Just under two weeks ago, a 77-year-old Greek retiree shot himself outside the building in Syntagma Square where Greece’s parliament meets. In the past six weeks, ten people in Italy, all of whom ran their own businesses, took their lives. Some European newspapers are calling the upsurge “suicide by economic crisis”: The New York Times cites these statistics:
In Greece — where one in five and half of youth are unemployed — the suicide rate among men rose more than 24 percent from 2007 to 2009.
In Ireland, suicides among men rose 15 percent in the third period. In County Cork, 190 people committed suicide from 2008 to March 2011 during the downturn; 40 percent were unemployed and most were men.
In Italy, suicides have risen by 52 percent, to 187 in 2010 from 123 in 2005.
Researchers point to government austerity measures, imposed at a time of recession, as a key culprit. David Stuckler, a sociologist at the University of Cambridge, who was one of the authors of a study published in The Lancet about a significant increase in suicides across Europe, says that “Austerity can turn a crisis into an epidemic.” Unmarried men are most at risk, especially if their family and government support is weak and, says Stuckler, alcohol abuse is often a contributing factor.
In Italy’s industrial northeast, suicides are up 40 percent, especially among self-employed business owners. As the Irish Times says, once upon a time economists “chanted the ‘small is beautiful’ mantra.” Two weeks ago, self-employed builder Giuseppe C left this note for his girlfriend:
‘SWEETHEART, I’M sitting here crying my eyes out. I got up a bit early this morning, I wanted to say bye bye to you, but you were sleeping so soundly, I didn’t want to wake you. Today will be a horrible day. I ask you all to forgive me.’
Then he parked his car in front of the central tax collection office in Bologna in northern Italy and tried to burn himself to death. He was pulled from his car by a Romanian worker and two traffic policemen and died at a hospital a week later. Giuseppe C had an unpaid bill of 105,000 euros and had been summoned for a “technical hearing” at the tax office.
Compounding the feeling of no light at the end of a very dark tunnel is that, in Italy, it is often the government that is behind in paying its debts to businessmen in desperate straits, says the New York Times:
National legislation aimed at curbing public spending has caused state and local administrations to rack up billions of dollars in outstanding bills with creditors, putting a squeeze on many small businesses.
“That is the madness of this crisis, that people kill themselves because they haven’t been paid by public institutions,” said Massimo Nardin, a spokesman for the Padua Chamber of Commerce.
Government agencies in Italy are an average of 180 days late in paying their bills. The public health sector is behind two or three years, “one of the worst records in Europe,” according to Marco Beltrandi, a lawmaker from the Radical Party, who estimates the outstanding credit as between $118.3 billion and $131.5 billion.
In the ancient Roman Republic, Roman citizens could pledge their person as collateral if they could not repay a loan, a practice called nexum. Those who did so lost their libertas (freedom) but were supposed to retain their rights as Roman citizens and not become slaves, who were the res (property) of their masters and could be sold, killed or treated in whatever way their owners wanted. If a paterfamilias, the head of a Roman household, felt into debt, he could offer his son for nexum instead of himself. Nexum was abolished in 313 BCE and the Roman Senate passed the Lex Poetelia Papiria, under which property could be seized as collateral, but not your person.
Hearing about the “suicides by economic crisis” occurring in Italy, Ireland and Greece can make you feel that things haven’t changed so much since the days of nexum.
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Photo by Valerio Pirrera