Austerity is bad for your health


Austerity is bad for your health. That is the warning from a team of public health experts based in Britain, who have studied European health statistics since the global financial crisis started in 2007.

Since then, governments have responded either by spending lots more money on their economies, or lots less: so-called stimulus programmes, versus austerity.

Now there is evidence that in countries that went with austerity, suicide rates are soaring. Moreover, other health threats are looming, as health care systems wither under austerity regimes. Malaria might even re-invade Europe.


Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, David Stuckler of Oxford University, and colleagues study the impact of economic policies onhealth. Stuckler found in 2009 that economic depressions cause suicide and murder rates to soar.

The team have now extended that analysis to the impact of austerity In Europe. In an analysis published in August in the research journal Clinical Medicine, they explain that since 2007, some governments have invested in industries to maintain jobs and consumer spending, keeping economies turning over despite the risk of inflation.

Others, the team says, have blamed expensive welfare states – rather than deregulation of banks – for their problems, and therefore cut government spending, despite soaring unemployment.

The European Union has favoured austerity. Until 2007, suicide rates in the EU had been falling slowly since 2000.
Using data from the World Health Organisation, McKee and colleagues found that in the twelve western countries that have been in the EU since 1993, the suicide decline reversed sharply in 2007.

By 2009 suicide rates had increased by some 13 per cent.

No more recent statistics are available, as health data take years to be collected – “in marked contrast,” the researchers observe, to financial and economic data. But similar data from the US, which rejected austerity, shows a slightly rising suicide rate since 2000 – but no sharp upturn in 2007, despite similar struggles with economic crisis and unemployment.

In fact, research on economic fluctuations in western Europe over the past three decades, they say, shows countries with strong systems of social protection were able to maintain long-term declines in suicide rates despite rapid increases in unemployment.

“In general, suicides rise in recessions,” McKee told Equal Times. “But the rise is attenuated - or even abolished - where there are strong social protection schemes and, especially, active labour market programmes to give people hope they will get back into work.”

That means such things as youth training, rapid information exchanges on job vacancies and support for disabled workers. These are precisely the programmes now being cut under austerity policies.

Little data is yet available on other effects of austerity on health. But the team documents worrying declines in government support for health care systems in the southern EU countries most affected, Greece, Spain and Italy.

This means, they predict, that people suffering from chronic disorders such as diabetes and heart disease – conditions which are increasing explosively worldwide – will inevitably get less medical care, meaning more illness and death.

Meanwhile, these southern countries are gateways between Europe, with its relatively low rates of infectious disease, and Asia and Africa, with higher rates.

Greece especially is a front line for multiple health threats, including a resurgence of malaria. Its public health agency normally watches for invading infections and quells outbreaks, but with a falling budget, may not be able to.