Politicians’ wilful blindness commits tens of thousands to death-by-austerity, wrecks lives worldwide

New study reveals introduction of austerity measures in aftermath of this great recession has had devastating health impacts on the vulnerable

No 753 Posted by fw, May 22, 2013

“You know, coming from the public health field, we have something called the “precautionary principle,” which is that when an idea or policy is controversial, we should first do whatever protects people the most. And what we’re doing is entirely the opposite. We’ve essentially had a massive untested experiment. That experiment has failed, and it sounds like it’s quite deadly, given all the data through history.”Dr. Sanjay Basu

In their new book, The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills, economist David Stuckler and physician Sanjay Basu examine the health impacts of austerity across the globe. Their research demonstrates that steep, abrupt austerity cuts impose social health costs and rising suicide rates, whereas targeted, gradual cuts do more to reduce deficits.

Click on the following linked title to watch a Democracy Now interview with the book’s authors and access a complete transcript of the interview. Or scroll down to watch an embedded copy of the 15-minute interview and read an abridged version of the transcript with added subheadings, text highlighting and hyperlinks.

Why Austerity Kills: From Greece to U.S., Crippling Economic Policies Causing Global Health Crisis, interview with David Stuckler and Dr. Sanjay Basu, Democracy Now, May 21, 2013

ABRIDGED TRANSCRIPT

[Introduction by Amy Goodman]

“Early last month, a triple suicide was reported in the seaside town of Civitanova Marche, Italy. A married couple, Anna Maria Sopranzi, 68, and Romeo Dionisi, 62, had been struggling to live on her monthly pension of around 500 euros [about $650 a month], and had fallen behind on rent.

Because the Italian government’s austerity budget had raised the retirement age, Mr. Dionisi, a former construction worker, became one of Italy’s esodati (exiled ones)—older workers plunged into poverty without a safety net. On April 5, he and his wife left a note on a neighbor’s car asking for forgiveness, then hanged themselves in a storage closet at home. When Ms. Sopranzi’s brother, Giuseppe Sopranzi, 73, heard the news, he drowned himself in the Adriatic.”

Those are the opening lines to a startling recent article in The New York Times headlined How Austerity Kills. The authors of the piece, David Stuckler and Dr. Sanjay Basu, have just published a new book looking at the health impacts of austerity across the globe. The authors estimate there have been more than 10,000 additional suicides and up to a million extra cases of depression across Europe and the United States since governments started introducing austerity programs in the aftermath of the economic crisis. In Greece, where spending on public health has been slashed by 40 percent, HIV rates have jumped 200 percent, and Greece has seen its first outbreak in malaria since the 1970s.

David Stuckler is an economist and public health specialist. He’s a senior research leader at Oxford University. Dr. Sanjay Basu is a physician and epidemiologist. He teaches at Stanford University. Together, they’ve written this new book, out today, called The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills—Recessions, Budget Battles, and the Politics of Life and Death.

David, let’s begin with you. Lay out the thesis of this book.

Government austerity measures can turn recessions into severe epidemics

DAVID – We’ve been studying how recessions affect people’s health over the past decade, looking at the Great Depression through the East Asian financial crisis, right through to the present Great Recession. And what we found is that recessions hurt. Unemployment, job loss, foreclosure, unpayable debt are risks to health. But what ultimately matters is how politicians respond. And when they make large cuts to social supports, social protections, they can turn recessions into severe epidemics.

Greece is in the middle of a public health disaster….To meet budget deficit reduction targets set by the so-called troika—the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and European Commission—Greece has cut its health sector by more than 40 percent. At a time when homelessness is escalating and austerity has further driven up youth unemployment, we’ve seen HIV infections jump, concentrated in injection drug users. The malaria outbreak was linked to the cut in mosquito-spraying prevention programs, creating an outbreak that’s much more costly to control than the short-term money saved by reducing the budget. Healthcare access has declined substantially. The majority of people who have lost access are pensioners who have contributed to the system their entire lives. And these are just a few of the many health effects seen in Greece, mirrored in Spain, Italy and, to some extent, the U.K. and the U.S.

Case in point — The tragic eviction-suicide death of Amaia Egaña, 53 — Democracy Now producer Maria Carrión talks about this loss

[Source: General Strike Sweeps Europe as Millions Reject Austerity as Solution to Economic Crisis, Democracy Now, November 14, 2012]

MARÍA — Amaia is a former city council member in a town—the town of Barakaldo in the Basque Country. And her case is especially tragic because she actually didn’t share just how bad off the situation was even with her husband. So, most people had no idea that there was a whole—there had been a repossession and an eviction process. She was so desperate and so ashamed of the situation that she jumped out of her balcony, her fourth floor apartment, as court employees came to evict her. This comes two weeks after police found a man dead in his apartment as they went in to evict him from his home after repossession.

And—but, you know, the movement to stop these evictions and repossessions has been working very hard on this for almost two years, and this is just the watershed. This has been the one situation that has actually forced government and the opposition and banks to come to the table and talk about real reform. Before this, you had these evictions taking place—500 orders every single day—silently. And thanks to the 15M movement—this is—was the Occupy movement in Spain just over a year ago—the platform against evictions was incredibly energized. And so, they have been able to stop hundreds of evictions.

But those are evictions of people who come to them and who say, you know, “My home is being repossessed. I’m facing eviction. Can you help me?” There are a lot of people like Amaia who did not do this, out of perhaps a sense of guilt or embarrassment. And so, her case is really representative and emblematic of what has gone wrong in Spain with, you know, thousands of people being left homeless after repossession and eviction.

DAVID — I was at a conference with the Barcelona Public Health Agency. The meeting got cut short as protests erupted onto the streets of Barcelona. People were outraged at the eviction-suicide of Amaia, at the hardship perpetuated by deep budget cuts under the Rajoy government in Spain.

Case in point — The April 4, 2012 suicide death of retired Greek pharmacist, Dimitris Christoulas, 77, as told by his daughter Emi at his funeral

EMI – You found it unacceptable that they were killing our freedom, our democracy, our dignity. You found it unacceptable as they tightened the harsh noose of economic austerity and apartheid around us, to the unacceptable act of surrendering our independence and the keys to the country. It was unacceptable to you that Greece did not acknowledge its children and its children did not recognize their own country. You found the bestiality of capitalism unacceptable, that it infiltrated our lives and no one tried to stop it. Then, you made your decision to become the fear, the death, the memory, the sorrow of our ruined lives.

Case in point – Iceland’s call for public vote on austerity resulted in very different outcome

DR. SANJAY BASU – Now, Greece and Iceland are very different socially, politically and economically, but Iceland serves as a nice case in point right now. They had faced a debt at 800 percent of GDP, the largest banking crisis in history compared to the size of the economy. All three major banks failed. And they had invested, of course, in U.S. mortgage-backed securities. After this, the Iceland politicians decided to do something truly unique as compared to the rest of Europe. They actually put the austerity plan to a public vote. And the public voted that instead of paying off bankers’ debts immediately through public cuts, they would instead do it gradually. They would still bail out their banks, but over the course of time and with great pace towards preserving their social safety net. And indeed what Iceland ended up doing was maintaining some of the healthiest standards in the world and the highest level of happiness.

Icelandic Parliamentarian Birgitta Jónsdóttir says the people wanted to “slash down” the IMF

[Source: Birgitta Jónsdóttir on Criminalization of Cyber-Activists, Bradley Manning & Iceland’s Pirate Party (Pt. 2), Democracy Now, April 8, 2013]

BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR – Actually, everybody has the same access to health and education. So even I, as an MP, ended up in a hospital in November, and I got exactly the same treatment as the woman working in the factory or in McDonald’s or Domino’s. And I like that. I love that. I think that is so important. And so, we pay just about the same amount of taxes as U.S. taxpayers. We don’t have to live in this insurance jungle. So we just, you know—and that was actually one of the first things they wanted to slash down, the IMF—no surprise.

Governments that chose economic stimulus early on in a recession did better than those that choose austerity 

DR. BASU – She [Birgitta] highlights one of the key issues here…that stimulus early on does not actually produce higher, longer-term debts, but it generates the revenue and the building of the economic cycle that allows us to pay off those longer-term debts. By contrast, these short-term cuts end up so slowing the economic cycle that we find both economic and public health devastation as a result.

Case in point — Sweden gave priority to addressing unemployment thus preventing a mental health crisis

DAVID – Sweden faced a large banking crisis. Unemployment jumped by more than 10 percentage points. And yet suicides fell steadily. What we learned is that when politicians managed the consequences of unemployment well, they were able to prevent a mental health crisis. The specific programs we found are called active labor market programs. These help the newly unemployed link to caseworkers, develop an action plan and return into jobs. They treat unemployment like the pandemic it is. It not only saves money on healthcare bills, but even pays for itself by helping spur economic recovery.

DR. BASU – What we have found in our research is that these suicide rate spikes seem to correspond quite closely to state-level unemployment rates….We find that it’s the new unemployment that seems to trigger new onset of depression and suicide, particularly among our most vulnerable, adults over 50, who, when they lose a job, are often discriminated against or have a very hard time finding new work. There’s a great deal of shame, and also it’s quite hard for our healthcare system to access those individuals, given the degree of barriers that they have, social barriers, to accessing mental healthcare.

Case in point – New York cuts to TB prevention program in 1990s taught them that austerity in health care is a false economy

DAVID – Austerity in health is a false economy. The cliché, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, is really true. New York City officials learned this the hard way in the early 1990s, when they cut TB prevention programs by $120 million but ended up with a drug-resistant TB outbreak that cost more than $1.2 billion to control. What we found is that smart investments in public health can have a return on investment, for each dollar, of up to $3.

Why do Americans pay so much more for health care and get so much less? Big Pharma here drives their profits up by delivering “inequality” disguised as “choice”

DR. BASU – I’m not a politician and—but I do analyze data. And I think, in looking comparatively among OECD countries, you see a lot of false claims about the U.S. health system. Why is it that we cost so much more and seem to be getting less? I think comparing our country to other OECD nations, European, Japan, Australia and so forth, and you can see a lot of the myths by just looking at the data.

So, what are the theories? The theory is, for example, maybe it’s just American obesity. Well, actually, the costs started well before American obesity and don’t seem to correspond actually statistically to obesity. Maybe it’s that we have an older population, but not so. Switzerland actually pays more in nursing home care. Japan has an older population, yet they still pay less while getting more in terms of health. Maybe it’s just technology. We do a lot of research and development. But, in fact, if you look at the Securities and Exchange Commission data, the R&D pharmaceutical industry, while they make a higher percent profit as a percentage of revenue than any other Fortune 500 industry at the moment, they actually spend almost double on marketing as compared to research and development. And while we do use more technology and we do tend to have some higher costs from technology, it doesn’t actually explain the majority of the bundle.

In fact, the healthcare industry in the US is a classic example of “market failure”

What you do see, on the other hand, if you just look at the raw data, is that we get more—we get more incentives to test the people who are covered, in order to bill more. And there’s a lot of companies making quite a bit of money on that margin. You can go to one hospital across town and be charged double or more of what another hospital has on a different side of town. But it’s not like a consumer market. If I’m in a car accident, I can’t say to the surgeon, “Hold my hand there for a moment before sewing it back on. I’m just going to go across town and compare prices for a minute.”

So healthcare is a different kind of industry, in which we have what is classically called “market failure” by the Nobel Prize winner Kenneth Arrow back in the ’60s, but people ignored his work. I think what we really have is a system where we confuse inequality with choice. The majority of our costs come from common conditions in a small number of patients who have complications of diabetes, heart failure, hypertension. And we need more primary care prevention rather than paying for the ICU care.

Placing people and their health care at the center of economic recovery speeds up the recovery process

DAVID – Investing in public health is a wise choice in good times and an urgent necessity in the worst of times. Had austerity been organized like a clinical trial, it would have been discontinued, given evidence of its deadly side effects. There is an alternative choice that we found in the historical data and through the present recessions, that when we place people and their health at the center of economic recovery, it can help get our economy back on track faster and yield lasting dividends to our society.

Case in point – In California, budget cuts led to closing of public system laboratories after labs had discovered the cause of a local West Nile outbreak

DR. BASU – Down in Bakersfield in California, there was a suspicion about why crows were dropping from the sky and people were also showing up in hospitals. A variety of theories were posited, ranging from polio to heat stroke, but in fact it amounted to a West Nile outbreak that, through a number of our colleagues’ research, it was found that the abandoned and foreclosed homes had stagnant water in old swimming pools and in other locations that were breeding mosquitoes. And this led to a rather large West Nile outbreak. Indeed, the reason why it was discovered was something called the California Encephalitis Project, a group of public system laboratories that work in concert with the CDC. And ironically, after helping to control that outbreak, they were closed due to budget cuts.

Case in point – In Greece, drug users became more self-destructive after cuts to drug prevention programs

DAVID – This is a devastating situation we’re seeing in Greece with a drug crisis escalating at a time when drug prevention budgets are being cut. With gaping holes in social safety nets from austerity, people are becoming desperate, turning to the means of self-harm. We’ve seen drug use and infected needles spread HIV, creating rise of more than 200 percent, leading to an epicenter of HIV/AIDS spread in Europe.

What we’re learning is that recessions can hurt, but austerity kills

What we can learn from these mistakes, and areas where we see successes in policy, is that recessions can hurt, but austerity kills. When politicians make smart choices to protect people during hard times, it doesn’t happen at expense of recovery but can help put our societies back on track to a happier, healthier future.

Cuts to healthcare in the US risk causing repeat of disasters occurring in Europe

Currently, we’re facing and implementing a large sequester in the U.S. While it’s too early to see the full health consequences, what we are seeing is the Women, Infants, Children’s health program, which provides nutritional subsidies to women, will be forced to reduce those subsidies from 600,000 pregnant women. And that program has been linked to reducing infant mortality. We’re also seeing large cuts to public housing budgets at a time when 1.4 million homes are still in foreclosure. We are concerned that, if done rapidly and indiscriminately, that budget cuts in the U.S. could create a repeat of the disasters that we’re seeing in Europe.

Not only has austerity failed it has proved to be “quite deadly” — We should first have done whatever protects people most

DR. BASU – You know, coming from the public health field, we have something called the “precautionary principle,” which is that when an idea or policy is controversial, we should first do whatever protects people the most. And what we’re doing is entirely the opposite. We’ve essentially had a massive untested experiment. That experiment has failed, and it sounds like it’s quite deadly, given all the data through history.

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