The financial crisis in Greece is in its fourth year and, inexorably, has been taking a toll on its people’s well-being. The British medical journal The Lancet recently published an article that shows how difficult things have gotten in Greece. Violence, including rates of homicide and theft, has been on the rise; unemployment rose from 6.6% in May, 2008, to 16.6% in May, 2011, while youth unemployment rose from 18.6% to a staggering 40.1%. These none-too-heartening circumstances have been taking a heavy toll on Greece’s universal health care system.
Compared with 2007 before the crisis, more Greeks reported in 2009 that they did not go to see a doctor or dentist, even though they felt it was necessary. People said they could not afford care, that waiting times in overcrowded hospitals and clinics were too long and that they had to travel too great a distance to get care. Greek hospitals have had their budgets cut by 40% leading to understaffing and reports of occasional shortages of medical supplies including cancer medications. As a result, some people are simply choosing to wait to see if they get better before seeking care. People also report giving bribes to medical staff as not to have to wait in line at overtaxed hospitals and especially in public ones: Admissions to these rose by 24% in 2010 while, in the same year, there was a 25—30% decline in admissions to private hospitals.
From 2007 – 2009, the number of people eligible for sickness benefits declined. As further austerity measures are implemented, this number is likely to grow. More and more Greeks are turning to street clinics run by NGOs which had previously principally served immigrants. While 3-4 % of Greeks sought medical care from such clinics prior to the financial crisis, the Greek chapter of Médecins du Monde says that 30% now are. Unofficial data reveal that the suicide rate has increased by 25% in 2010; suicides had previously risen by 17% in 2009 from 2007.
In comparison to 2010, HIV infections have risen by 52%. 2011 saw 922 new cases versus 605 in the previous year, and mostly from infections from intravenous drug users. The Greek Documentation and Monitoring Centre for Drugs found heroin use grew by 20% in 2009. Budgets cuts in 2009 and 2010 led to Greece closing one-third of the country’s street-work programs. An October 2010 survey of 275 drug users in Athens found that 85% were not in a drug rehabilitation program. Indeed, The Lancet report says 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.”
As of last week, Greece has a new prime minister, Lucas Papademos, the vice president of the European Central Bank until May, who has pledged that Greece will remain in the European Union and commit to the terms of a bailout deal demanded by European leaders and the International Monetary Fund. The question remains how more and more austerity measures will play out in a country whose people are already struggling so much to live on the little they still have.
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Photo taken in August of 2010 in Psiri, Athens, by Kouk