The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills

Body Economic Pic

By David Stuckler, MPH, PhD, and Sanjay Basu, MD, PhD (New York: Basic Books 2013)

This is another book I picked up in the £3 bookshop in Bristol’s Park Street the other day. Written by two American health researchers, it examines the way economic recessions and austerity affect people’s health from the Great Recession of the 1930s, the Fall of Communism, Greece and Iceland, and today’s recession, which began with the banking collapse in 2008. The authors are medical researchers, whose own experience of poverty and ill health has led them to examine its effect on entire societies. They conclude that while recessions often lead to high – frequently devastatingly high outbreaks of disease and mortality, what is really crucial is the state’s handling of them. In countries which have a strong welfare state, and are determined to invest into getting their citizens back into work, such as Denmark in the 1990s, public health may actually improve. And as public health improves, the economy begins to pick up. In countries where the opposite is true – where the state just cuts, and is intent on dismantling the welfare infrastructure, like Greece and Cameron’s (and May’s) Britain, the result is higher disease and mortality.

As well as giving the impersonal stats, they also illustrate the damaging effects of austerity on public health through personal case studies. These include ‘Olivia’, a little girl, who suffered terrible burns when her unemployed father tried to burn their house down in a drunken rage, and an elderly Greek man, Dimitris Christoulas. Unable to see any way out of his poverty, he publicly shot himself outside the Greek parliament building.

One of the victims of austerity mentioned in the very first pages of the book is Brian McArdle, a severely disabled man, who was nevertheless declared ‘fit for work by ATOS. Basu and Stuckler write

‘”I will never forgive them,” wrote thirteen-year-old Kieran McArdle to the Daily Record, a national newspaper based in Glasgow. “I won’t be able to come to terms with my dad’s death until I get justice for him.”

Kieran’s father, fifty-seven-year-old Brian, had worked as a security guard in Lanarkshire, near Glasgow. The day after Christmas 2011, Brian had a stroke, which left him paralyzed on his left side, blind in one eye, and unable to speak. He could no longer continue working to support his family, so he signed up for disability income from the British government.

That government, in the hands of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron since the 2010 elections, would prove no friend to the McArdles. Cameron claimed that hundreds of thousands of Britons were cheating the government’s disability system. The Department for Work and Pensions begged to differ. It estimated that less than 1 percent of disability benefit funds went to people who were not genuinely disabled.

Still, Cameron proceeded to cut billions of pounds from welfare benefits including support for the disabled. To try to meet Cameron’s targets, the Department for Work and Pensions hired Atos, a private French “systems integration” firm. Atos billed the government £400 million to carry out medical evaluations of people receiving disability benefits.

Kieran’s father was scheduled for an appointment to complete Atos’ battery of “fitness for work” tests. He was nervous. Since his stroke, he had trouble walking, and was worried about how his motorized wheelchair would get up the stairs to his appointment, as he had learned that about a quarter of Atos’s disability evaluations took place in buildings that were not wheelchair accessible. “Even though my dad had another stroke just days before his assessment, he was determined to go,” said Kieran. “He tried his best to walk and talk because he was a very proud man.”

Brian did manage to reach Atos’s evaluation site, and after the evaluation, made his way home. A few weeks later, his family received a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions. The family’s Employment and Support Allowance benefits were being stopped. Atos had found Brian “fit for work”. The next day he collapsed and died.

It was hard for us, as public health researchers, to understand the government’s position. The Department for Work and Pensions, after all, considered cheating a relative minor issue. The total sum of disability fraud for “conditions of entitlement” was £2 million, far less than the contract to hire Atos, and the department estimated that greater harm resulted from the accidental underpayment of £70 million each year. But the government’s fiscal ideology had created the impetus for radical cuts. (Pp. 3-4).

I don’t know whether Mr McArdle was one of those, whose deaths has been commemorated by Stilloaks on his blog, or whether his case was one of those which Cameron and aIDS laughed at when they were read out in parliament. But is notable that such cases are coming to the attention of health researchers and medical doctors, and are a cause of serious academic and medical concern.

Stilloaks, Mike, DPAC, the Angry Yorkshireman and very many other disability activists have covered individual cases, and the way the ‘fitness for work’ tests have been fiddled by Atos and now their successors, Maximus, in order to provide the pretext for throwing the vulnerable off benefits. Mike’s called it ‘Chequebook Genocide’. Jeff3, one of the great long-term commenters on this blog, refers to it as the Tories’ Aktion T4 – the Nazi’s extermination of the disabled during the Third Reich. There have been about 490 cases in which people have died of starvation, neglect and despair thanks to be thrown off welfare. And according to mental health profession, about 290,000 or so people have seen their mental health deteriorate – sometimes very severely – due to the stress of these tests.

Books like this show how counterproductive such austerity policies are, as well as their purely destructive effects on human life. But this will not be heeded by the Tories, nor by the baying, right-wing rabble who blindly follow them. They want to grind the poor even further into the dirt, to create an impoverished, desperate working class willing to take on any kind of work, no matter how low-paid, not-paid – think of all the unpaid ‘internships’ – and degrading. All so they cut taxes and give more power to the rich, the bankers, big business and particularly the hedge funds and vulture capitalists.

And so the many are killed, all for the privileged few represented by Theresa May.

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9 Responses to “The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills”

  1. Florence Says:

    I’m so very jealous of your second hand bookshops! Nothing like that here even in a 50 me radius. As one who spent part of my childhood living in a secondhand bookshop (well the business and accommodation over) it’s my idea of heaven. But your choice of book today is a real steal. It’s obviously a cast iron researched work that shows the true cost of austerity, and with govt in the hands of the far right I guess that they think it is a price worth paying, in the ruined lives and deaths of the vulnerable. I think Jeff3 is indeed on the money with likening the cuts on the vulnerable as Aktion T4 in a modern context, with the true extent of Social Darwinism in the political upper classes now barely concealed. The UN report on the Human Rights abuses seems strangely puzzled in its tone and suggested solutions. It actually seems to be unable to grasp the real problem, that the govt hasn’t blundered and will want to correct the problems, but these are actually the effects of a deliberate policy of harm. Sadly, this seems to a book that should be required reading for us all, and not in a 2nd hand book shop. Grimly fascinating, I may have to find a copy too. Very good choice indeed.

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks for the appreciation, Florence. 🙂 It’s a very good book indeed, and there are a few more I’ve found in our local branch of Waterstones. I’m sorry you don’t have any good secondhand bookshops near you. I think Bristol’s lucky, as it’s a university town, while Cheltenham benefits from having the Literary Festival. The Festival was started, I believe, by Alan Hancox, who used to run Alan Hancox fine books, a secondhand bookshop, at the bottom of the Promenade. As for the UN report, my guess is that their confused attitude may well be due to being taken in by all the government’s assurances that the mean the best, even when they’re killing people. One of the quotes later in the book, when it deals with Britain, is from an unnamed minister, who stated that deaths caused by austerity ‘will be worth it, if it ends the depression’. Quite honestly, when faced with odious remarks like that, I wish the journos would name the minister, so he could get the abuse he – or she – richly deserves.

      • Florence Says:

        Choosing to live in a fairly isolated place does have its downside! But many positives, too. I agree that ministers should not be allowed the privilege of remaining nameless when cheerily discussing the avoidable deaths of our vulnerable, who are also our relatives and friends and members of our communities. I think the UN report is simply unable to cope with the implications of government that is knowingly backsliding in human rights.

      • joanna Says:

        What really was the point of the UN doing their investigation in the first place? They didn’t have any clout before the referendum, they will have even less now! It is all very depressing! I like reading, but I don’t think I would enjoy reading the book, because nothing is ever going to be done about it! Especially with all the fighting in the labour party, there is no longer a worthy opposition to fight for us, all we have now are self-serving prats who want to get rid of the only person who could get us out of this mire! Jeremy Corbyn is the best leader ever, but I am afraid he too will buckle in time (and not long)!

      • beastrabban Says:

        Hi Jo. I know what you mean about some books on the subject of austerity being difficult to read. I do feel annoyed and depressed reading many books on the state of British society and politics. NHS: SOS – the book on the privatisation of the health service – left me in a state of boiling fury. But I read them and publicise them, because if they’re ignored, then the Tories and Blairites have won another victory. They’d like everyone to believe that neoliberalism is the only economic doctrine. Maggie Thatcher used to chant ‘TINA’, meaning There Is No Alternative. The fact is, there is an alternative, and neoliberal economics is dying. Hence the bitter in-fighting in the Labour party, and the desperate attempts by the right to cling on to power elsewhere in the world.

        Regarding the fighting in the Labour party – the struggle isn’t over yet, whatever the Chicken Coup want to tell us. So nil desperandum, Jo. Keep your chin up and don’t let the b*stards grind you down.:)

  2. joanna Says:

    I’m sorry Beastie, I am feeling a little overwhelmed today, I am waiting for a telephone appointment with my solicitor, and I am having a depressing feeling that they can’t do anything for me! I didn’t mean to sound defeatist!

    A friend said that it is not a stretch to say, we might have a civil war brewing in the UK, I can’t see it, but then I couldn’t see most of of the really awful things that have happened, but then for some reason, I used to believe in justice, natural or otherwise, now I know it is just an illusion!

    • beastrabban Says:

      I’m sorry to hear your feeling so down, Jo. I hope you did get your call from the solicitor, and he has managed to do something for you. The current situation also depresses and enrages me, but I can’t see a civil war breaking out over it. Nor do it I think it would necessarily solve anything, except give the establishment even more of an excuse to take our freedoms away. So there’s nothing for it, but to carry on campaigning in the hope that someday, enough people take notice to make a difference.

    • beastrabban Says:

      Jo, I don’t think just is an illusion. I think it’s an objective moral value, as real as other abstract concepts like love, hate, beauty and so on. Ideas about justice differ from society to society and person to person, but that does not mean that justice doesn’t exist, or is somehow illusory. Justice exists, and there are just and fair people. It’s only a matter of empowering them.

  3. joanna Says:

    Thanks Beast but I feel like I come from a different world, when I was a child I was treated like scum, even though I hadn’t done anything wrong to be where I was. Because I didn’t get a police record (which isn’t common) I was ignored, but the children who committed crimes, got taken on holidays and got computer games. It wasn’t the fact they got material things, but that they were being rewarded for bad behavior I on the other hand lost my education because a deputy head said to me that I was a freak, I had been in care since I was years.

    I am now trying to regain an education but I have been told that I have to get into a world of debt, also I’m not sure the rules of the benefit I am on will allow me to obtain a student loan. Catch 22 isn’t justice, I would never dream of hurting anyone, all I ever dream of is getting a job, contributing to society and most of all, to feel like I belong, somewhere!!!

    By the way the solicitor can’t do anything, the police are refusing to hand over the video interview they did, and there is no proof.

    You have made me feel a little better Beast! Thank you!

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