New Research: Economic Austerity in US and Europe ‘Is Killing People’

HIV/AIDS, malaria outbreaks, shortages of essential medicines, lost healthcare access, and an epidemic of drug abuse, depression and suicide

By Jon Queally
Common Dreams, April 29, 2013

Recessions hurt, but austerity kills.

Despite assurances by financial elites that austerity economics is a prescription to improve the lives of the masses, research contained in a newly published book shows that the push for steep cuts in wages, social programs, and public health programs is literally killing people throughout Europe and the US.

The book—titled The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills, written by David Stuckler, an Oxford University political economist, and Sanjay Basu, an epidemiologist at Stanford University—uses historical case studies from around the globe and throughout history to show “how government policy becomes a matter of life and death” during deep or prolonged financial crises.

Discovering that the cure to the financial crisis of 2008 was in some ways worse than the affliction, Stucklet and Basu argue that countries “turned their recessions into veritable epidemics” by championing austerity measures that ultimately “ruined or extinguished” thousands of lives in series of “misguided” attempts to balance budgets, appease financial markets, and bow to the economic elite.

“The harms we have found include HIV and malaria outbreaks, shortages of essential medicines, lost healthcare access, and an avoidable epidemic of alcohol abuse, depression and suicide,” said Dr. Stuckler in a statement. “Austerity is having a devastating effect.”

As Reuters reports:

the researchers say more than 10,000 suicides and up to a million cases of depression have been diagnosed during what they call the “Great Recession” and its accompanying austerity across Europe and North America.

In Greece, moves like cutting HIV prevention budgets have coincided with rates of the AIDS-causing virus rising by more than 200 percent since 2011 – driven in part by increasing drug abuse in the context of a 50 percent youth unemployment rate.

Greece also experienced its first malaria outbreak in decades following budget cuts to mosquito-spraying programs.

And more than five million Americans have lost access to healthcare during the latest recession, they argue, while in Britain, some 10,000 families have been pushed into homelessness by the government’s austerity budget.

As the authors explain in the introduction to their book, it is not only the dire impacts of the policies they found troubling, but the heartlessness of the policy-makers who so vigorously endorse them. They write:

We were shocked and concerned at the illogic of the austerity advocates, and the hard data on its human and economic costs. We realized the impact of the Great Recession went far beyond people losing their homes and jobs. It was a full-scale assault on people’s health. At the heart of the argument was the question of what it means to be a society, and what the appropriate role of government is in protecting people.

Compounding the problem, the authors conclude, is the fact that alternative paths did exist, and continue to exist, but that nations remain unwilling or unable to break free from the purveyors of austerity.

Citing examples from the historical and current record, Stuckler and Basu show that many countries have weathered financial and other crises by investing in public health and innovative social programs.

“Ultimately what we show is that worsening health is not an inevitable consequence of economic recessions. It’s a political choice,” said Professor Basu.

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