Why Austerity Kills is the subtitle of a new book – The Body Economic, by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, published by Allen Lane. Written from the perspective of experts in Public Health, they mount a persuasive case that recession itself is not necessarily bad for health. What matters is the political response.diphtheria

In brief, where there’s a New Deal type of response—investment in health, housing, and social security—people don’t die sooner. Where the response is austerity, the death rates (and other negative indicators) go up.

Moreover, a New Deal response leads to quicker economic recovery; austerity impedes recovery.

The book examines contrasting cases in depth: those US states which rejected New Deal policies versus those that didn’t; the Asian Tiger countries which accepted IMF austerity after their 1997 crash, as against Malaysia, which didn’t; likewise, more recently, Greece compared to Iceland and the US compared to the UK.

Faced with the results of its banking crisis, what did Iceland do? It held a referendum on whether to apply austerity or not. Democracy said “Not!”. Iceland increased health spending and social protection, so that government expenditure was about 10% above pre-crisis levels. By 2012 the economy was growing by 3% and unemployment was below 5%. There was no dramatic increase in health problems. And inequality diminished.

In Greece, as a result of austerity, drug use has rocketed, and the needle exchange programme has been slashed. Consequence: a huge rise in HIV infection. Austerity has put an end to insecticide spraying of mosquitos: result—outbreaks of malaria (the first since 1970) and West Nile virus (killing 62 people).

The lessons of this gripping book are clear. And they are firmly based in ‘quantitative data historical cases, personal narratives, and sociological and clinically informed analyses.’

This Tory LibDem coalition is unlikely to take them on board. It’s up to the Labour Party to pay them the serious attention they deserve.

David Salinger (Headingley)

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