'Recession hurts, but austerity kills': How governments' austerity measures are killing us all

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

When social safety nets are lost to reduce deficits, it is the most vulnerable who suffer

On March 28, 2012, Giuseppe Campaniello left for work earlier than usual. He would have kissed his wife goodbye, but she was sleeping so peacefully he decided to let her rest. 

Campaniello then set off for the Equitalia tax office in his hometown of Bologna, Italy. Once there, he doused himself in petrol and set himself alight. He died nine days later in hospital. Campaniello’s cause of death? Economics.

Just days before, he’d received a final notice from the tax office; doubling a fine he reportedly couldn’t pay, which proved to be the final straw.

As tragic as Campaniello’s story is, unfortunately it is not unique. Italy’s detailed system for recording suicides has seen a large rise in the number of death certificates labelled, "due to economic reasons."

In fact, since the global recession began in 2007, there have been some 10,000 suicides across Europe and North America. Whilst no country has been untouched by the crisis, and many have fallen into recession, the impact on populations’ physical and mental health has, curiously, been radically varied.

Iceland saw national debt levels jump to 800 per cent of its gross domestic product -- the highest of any nation in Europe -- but its citizens’ health has actually improved, suicide levels remained constant and Icelanders continually rank themselves as the happiest nation on earth. Greece, on the other hand, has seen a dramatic 60 per cent increase in suicides, a return of malaria and a doubling of HIV infection rates.

The reason for the above conundrum, according to a ground-breaking new book called The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills, is austerity. Authors David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu of Oxford and Stanford Universities, respectively, argue that not only is austerity bad for the economy, it is bad for our health.

Based on a decade of meticulous research, Stuckler and Basu concluded that when governments respond to recession with austerity measures, cutting away at social safety nets in a bid to reduce deficits, they put the most vulnerable society into an even more precarious situation.

Furthermore, they said: "economic shocks such as losing a job or a home can subsequently turn into a health crisis." With their confidence rooted in a decade of detailed research, the authors are blunt -- "recession hurts, but austerity kills."

Since the economic crisis began, the figure of 10,000 suicides is over and above pre-recession trends. In Greece, a sharp austerity agenda has produced dramatic results.

Greece has become the pressure cooker of Europe with high levels of unemployment compounded by a 40 per cent cut to the nation’s health budgets. The crisis is taking its toll on both peoples’ mental and physical health, and the country -- which once had one of the lowest pre-recession suicide rates in Europe -- has seen a dramatic 60 per cent increase.

Furthermore, cuts to insecticide spraying programs in the southern part of the country saw malaria reemerge for the first time in 40 years, and an outbreak of mosquito-borne West Nile Virus in August 2010, killed 62 people.

After six years of recession -- which shows little sign of abating -- widespread poverty, unemployment and a 25 per cent increase in homelessness has driven some Greeks to illegal drugs, such as heroin, as a means of escape.

The country has seen a 200 per cent increase in HIV infection rates, the vast majority a result of more intravenous drug use. At the same time, budgets for needle exchange programs have been slashed. 

The Body Economic includes the story of Dimitris Christoulas, a retired Greek pharmacist. Despite having paid into the system throughout his working life, the Greek government slashed his pension leaving him unable to afford his medication which rendered his life intolerable.

On the morning of April 4, 2012, Christoulas walked up the steps to the Greek Parliament and declared, "I am not committing suicide. They are killing me," before putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger.

Stuckler and Basu assess austerity as if it were part of a clinical trial, stating in the preface that they hope to "inject hard evidence into the debate about austerity -- a debate that has been shaped far more by ideology than facts."

Their scientific approach cuts like a scalpel through propaganda and ideology, which makes their findings all the more compelling.

As Stuckler and Basu point out -- in survey after survey -- people are consistent about what they value most; their health and that of their families. When something this fundamental is threatened by austerity, questions must be raised as to why the policy is still being pursued.


This article appears courtesy of the International Network of Street Papers.

Amy Mackinnon is a graduate of the University of Glasgow and holds an MA in Politics and Russian. In 2012 she was awarded an Amnesty International Media Award for her report on the deportation of a Nigerian assylum seeker from the UK. Since then she has contributed to a number of news outlets as a researcher, editor and writer, including the International Network of Street Papers. In September 2013 she will return to university to pursue a postgraduate degree in Russian and East European Studies. 

related items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.