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Malnutrition, alcoholism and drug usage: The health effects of economic recessions

Effects of economic downturn and resultant unemployment and poverty on mental health are obvious. Severe impact on mental health also impacts stress induced chronic diseases.

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Malnutrition, alcoholism and drug usage: The health effects of economic recessions

India’s economic growth has hit a 6 year low, with GDP at 5 per cent in the first quarter of current financial year (2019-20). A slowdown has impacted sales of most sectors ranging from cars to biscuits impacting lakhs of jobs across sectors. This comes in the wake of leaked NSSO data that showed that unemployment in India in 2017-18 was 6% — 7.8% urban and 5.3% rural joblessness — which makes it a 45-year jobs low for India.

This slowdown is going to have serious consequences for the health of the nation. India is already an extremely malnourished nation. Now food inflation has touched a 33 month high. Greatest impact has been on vegetables followed by pulses, cereals and egg, meat and fish. Poorest are most likely to be hit by high food prices and it will directly impact the nutrition on their plates.

There is global evidence to suggest that in times of recession struggling households resort to poorer quality fatty diets and cheaper calories. This unfortunately means rise in junk food. In fact globally, recessions have seen rise in fast food industries. This may happen in India as well further compounding the rising problem of obesity and cardiovascular diseases.

Data from US recession of 2008-09 also suggests that with unemployment and poverty alcoholism and suicide rates also increased. This trend is worrying for India as alcohol consumption rates gave already doubled in the last 11 years according to WHO Report. Alcohol use leads to deaths due to injuries, traffic accidents, violence, and long term affects on health such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers etc. The great American recession has been linked to high blood pressure and high blood glucose levels in Americans.


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Another industry that booms during recession is tobacco and cigarettes. It has been suggested that rising unemployment has significant positive impact on the number of cigarettes smoked by the daily smokers and increases the probability of binge drinking. Drug use also rises mainly due to greater amount of free time and loss of stable source of income.

Effects of economic downturn and resultant unemployment and poverty on mental health are obvious. Severe impact on mental health also impacts stress induced chronic diseases. A study on American recession notes that losing a job or shutting down of business increased the odds of developing a stress-related condition such as hypertension, arthritis, diabetes or psychiatric disorders, effects of which may linger long term.

Moreover, with loss of jobs and income, people are less willing to seek health screenings of even treatment. In a country like India, where majority of health expenses are out of pocket and for private health care, this will lead to greater complications in health and increase mortality and morbidity. It will be particularly disastrous if economic slowdown impacts public health spending by the government. India’s health budget is already dismal and is declining with budget cuts in NHM and maternal and child health. If public health spending is further reduced it will lead to rise of infectious diseases, vector borne diseases, and greater mortality and morbidity of women and children.

However researchers also note that there is some silver lining. Recessions means people drive less meaning fewer accidents and lower pollution. A country that is already struggling with one of the world’s worst air pollution and associated diseases can benefit from this by promoting better, safer and cheaper public transport.

Economic recession will have great impact on the literal health of the nation. Also the effect is double sided. An unhealthy citizenry is less likely to work well and productively thus having deleterious effect on the economy. A healthy population is not just vital in its own right but also serves as an effective workforce and human capital of the nation.

Swati Saxena is a researcher at a non-profit organisation. She has a PhD in Public Health and Policy from University of London and MPhil in Development Studies from University of Oxford. She tweets at @SwatiSaxena1231

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