakh city of Almaty.
It did not help that one of the announcers mispronounced the country “as ‘Kazakh-a-stan’ in the minutes before Beijing was anointed the winner,” a Washington Post report claimed.
If Beijing’s 2008 Olympics have taught the world anything, it is that the games have the capacity to launch the host city and even the home country onto the international stage. Kazakhstan will just have to wait for another chance at an Olympic bid.
However, in the meantime, it can still focus on lingering issues such as its healthcare system, that have held it back in comparison to more prosperous Olympic nations.
In comparison to China, its Olympic competitor, its life expectancy is considerably lower. According to the World Health Organization, in China the average life span is 77 years for women and 74 years for men. Kazakhstan, by contrast, has a life expectancy of only 63 years for men and 73 years for women.
Put differently, almost a third of Kazakh men will die between the ages of 15 and 60. In China, only around 10 percent of men will die during this age range. The reasons behind these less than stellar figures vary greatly and no single solution exists.
Most readily, Kazakhstan lags behind many of its peers in terms of its disease management. It bears a large burden of Tuberculosis infections with a rate of 198 out of 100,000. While this figure may seem slight to most, it is more than three times the European average.
Other diseases like HIV/AIDS have also become a greater issue. A University of Pittsburgh report found that “although Kazakhstan currently has a relatively low prevalence rate of HIV infection, there are a number of factors in place that create the potential for a dramatic increase, including those of migration, injection drug use, commercial sex work, and the marginalization of vulnerable groups.”
Lingering environmental factors from the period of Soviet rule have also caused a number of health problems throughout Kazakhstan. In fact, the country is still feeling the effects of nuclear testing conducted in the 1940s.
Around 200,000 people live in close proximity to the Semipalatinsk Test Site, which was the location of more than 400 nuclear warhead tests. The country has witnessed a rise in cancer cases in the past several decades due to long-term nuclear fallout in the area.
The Soviets were also responsible for the depletion of the Aral Sea due to irrigation projects. Since 1960, the fourth largest lake on the planet has dwindled away by 90 percent, becoming one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters.
It effectively destroyed the local fishing industry and allowed the wind to disperse the contaminated particles throughout the region.
But perhaps the greatest challenge to Kazakh healthcare is the system itself, as it struggles to efficiently treat the population.
One of its largest structural flaws seems advantageous on the surface; compared to many nations like Sweden, Denmark and Italy, Kazakhstan has a much higher number of available beds in its hospitals. Yet, Kazakhstan has so many vacant beds that it actually has a surplus. This essentially squanders the nation’s healthcare resources.
This inefficiency permeates the system. While nearly 16 percent of Kazakhs, or 2.5 million people, receive treatment in the nation’s hospitals, a third of these visits did not require a trip to the hospital.
In order to improve the system, Kazakhstan needs to invest in more public health and restructure its healthcare systems. The country has already made some progress. In a 1997 address called Kasakhstan 2030, the then president outlined a plan for long-term health reforms.
That same year, the government established the Kazakhstan School of Public Health with the help of the WHO. Since its founding, the school has helped educate 12,000 medical professionals about public health.
As it closes the gap with developed rivals in addressing public health challenges, Kazakhstan may once again make an Olympic bid. Hopefully, by 2030 they can win it.