In perspective: Greek tragedy?

Kim Gainsborough reports on a recent visit to Greece, where she found healthcare workers are managing to provide services – despite the ongoing financial crisis.

Last month I travelled to Athens with a 17-strong delegation and was shocked to learn how austerity has affected health in what is a first world country. Many hospitals have been closed and primary care is virtually non-existent. Greece has an insurance-based model of health care. With so many people now unwaged or surviving on a precarious low income, this means that one-third of the population has no access to free public health services and no money to pay.

Those in need try to get treatment from emergency units in the remaining hospitals, which are under-staffed, under-resourced and at breaking point. There has been a 40 per cent increase in infant mortality and the return of once-eradicated diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria. Children are not vaccinated because their parents cannot afford to pay.

This eye-opening mission was organised by Medical Aid for Greece, part of the Greece Solidarity Campaign, which was founded when Greece introduced the harshest austerity policies in Europe as conditions of emergency loans from the European Commission, the European Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Greece’s debt crisis was not caused by ordinary people not paying their taxes or living beyond their means, but was the result of poor management of the economy by banks and the Greek government. For the people of Greece this has meant a rapid rise in poverty, nearly 30 per cent unemployment (60 per cent for those aged under 25) and a substantial fall in wages. Unicef reports child poverty has doubled. Hunger has become a major issue. I heard stories of families of 10 dependent on the €500 pension a month and that parents would not eat in order to feed their children.

Responding to this crisis as well as opposing austerity, ordinary Greek people have organised networks of solidarity groups running food aid projects and solidarity health clinics. Doctors, physiotherapists and others work voluntarily in social solidarity clinics providing what care they can to those uninsured. All the medicines they have are donated and they need more.

It was a privilege to visit one of these clinics and to hear from health workers at the main hospital in Athens, Evangelismos. They were all impassioned, angry and cared deeply about the inhumanity faced by their fellow citizens. I came away from the experience both wanting to do what I can to support them and realising that, while they may be at the sharpest end, this could be our future too if we don’t protect our own health services and oppose austerity.

Every penny donated to Medical Aid for Greece (of which Lesley Mercer, the former director of the CSP’s employment relations and union services, is the patron) is used to buy resources for the free solidarity health clinics. This includes vaccinations for children.

If you would like show your solidarity by making a donation, the bank account number is: 20307259 and the sort code is: 08 60 01. For more information, see the website here.

Kim Gainsborough is a CSP regional steward

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