Austerity cuts in Greece cause suffering


“Greeks of all walks of life have become increasingly angry at measures they feel only hurt the poorest while tax evaders and corrupt politicians remain unaffected,” reported Reuters on Oct 20.

Tens of thousands of protesters surrounded the parliament building as, inside, ruling socialists and the center right New Democracy party joined for final passage of yet another austerity package aimed at satisfying big bank creditors and preserving euro-zone credibility. They are obeying European Union political leaders in what observers think is a futile attempt to stave off national bankruptcy.

The plan calls for raised taxes, hits against labor rights, removal of more public sector jobs, and public workers’ salary cuts of up to 40 percent. The Greek people are victims of policies, says the Greek Communist Party, that “will lead them and their children to live for decades in the most bleak misery with starvation wages, unemployment, insecurity, without basic rights, in order to protect the profits and interests of the business groups from their crisis.”

Recent data suggestive of present and potential deterioration in the population’s health status suggest this is by no means a wild prediction. An article appearing recently in the British Lancet medical journal ascribes both physical and mental suffering to budgetary cutbacks over three years that have deprived people of essential services.

Between 2008 and May of 2011, the Greek government borrowed $150.4 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other European nations on the condition that spending would be reduced. During that time, unemployment rose from 6.6 percent to 16.6 percent, youth unemployment from 18.6 percent to 40.1 percent percent. Manufacturing fell 8 percent in 2010.

Using European Union statistics, the Lancet authors surveyed socio-demographic data obtained from 12,346 and 15,045 residents of Greece in 2007 and 2009, respectively. Their report leaves out health outcome measures like mortality rates and illness prevalence figures, probably because they are not yet available. It does record a sharp rise in people reporting their health as “bad” or “very bad.” The study attributes a marked rise in HIV infection in 2010 to increased intravenous drug use, prostitution, and weakening of HIV prevention programs.

The survey reveals a big increase in people not using physician, dental, and hospital services. The problems include long waiting times, travel difficulties, and budget cuts affecting both public and private hospitals. Hospital services have deteriorated through staff and supply shortages often remedied only through bribes.

Diminished primary and preventative care services have led to high admission rates to public hospitals, up 24 percent in 2010, 8 percent so far in 2011. That trend relates also to private hospital admissions falling 25 percent in 2010. NGOs have long operated “street clinics” in Greece to serve immigrants, but now Greek citizens now make up 30 percent of users.

Mental health outcome data are available and extremely worrisome. Depression figures are up, and between 2007 and 2009 suicides rose by 17 percent; in 2010, by 25 percent; and in the first half of 2011, 40 percent. Suicide hotlines report that 25 percent of callers speak of serious financial difficulties. Homicide rates doubled between 2007 and 2009.

A report on quotes veteran academician Vassiliki Angelatou: “The thing doesn’t end with salary cuts. It’s the uncertainty of what will happen tomorrow, because each day they tell us something new.” Angelatou’s salary is down almost 50 percent. He’s part of “the silent Greek majority [that] feels an immense anger.”

Rather mildly, the Lancet authors advise, “Greater attention to health and health-care access is needed to ensure that the Greek crisis does not undermine the ultimate source of the country’s wealth-its people.”

This prescription might work in a time of peace, a far cry from present tumult in Greece. There, financial resources are exiting, people’s survival is jeopardized, and long term solutions appear to be a distant dream.

It is no wonder that the message sounded by labor-led general strikers to end payments to banks, to abandon the EU and euro, and to build a people-centered political independence is growing in appeal.

Photo: A man empties out the remains of an olive oil container from a trash bin in Thessaloniki, Greece. Welfare agencies and charity groups have warned of a spike in poverty and homelessness in Greece due to the effects of the financial crisis. (Nikolas Giakoumidis/AP)



W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.