The Body Economic

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2013-05-21
  • Publisher: Basic Books

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The economic and social devastation wrought by the recent financial crisis have been well documented, but what about the deeper damage the Great Recession has inflicted--not just on the market and our wallets, but on our bodies and minds? In The Body Economic, pioneering public health experts David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu reveal this hidden dimension of economic turmoil, drawing on their groundbreaking research into medicine, economics, and austerity politics to explore the human cost of downturns, and to show how they--and governments' responses to them--affect public health around the world. As Stuckler and Basu show, the wrong responses to economic downturns can be lethal--and not always in the ways one might expect. To be sure, increases in lay-offs, debt, and poverty can have predictable effects on people's wellbeing; in Greece, for example, the suicide rate rose by 40% in a three-year period following the onset of the recent economic crisis, while in London, heart attacks rose by 2,000 during the market turmoil. But other, more surprising health problems have also spiked. Tuberculosis infections in Greece have recently skyrocketed; austerity measures have led to deep cuts to Greece's housing budget, leaving large swaths of the Greek population homeless and creating the conditions necessary for a tuberculosis epidemic. And in California during the early stages of the foreclosure crisis, the state found itself contending with a major outbreak of the West Nile virus. The neglected pools in the backyards of many repossessed homes had been taken over by algae, making them the perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes carrying the disease. Trends such as these speak to the diverse negative effects that economic decline can have on public health. But equally remarkable are the examples of countries that have stayed healthy, and even gotten healthier, during times of crisis. Iceland, for instance, experienced the 11th worst recession of all time during the recent economic downturn, but emerged happier and healthier than ever thanks to a combination of factors, among them tight regulations on alcohol and a sense of national camaraderie (reinforced, it seems, by longstanding community-building traditions like steam-bathing). Similarly, Japan and Norway reached their highest life expectancy to date in the wake of the financial crisis. Considering case after case of the profound and often unforeseen health effects of economic crises and policymakers' responses, Stuckler and Basu identify patterns that, when taken together, should help leaders more effectively and conscientiously shepherd their societies through such emergencies. Austerity measures, which many governments have adopted in response to the recent financial downturn, are particularly disastrous for public health. Even in the midst of a crisis, the authors argue, politicians need to resist the urge to demolish social spending, and should make decisions based on their likely effects on people's health, not just the drive to drive to improve financial growth. Offering shocking and often counterintuitive revelations about the connections between economics and public health, The Body Economicdraws on an enormous body of cutting-edge research to present a fresh perspective on the most crucial yet neglected aspect of the current financial crisis--and to put forth bold recommendations for preventing widespread suffering now and in the future.

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