Business

The human cost of austerity

WHEN a retired chemist called Dimitris Christoulas walked into Syntagma Square in central Athens Wednesday morning with his hunting gun and looked over at his nation's parliament building, he is unlikely to have been aware that 1,900 miles to the north-east, the silence that had befallen a small Victorian terrace house in the town of Bedworth, Warwickshire was a symptom of the same malaise.

Mr Christoulas was typical of the newer, poorer subscribers to monetary union for whom the promise of guaranteed affluence and equality across ancient borders with old enemies such as Germany came as a blessing after a lifetime of toil. But the state that claimed his loyalty was no better, he decided, than the one hijacked by the colonels in their coup d'etat in 1967.

"The government has annihilated all traces for my survival," he wrote in a note found at the scene, "which was based on a dignified pension that I alone paid for 35 years, with no help from the state."

But what the state had not given, it was now taking away: he chose a dramatic end to "fishing about through rubbish dumps for things to eat".

Over in Bedworth, 19 miles from Birmingham, steel shutters over the windows and doors of the end-terrace where Mark and Helen Mullins ended their lives are the only remaining signs of their decision to choose a less painful way out last November. They were hammered into place once the couple's dead bodies had been removed.

Neighbours had seen no comings and goings from the house for some days when police broke in and found them dead, side by side. Their bitter end soon became a symbol of the harsh consequences of the Coalition's cuts.

Mr Mullins had worked as a PT instructor in the army but had left too soon to qualify for a pension. His new wife Helen, 59, suffered from learning difficulties and according to her husband could neither read nor write, which prevented her from finding work.

Her 12-year-old daughter had been taken into care when local social services judged her incapable of looking after her any more, and the couple were said to have lived in fear of them reaching the same conclusion about Helen, and having her sectioned. They spent a lot of time moving from place to place.

Neither had any work, and the only source of money was Mr Mullins's AUD$88.30 per week jobseeker's allowance. Once a week they walked 12 miles into Coventry for the free vegetable handouts from the Salvation Army, and Mark kept a broth going all week with the proceeds.

The suicide of Dmitiris Christoulas, which triggered a new bout of rioting in the Greek capital, threw a spotlight on the fact which European authorities have gone to considerable lengths to obscure as they struggle to come up with ways to get European economies back on an even keel.

As the British researcher David Stuckler has spelt out in a series of shocking reports in The Lancet, suicide rates have risen right across Europe since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, with strict correlation between the intensity of the crisis and the rise in the statistics.

In 2006 he predicted that the new economic crisis would result in "increased suicides among people younger than 66 years".

Two years on the prediction was vindicated: as job losses increased rapidly, to about 37 per cent above the 2007 level in both parts of Europe, "the steady downward turn in suicide rates... reversed at once."

"The 2008 increase was less than 1 per cent in the new member states, but in the old ones it increased by about 7 per cent. In both, suicides increased further in 2009," he reported.

The examples of debt-crisis suicides in Greece and Britain have been replicated across the European Union, with Italy, where the state has imposed effective tax rises after many years of empty threats from Silvio Berlusconi, especially badly hit. The suicide rate for economic reasons has increased by 24.6 per cent between 2008 and 2010, it is reported, while attempted suicides have gone up 20 per cent in the same period.

In recent cases, a 78-year-old pensioner threw herself from her third-floor balcony in Gela, in the south of Sicily, blaming a pension cut from AUD$800 to AUD$600, while last Thursday a young construction worker from Morocco set himself on fire outside Verona's town hall.

The international media's slowness to notice and draw attention to the suicide epidemic reflects state power to present the crisis and its cure in their preferred fashion, but it has long been obvious to many that you cannot simply downsize a state whose rampant growth has been the obsession of half a century of government policy without consequences.

Mr Stuckler finds that suicide and attempted suicide rise in close conformity with economic hardship, with Greece and Ireland suffering the worst increase over the past three years, and with the loss of dignity and the sense of being the prey of newly empowered state agencies exacerbating the pain in Europe's south.

The centre of Bedworth is dominated by the Nicholas Chamberlaine Almshouses, built in Tudor style in 1840 by legatees of Chamberlaine, the local rector and squire for more than 50 years who pacified the area after the English Civil War.

It is becoming clear that such places have not outlived their function.

Topics:  contagion, greece, ireland, opinion, peter popham, sovereign debt crisis


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