Rising social inequalities bad for mental and physical health


As we celebrate the festive season, we might want to give a thought to the millions of people around the world who do not have enough to eat or a place to sleep.

A new report indicates that the number of people whose hopes for a better life are diminishing, is rising and that levels of inequality across the world have become unsustainable.

Even countries whose economies are booming have not been able to escape the inequality trap, which has placed millions on the periphery of their societies.

According to the World Inequality Report 2018 published by WID.org, inequalities have become particularly acute in India and Brazil, where 10 per cent of the population receives 55 per cent of the national income.

Sub-Saharan Africa displays similar trends, with the top 10 per cent of the population receiving 54 per cent of national income.

The United States and Russia are slightly better off, with 47 per cent and 46 per cent of the top 10 per cent of their respective populations collecting these countries’ national incomes.

Another report indicates that as many as 41 million people in the US, one of the world’s wealthiest nations, live in poverty.


A United Nations fact-finding mission found that poverty often manifests itself in homelessness.

The UN special rapporteur for human rights found homeless people sleeping in church pews and living in tents or cardboard boxes in some of America’s wealthiest cities.

Income inequalities have been attributed to massive inequalities in access to education and a tax system that benefits the rich and penalises the poor.

Neoliberalism, with its emphasis on free markets and the privatisation of public goods, has widened inequalities as services are available to only those who can afford them.

Europe, on the other hand, generally enjoys low levels of inequality largely due to a post-war egalitarian regime that made health, education and other basic services more accessible to all.

Why should inequality matter? Well, because it is bad for the physical and mental health of societies.

A seminal study conducted a few years ago by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett showed that highly unequal societies have a larger share of people suffering from physical ailments and mental health problems.

They tend to have higher rates of depression, drug and alcohol addiction, obesity, teenage pregnancies, homicide and imprisonment.

Higher levels of criminality in such societies, in turn, lead to paranoia, which gives rise to gated communities.

Unequal societies place a high value in acquiring money and possessions, looking good in the eyes of others and becoming famous.


It’s a culture that emphasises wealth and fame leaves misery in its wake.

The study found that unequal societies that are highly competitive also suffer from high stress and anxiety levels, which make people unhappy.

Kenya seems to be heading this way. In recent years, we have witnessed the rise of a class of super rich people alongside an increase in the number of people who dropped from middle class status to low-income or poverty levels, thanks to the rising cost of living that has not kept pace with income levels.

This has given rise to various dysfunctionalities, including a rise in alcoholism and gambling, particularly among the poor and middle classes.


The false dream of getting rich quick by playing the lottery is bankrupting individuals, and even causing people to commit suicide.

Meanwhile, the poor are drowning their sorrows in illicit brews, which further impoverish their families.

It is time to re-think our economic and social policies so that the growing gap between the have and the have-nots does not consume and destroy the health and well-being of both the rich and the poor in our country.

A few days before he passed away, Prof Calestous Juma sent me an article on Twitter about how Somaliland had adopted iris recognition technology to register voters in its just-concluded presidential election.

Dr Juma and I were Twitter buddies, and I was always fascinated by this Kenya-born Harvard University professor’s enthusiasm for new technologies that could have a far-reaching impact on African societies.

He was convinced that science, technology and innovation were the keys to moving Africa forward and bringing prosperity to the continent.

Prof Juma died before publishing his book, Entrepreneurship and Prosperity, which I hope will be published posthumously. May his legacy live on.






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