‘Recessions can hurt, but austerity kills’.
In the US, more than five million people have lost access to health care. In Greece, there’s a 200% increase in HIV cases. And in some of the worst-hit countries, suicide rates are up. David Stuckler, author of an explosive new book, says the facts speak for themselves.
The austerity programmes administered by western governments in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis were, of course, intended as a remedy, a tough but necessary course of treatment to relieve the symptoms of debts and deficits and to cure recession. But if, David Stuckler says, austerity had been run like a clinical trial, “It would have been discontinued. The evidence of its deadly side-effects – of the profound effects of economic choices on health – is overwhelming.”
Stuckler speaks softly, in the measured tones and carefully weighed terms of the academic, which is what he is: a leading expert on the economics of health, masters in public health degree from Yale, PhD from Cambridge, senior research leader at Oxford, 100-odd peer-reviewed papers to his name. But his message – especially here, as even the IMF starts to question chancellor George Osborne‘s enthusiasm for ever-deeper budget cuts – is explosive, backed by a decade of research, and based on reams of publicly available data: “Recessions,” Stuckler says bluntly, “can hurt. But austerity kills.”
In a powerful new book, The Body Economic, Stuckler and his colleague Sanjay Basu, an assistant professor of medicine and epidemiologist at Stanford University, show that austerity is now having a “devastating effect” on public health in Europe and North America.
The mass of data they have mined reveals that more than 10,000 additional suicides and up to a million extra cases of depression have been recorded across the two continents since governments started introducing austerity programmes in the aftermath of the crisis.
In the United States, more than five million Americans have lost access to healthcare since the recession began, essentially because when they lost their jobs, they also lost their health insurance. And in the UK, the authors say, 10,000 families have been pushed into homelessness following housing benefit cuts.
The most extreme case, says Stuckler, reeling off numbers he knows now by heart, is Greece. “There, austerity to meet targets set by the troika is leading to a public-health disaster,” he says. “Greece has cut its health system by more than 40%. As the health minister said: ‘These aren’t cuts with a scalpel, they’re cuts with a butcher’s knife.'”
Worse, those cuts have been decided “not by doctors and healthcare professionals, but by economists and financial managers. The plan was simply to get health spending down to 6% of GDP. Where did that number come from? It’s less than the UK, less than Germany, way less than the US.”
The consequences have been dramatic. Cuts in HIV-prevention budgets have coincided with a 200% increase in the virus in Greece, driven by a sharp rise in intravenous drug use against the background of a youth unemployment rate now running at more than 50% and a spike in homelessness of around a quarter. The World Health Organisation, Stuckler says, recommends a supply of 200 clean needles a year for each intravenous drug user; groups that work with users in Athens estimate the current number available is about three.