Mon, May 20, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Austerity measures take their toll on public health

There’s a simple way to demonstrate that the way governments deal with the economic crisis has a direct effect on public health: Examine fluctuations in suicide rates. Economist and public health expert David Stuckler believes the facts speak for themselves

By Jon Henley  /  The Guardian, LONDON

The UK is “one of the clearest expressions of how austerity kills,” he says.

Suicides were falling in this country before the recession, he adds.

Then, coinciding with a surge in unemployment, they spiked in 2008 and 2009. As unemployment dipped again in 2009 and 2010, so too did suicides. However, since the election and the coalition government’s introduction of austerity measures — and particularly cuts in public sector jobs across the country — suicides are back.

The British Department of Health does not acknowledge this, Stuckler says, because it prefers to use three-year rolling averages that even out annual fluctuations.

However, based on the actual data, he is in no doubt.

“We’ve seen a second wave — of austerity suicides,” he says. “And they’ve been concentrated in the north and northeast, places like Yorkshire and Humber, with large rises in unemployment. Whereas London ... We’re now seeing polarization across the UK in mental-health issues.”

He cites the dire impact on homelessness — falling in Britain until 2010 — of government cuts to social housing budgets, and the human tragedies triggered by the fitness-for-work evaluations, designed to weed out disability benefit fraud.

“What’s so particularly tragic about those is that the government’s own estimates of fraud by persons with disabilities is less than the sum of the contract awarded to the company carrying out the tests,” he says.

At least, though, no one in the UK has been denied access to healthcare — yet. Stuckler confesses to being “heartbroken” as what he sees happening to the Nation Health Service (NHS).

“Britain stood out as the great protector of its people’s health in this recession,” he says. “By all measures — public satisfaction, quality, access — the UK was at or near the top, and at very low relative cost.”

However, that, he says, is now changing.

“I don’t know if people quite realize how fundamental this government’s transformation of the NHS is,” he says. “And once it’s in place, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. We haven’t yet seen here what can happen when people are denied access to healthcare, but the US system gives us a pretty clear warning.”

He finds this all in stark and depressing contrast to the post-World War II period, when Britain’s debt was more than 200 percent of GDP (far higher than any European country’s today, bar Iceland) and the country’s leaders responded not by cutting spending but by founding the welfare state — “paving the way, incidentally, for decades of prosperity. And within 10 years, debt had halved.”

The Body Economic should come as a broadside, morally armor-plated and data-reinforced.

The austerity debate is “a public discussion that needs to be held. Politicians talk endlessly about debts and deficits, but without regard to the human cost of their decisions,” Stuckler says.

What its authors hope is that politicians will take the message they have uncovered in the data seriously, and start basing policy on evidence rather than ideology. (Some already do. When Stuckler and Basu presented some of their findings in the Swedish parliament, the MPs’ response was: “Why are you telling us this? We know it. It’s why we set up these programs.” Others, notably in Greece, have sought to divert responsibility.)

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