The relativity of wealth

Nathan RothschildIn 1836 the richest man in the world developed an abscess. If that happened to you or me or to the poorest person in New Zealand today, we’d be prescribed a course of inexpensive antibiotics and the infection would very likely be stopped in its tracks.

Unfortunately for Nathan Rothschild, there were no antibiotics in 1836, so the Baron, who was powerful enough to fund both sides in the Napoleonic Wars, became very ill very quickly and died. Owning nearly 1% of the world’s biggest economy didn’t help him one bit.

Every New Zealander alive today is richer in many vital ways than the good Baron was in 1836.


There are parts of the world right now where people still don’t have access to the most basic medicines because of poverty, corruption, war, bureaucratic incompetence or all of the above. People still die from easily cured infections. We can explore the outer edges of the Solar System and the innermost secrets of the atom but we can’t stop millions of children starving to death or dying of measles.

There are places like Liechtenstein, Norway and Qatar where the nation’s income is such that quite expensive treatments are affordable and not just for the affluent.

Until about 1980 New Zealand was one of the latter places. We’re not worse off now than we were then (in most ways), but the technology has moved on and treatments that are affordable to every Luxembourger are not on the agenda for the average New Zealander. We live in a world where, like Nathan Rothschild, we may be afflicted with a disease which has no cure. But unlike the good Baron, many Kiwis are likely to succumb to diseases for which there is a cure but it’s treatment for which neither we nor Pharmac can afford to pay.

Wealth is very much a relative term.

In the middle of the Twentieth Century I doubt that any country in the world had better health services than we had here in New Zealand. In the Twenty-First Century Cuba has better services than we do. Middle class Kiwis go to Mexico, Cuba and Thailand for medical and dental treatment which they can’t afford here.

Others just die.

The world is moving on and New Zealand is treading water. Treatments for breast and bowel cancer that are readily available to all in Australia, in Slovenia, in Singapore, or in the U.K. are only available to New Zealanders if they can find the money to pay for them.

Sir Paul Callaghan, whom I referred to on the previous page, has been battling to bring this sorry situation to our attention for some time. By a sad irony, he has fallen victim to cancer and he is having to pay for drugs to increase his chances of survival. Fortunately, because Sir Paul has saved his pennies and followed his own advice by developing a high-tech manufacturing business, he has the wherewithal to pay for the drugs he needs.

Herceptin is another case in point. Our health system couldn’t afford to fund this breast cancer treatment until it became an election bribe in 2008. Then Peter paid Paul, Herceptin was made available, and something else fell off the Pharmac’s list of free treatments or another departmental budget was slashed to compensate. If you wish, you can read about the Herceptin story and one brave woman’s battle here.

Next. A picture is worth a thousand words. Our declining fortunes in living colour.

2 thoughts on “The relativity of wealth

  1. I think your arguments would be a lot stronger if you used some sort of statistical basis or comparison for your statements.

    “In the middle of the Twentieth Century I doubt that any country in the world had better health services than we had here in New Zealand. ”



  2. I thought I was being a little adventurous writing that. I haven’t been able to find any stats. From the purely subjective point of view of one who grew up in the ’40s (I’ll be 70 in 33 days) and who raised children in the 60s and 70s I suspect that I’m not far out of line.
    When I was a child (in a low-income family) a visit to the doctor was not a financial burden, if I was sick the doctor came to the house. The Plunket system was outstanding, psychiatric care was good by the standards of the time. We had Health Camps for kids in need, hospital emergency rooms weren’t places where you needed to camp out awaiting service, hospital waiting lists weren’t an issue.
    The cracks started to show in the ’70s. They’re widening into chasms and without a sea-change in our country it’s only going to get worse.


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