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Are There Health Effects Due to the Financial Crisis?

In general, health and money go together, and there is no population known to me in which the poorer are healthier than the rich.

A short article in The Lancet titled "Health Effects of Financial Crisis: Omens of a Greek Tragedy" deals with the health consequences of the implosion of the Greek economy. Of course, many of the article’s statistics come from Greek official sources, whose dishonest manipulations were, in part, responsible for causing the economic crisis in the first place; but the authors of the article themselves were from such institutions as the University of Cambridge, the London School of Tropical Medicine, the London School of Economics, and the University of California at San Francisco.

It appears that fewer Greeks are now consulting doctors even when they feel that they need to do so. The article says:

Since Greece’s universal health-care system entitles citizens and those with social insurance to visit general practitioners free of charge, these noted reductions in access probably reflect supply-side problems… there were… occasional shortages of medical supplies, and bribes given to medical staff to jump queues in overstretched hospitals.

However, bribery of Greek doctors to provide the services they are paid by the state to provide is nothing new; it existed well before the crisis, whose main effect has been to make the bribes more difficult for patients to pay.

Be that as it may, admissions to public hospitals in 2010 compared with 2009 increased by 24 percent while those to private hospitals declined by 25-30 percent. Absolute figures were not give in the article, so it is impossible to say from this whether more or fewer people ended up in hospital. But in any case, less access to health care is not the same thing as declining health.

In order to prove that "health outcomes have worsened" the authors did not take the infant mortality rate or the overall life expectancy, but rather the suicide rate (up 17 percent between 2007 and 2009). The authors say that "the inability to repay high levels of personal debt might be a key factor in the increase in suicides"; but only by a very highly, almost totalitarian, definition of health could such an inability to repay be deemed a medical condition which it is the province of doctors to treat.

There has also been an increase in HIV infections, half of them brought about by intravenous heroin abuse, which itself rose by 20 percent in 2009:

The latest data suggest that new infections will rise by 52% in 2011 compared with 2010 (922 cases versus 605).

According to the article, there were reports of people deliberately infecting themselves with HIV in order to receive the monthly benefit of 700 euros. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the possibility, the pros and cons, of withdrawing this perverse incentive is not discussed in the article.

The article ends:

Overall, the picture of health in Greece… reminds us that, in an effort to finance debts, ordinary people are paying the ultimate price: losing access to care and preventive services, facing higher risks of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, and in the worst cases losing their lives. Greater attention to health and health-care access is needed to ensure that the Greek crisis does not undermine the ultimate source of the country’s wealth -- its people.

This surely is meant to imply that "ordinary" people, the 99 percent, are now unfairly having to pay back debts that they were in no way responsible for having incurred, and from which they did not benefit. But people engaged on 600 occupations in Greece were allowed to retire on generous pensions at the age of 50, with life expectancies of 80+; two thirds of doctors did not pay tax, however large their incomes. No doubt some benefited much more than others from the general state of dishonesty in which the country lived for a long time; but that is not the same as saying that the ordinariness of ordinary people rendered them ipso facto guiltless. It is perfectly possible that the people were not the wealth of the country, but its poverty.