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Greece: A Country on the Brink

‘Bailout’, ‘debt contagion’, ‘default’, ‘creditors’ and ‘bond losses’ are the words we probably associate most with Greece of late. The majority of us know Greece’s economy is failing, but the clinical economic terms and percentage points ascribed to its demise do little to ignite any real empathy for its plight.

As Greece’s situation was described in increasingly apocalyptic terms by even the most dauntless of commentators, I began to wonder what the consequences of Greece defaulting (which so terrifies Europe) or Greece exiting the Euro (which the cornered Greeks baulk at) actually are. What happens when a country can’t pay its debts? What happens when a country ‘runs out of money’?  It would appear that the blunt answer is that no-one can say for certain: the unfolding Euro debt contagion is something not quite seen before in economic history.

Unfortunately, in Greece there is already a great deal of evidence as to what happens when a country ‘runs out of money’: health and social care deteriorates rapidly, and those who are poorest are hit hardest and hit first. Since the start of Greece’s recession in 2009, health and social care has been rapidly deteriorating and people are being pushed further and further down the socioeconomic scale. In this post I aim to share the human side to Greece’s economic failing, with articles and information I’ve found which document the plight of its citizens.

An article in The Lancet journal revealed that ‘suicides rose by 17% in 2009 from 2007 and unofficial 2010 data quoted in parliament mention a 25% rise compared with 2009. The Minister of Health reported a 40% rise in the first half of 2011 compared with the same period in 2010.’ It was indicated that over a quarter of the 2010 suicides were as a result of financial difficulties. Historically, recessions result in a rise in crime and Greece is no different. The journal further noted that ‘violence has also risen, and homicide and theft rates nearly doubled between 2007 and 2009.’

One of the most shocking- and visible- results of Greece’s fiscal instability is its rise in homelessness. Citizens who have lost their jobs and homes are literally left with nothing, and are tipped onto the lowest possible rung on the socioeconomic ladder. Athens was once a city of comparatively few homeless people on the streets, but as The Daily Beast reports in an article on Greece’s new homeless,  ‘It is impossible to step out of a metro station, bar, restaurant, or cinema in the city center [sic] and not come across a homeless person…A nongovernmental organization estimates that there has been a 25 percent increase in Greece’s homeless population since 2009.’ The Guardian corroborates these statistics, reporting that ‘some 20,000 people are now living on Greece’s streets, including destitute immigrants and native Greeks.’ In an article as part of their excellent Greece in Crisis coverage, they tell the story of one of these native Greeks, and someone formerly in possession of a job and property who is now homeless:

George Papadopolous, aged 39, is a chef. He bought a flat and – unlike so many in Greece – was fully paid up on his welfare insurance. But in Greece today that can be a curse as much as a blessing. Because of his age, how long he has worked, and his amount of contributions, anyone seeking to employ him now would have to pay a minimum of €1,300 a month. In the current climate no one wants to do that.

Papadopolous couldn’t find work, couldn’t keep up his mortgage repayments, had his house possessed, and a few months later found himself on the streets. This shocking turn of events is fast becoming the norm for many ‘ordinary Greeks’.

Radio 4’s Today programme reported on the situation in Greece’s schools, many of which cannot afford central heating. Considering Greece has just experienced its coldest winter in decades, children who made it into school faced freezing conditions. In further research on schools in Greece I discovered in Guardian’s World News Blog that many children who arrive at school are hungry to the point of fatigue, and teachers have to discreetly cater for them, such as when they partake in P.E. lessons or cannot afford lunch. In one area of Greece, schools collaborate to collect food: ‘[the] 1st primary school gather rice and legumes, 2nd vegetables, 3rd meat and chicken etc’.

Perhaps the most rapidly deteriorating aspect of Greece is its healthcare, and a Reuters article reported that ‘[people] in the Greek capital say the country’s social safety net is fraying, nowhere more so than in the health system’. Once again, new government benefit and entitlement laws mean many Greeks are pushed to the periphery, especially those who are unemployed: ‘Under new austerity measures in Greece, citizens lose their entitlement to state-funded health care after a year of unemployment.’ (npr.org) As a result, many Greeks cannot afford healthcare, and are averse to seeking medical help unless they absolutely need to. There have been nongovernmental healthcare sites set up to help relieve what has been called a ‘deepening humanitarian crisis’ by the World Socialist Website in an article which also quotes a physician at Red Cross Athens: ‘[Greek people] only go to the doctor now when they are seriously ill. When they have something they think is mild, they don’t go to a private doctor. In Greece if you go to a private doctor you have to pay €40 per visit. So when they come here some people are in a very, very bad condition.’

Within the healthcare crisis of Greece is a frightening explosion in the number of HIV cases since it entered recession. The Reuters article states that ‘[in 2009] 11,000 people, or 0.1 percent of the Greek population, had HIV/AIDS, a third the rate in the United States. But that may be changing. In the first five months of 2010, Greece had 255 new HIV cases. Over the same period this year [2011], there were 384 new cases -an increase of more than 50 percent.’ This can be attributed to several unfortunate factors. Firstly, those on the peripheries of society- prostitutes, addicts, criminals- are turning to injecting heroin as opposed to smoking it, to get a bigger hit for their money, which results in a higher proportion of needles being shared. Secondly, because of austerity measures, the number of clean needles the government hands out to drug users is a fraction of what it should be: 3 per drug user per year instead of the WHO-recommended 200 [Reuters ]. Thirdly, antiretroviral medication is only available to those who contribute to social security payments, but once again, those who cannot work to pay towards social security benefits are ineligible for treatment.

HIV is an unimaginably horrific disease, and when I discovered the following fact it made me shudder at the desperate situation in Greece. It’s an extreme case and an extreme minority, but perhaps an example of the extreme situation that is unfolding in Greece at a rapid rate. The Lancet Journal article stated that: ‘An authoritative report described accounts of deliberate self-infection by a few individuals to obtain access to benefits of €700 per month and faster admission onto drug substitution programmes’.  The spread of HIV gives real meaning to the word ‘contagion’, a poignant result of Greece’s own debt contagion.

Sian Boyle

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