Hit hard by high Alzheimer cases, China scrambles for raw energy to power its growth engine

China spends over 6 percent of its GDP on public healthcare and yet, despite investing a huge amount of money in highlighting the prosperity of the country, it is burdened with the highest number of chronic disease afflicted patients.

According to the Asia Pacific Observatory on Health System and Policies, chronic diseases contribute to 85 percent of the approximately 10.3 million deaths each year in China.  This includes chronic disease like Alzheimer. As per data from the Chinese Geriatrics Society, the country has about 10 million patients suffering from Alzheimer disease, the highest number of patients in comparison to any country in the world.

Meaning is clear: Alzheimer is China’s health time bomb for which Beijing is ill equipped to handle it. According to a study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the number of Alzheimer patients may soar to 40 million by 2050 in China. The study has warned that this surge in cases will cost the Chinese economy $1 trillion each year in medical expenses and lost productivity as caregivers will drop out of the workforce.

Already, China’s population is greying fast with the country’s Ministry of Civil Affairs’ predicting a senior population touching 300 million in the five years. Even the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs has maintained that  China’s elderly population will be 500 million while the working age population—20 to 64—will be around 675 million by 2050.

The working-age population has shrunk by some 3.4 million per year over the last decade. Then on account of increasing life expectancy, the share of elderly population, aged 60 and above, has risen from 10.45 percent in 2005 to 14.7 percent in 2013 and to 18.1 percent in 2019. According to a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences study, China will get old before it gets rich.

Amidst this, China finds itself on the slippery slope of health-related issues, which has further imploded following the Covid-19 pandemic. China has around 10 million Alzheimer patients but less than 200 beds in specialist treatment centres, while the US, China’s key competitor in economy, technology and military, has 6.2 million Alzheimer patients and 73,000 beds in specialist treatment centres.

Absence of poor health infrastructure gives China a limited scope to deal with chronic diseases like Alzheimer. It is said that no healthcare problem looms larger in China than Alzheimer. It is the fastest-growing major illness in the country where young persons are also becoming victims of the disease—an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory, thinking capability and ability to carry out simple day, today’s simple tasks. Medical experts across the world have no effective treatment or drug to cure Alzheimer.

In 2020, China announced the Healthy China 2030 action plan that envisages rolling out of community-level screening programmes for early detection of Alzheimer or dementia and raising public awareness of the disease. The plan doesn’t include any details about training of doctors, building dedicated care facilities or increasing the capacity of hospitals to treat Alzheimer patients.

Nevertheless, fact on the ground is that the pandemic has triggered a significant rise in the number of Alzheimer patients in China. DrAlirezaAtri, a cognitive neurologist and head of Alzheimer Disease International’s Medical and Scientific Advisory Panel recently said that he is particularly concerned about the effects of so-called long Covid-19. That includes symptoms such as loss of taste and smell, brain fog or a loss of mental clarity, as well as difficulties with concentration, memory and thinking.

What worries doctors and medical experts the most is that youth too are falling prey to this chronic disease. In China, as per estimation, around 30 percent of the total Alzheimer patients are young individuals between 30 and 40 years old. Doctors attribute such developments to genes related problems. However, since people of this age group are part of the core working force of China, which aims to overtake the US economically by 2030, there is a fear that if the alarming rise in Alzheimer cases is not addressed soon, Beijing may find it challenging to become an economic superpower.  

Experts say with a declining workforce and fast greying population, China will see its aspirations getting severely hampered by its demographic problems. Even though with the help of technology, China will manage to ease its problem on the workforce front, still there is no guarantee that in the absence of productive human resources, huge development projects like Belt and Road Initiative will not get impacted. Nor is there any surety of China managing to keep its armed forces strong in the absence of young and competent personnel.  

Yet ironically, China doesn’t fail in putting up a brave face. “The pursuit of a high-quality life by ordinary Chinese not only makes them healthier and facilitates their life, but also injects dynamic to economy and boost national rejuvenation,” the Global Times, the state-backed lone Tabloid English newspaper said recently in a write-up. Indisputably, China is indulging in rhetoric, but reality on the ground is that Beijing has started falling apart under the weight of rising chronic disease-related problems.

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