Edward Davies: Cuts, pensions, and perspective

Edward DaviesWalking to the NHS Alliance’s annual conference through Manchester this morning, the streets were peppered with small pickets. University staff, civil servants, transport workers, all sorts of folk objecting to public sector cuts in general and in particular to their potentially diminished pensions.

One chap thrust a leaflet at me deploring the effect that cuts would have on his university’s provision and told me of the need to “fight for our lives.”

When I arrived at the conference there was a lot of talk about efficiency savings and the Nicholson Challenge – the £20billion savings demanded of the NHS. Off the back of George Osborne’s pronouncements yesterday it was all pretty depressing stuff.

And then the conference started and after a barnstorming opening from the chair, up stepped Marc DuBois, Executive Director of Medicins Sans Frontieres.

When economies stumble so does our charity. And MSF is not currently making “efficiency savings” or demanding more of its workers, it’s simply dropping tens of millions of pounds worth of its work completely. Between stories of treating malnourishment and the difficulty of giving mouth to mouth resuscitation to a newborn, DuBois casually mentioned that they were stopping their work in Columbia. Its rural support, water, and sanitation programmes will go.

That’s not a hiked pension, a long waiting list, or even a “squeezed middle.” That’s thousands of people losing basic healthcare. Dubois talked of the literal “blood on the floor” that their budget cuts will cause on the front line.

People don’t strike lightly and there is genuine, justified concern in the UK right now. But contrary to what the university worker at the picket would have me believe, we are not fighting for our lives. Those who benefit from the work of groups like MSF quite literally are. When we hear complaints that the public sector is paying for crimes of the banks, how much more are they paying in the developing world right now?

Some people will face some short term hardship by striking today but if every employer or striker gave that day’s wage to MSF it would meet their funding shortfall for years to come. It would support treatment of hundreds of thousands with HIV AIDS, it would assist in tens of thousands of births across developing nations.

It’s always a bit simplistic to hold up living standards in the developing world to those of the UK, and I wouldn’t want to belittle people’s very real fears here, but MSF’s situation was a very timely reminder to keep our own problems in perspective. While I may have to work a year longer for my pension, elsewhere in the world people are dropping down dead because of budget cuts.

Edward Davies is editor, BMJ Careers