Three public health experts have published research that sets out to examine whether quick-fire privatization leads to more male deaths, but ends up making grand economic claims that are far beyond the expertise of the authors.
David Stuckler, Lawrence King and Martin McKee say in a study published on 15 January in The Lancet that mass privatization in the former Soviet Union and its allies in East Europe in the early 1990s led to a surge in male deaths. They then go on to say that countries such as India, China and Iraq should learn these lessons and remember how “radical economic reforms affect ordinary people and, in some cases, cost them their lives”.
There is little doubt that Russia’s dramatic but botched economic reforms programme immediately after the collapse of the Soviet empire led to huge human suffering. Job losses and a shrinking economy pushed up stress levels as well as alcoholism. But a lot of the agony and dislocation of those years can also be linked to political chaos, the loss of superpower status and oligarchic loot. Pinning the blame on one part of the story is unconvincing.
Rampant alcoholism was also a problem that started in the last years of communist rule. Mikhail Gorbachev had already started an anti-alcohol campaign in 1985, though the problem became worse in the Boris Yeltsin years, when there were reports of Russians guzzling aftershaves and medical tinctures.
Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition, writes in a book titled The World Is Fat that Soviet planners promoted fatty diets rich in red meat that affected public health.
Shock therapy was applied to Russia at a time when its only political institution—the communist party—had collapsed. There was a social vacuum. The three authors of the Oxford study themselves point out that if at least 45% of a country’s population were members of at least one social organization, such as a church or trade union, they were better protected from the economic shocks.
The painful transition from communism to capitalism during the 1990s in Russia was a tragic one. But it offers few lessons for relatively stable and dynamic countries such as India and China.
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