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Austerity Kills: Crippling Economic Policies Causing Global Health Crisis

Economist David Stuckler and physician Sanjay Basu examine the health impacts of austerity across the globe in their new book.

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Amy Goodman: David Stuckler, you were in Spain when Amaia killed herself.

David Stuckler: 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.

Amy Goodman: On April 4, 2012, a 77-year-old retired Greek pharmacist named Dimitris Christoulas shot and killed himself near the Greek Parliament after writing a note that blamed his suicide on the economic crisis. His daughter Emi spoke at his funeral and said his act had been deeply political.

Emi Christoulas: [translated] 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.

Amy Goodman: Sanjay Basu, you have found more than 10,000 additional suicides and up to a million extra cases of depression across Europe and the United States. Since when? How did you come up with these figures?

Dr. Sanjay Basu: Right. One of the major questions we asked here: Is this inevitable during a recession? Recessions are bad times. Could this just be the recession’s effects as opposed to austerity’s effects? And so, what we did is used so-called natural experiments. We compared regions and countries since the beginning of the recession, and even beforehand, to control for people’s pre-existing conditions, pre-existing mental health and alcoholism and so forth, and also compared areas that faced the same economic shock but had different policy responses. And looking at those as comparative cases, we could find that, in fact, during recessions, inevitably suicides or alcoholism didn’t increase, but rather, it was after austerity, in particular. And controlling for other factors that could statistically explain this, austerity consistently came up as a key trigger not just for suicides, but for alcohol, stress-related heart attacks and other major causes of death.

Amy Goodman: Now, this is the key point here, is the difference—I mean, people can say, "Well, hard times lead to, you know, very painful decisions that people make."

Dr. Sanjay Basu: Mm-hmm.

Amy Goodman: But that you’re saying that even in equally difficult situations, when countries opt for another solution, the public health of that community changes.

Dr. Sanjay Basu: Correct. We can look, for example, at Iceland as a contrast. 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.

Amy Goodman: When their banks failed, their three top banks failed.

Dr. Sanjay Basu: Correct, 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.

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