During more than four years of economic crisis, many Greek people seem to have developed a keen sense of farce.
The appearance of Greece’s health minister Adonis Georgiadis at an Imperial College London event titled “Turning the tide: The Greek National Effort to exit the crisis” was for many a step too far into the absurd, however.
Such a “celebration” is entirely in line with the determination of the Greek government to present its economy as a success story – this is the year it holds the presidency of the European Union after all. Georgiadis has since appeared on Greek radio blaming supporters of the opposition SYRIZA party and leftist students for the heckling and booing that went on during the meeting.
But Georgiadis was taking to the stage just weeks after a report on the devastating impact of austerity on the health of “ordinary people” was published in the respected medical journal, the Lancet, prompting a group of around 140 students and other Greeks living in London to try to disrupt the “success story” charade.
The Lancet report tells a very different story, one that many Greeks fear is going unheard.
As health minister, Georgiadis presides over a health service that receives less public spending any other European Union member state and the consequences have been far-reaching and severe:
- There has been a marked increase cases of infectious diseases, including HIV and others such as malaria and TB not seen in decades have re-emerged
- As a result of rapidly increasing unemployment, 800,000 have no health cover
- More and more people, particularly the elderly have not received medical treatment they need because they can’t afford care, have to travel too far or have no transport
- The health organisation Medicins du Monde has had to scale up its operations to meet increasing demand at its clinics for health care and drugs
- Compulsory fees have been introduced to access public services, including outpatients’ appointments and drug prescriptions
- Hospitals are severely understaffed and face shortages in medication – members of the public are expected to source and pay for basic supplies such as toilet paper, catheters and syringes.
- A 21 per cent rise in stillbirths between 2008 and 2011 has been attributed to reduced access to prenatal health services for pregnant women
- Mental health services are coping with a 120 per cent increase in demand in the past 3 years, yet funding for services decreased by 20 per cent between 2010 and 2011 and by a further 55 per cent by 2012
- Greek people are two-five times more likely to have major depressions
- The number of suicides increased by 45 percent between 2007 and 2011
The social cost of “one of the most radical programmes of welfare-state retrenchment in recent times” is being borne mainly by “ordinary Greek citizens” – and has met with a “remarkable” failure of public recognition by Greek politicians and international agencies, the report’s authors conclude:
“Indeed, the predominant response has been denial that any serious difficulties exist. This dismissal meets the criteria for denialism, which refuses to acknowledge, and indeed attempts to discredit, scientific research,” they add.
Determination not to let the minister’s altogether glossier version of the Greek story go unchallenged prompted the protest.
“Georgiadis is a representative of a state that is not only imposing policies that kill, but is actually refusing to acknowledge any scientific research or evidence that these policies kill,” says one of them, Zoe Mavroudi, the director of Ruins, a documentary about the criminalisation of HIV in Greece.
Mavroudi read a statement signed by 270 people living and working in Greece accusing Georgiadis and the political class he belongs to of “pushing the Greek people further into despair, making sure our country can never exit the crisis”.
Georgiadis is the minister, after all, who has reinstated Health Decree 39A, which stipulates forced testing for infectious diseases under police supervision aimed at injecting drug users, sex workers, trafficking victims, HIV-positive people and migrants.
The decree, which was condemned by leading international health bodies, human rights campaigners and scientists, was central to a police round up of women in central Athens who were then forcibly tested and paraded in the media as “HIV prostitutes”. It is their story that Mavroudi set out to tell in Ruins.
What has been branded a modern day “witch-hunt” is believed to have been an attempt to divert attention from a report that showed a massive increase in HIV infections and a link to cuts in the needle exchange programmes.
“The idea that Greece is moving towards resolving its financial problems and re-entering the financial markets is a fallacy and a fantasy, but even if it were possible, the price the Greeks have paid – and are going to pay – is immeasurable and avoidable,” says Mavroudi. “”We can be certain that with people like Georgiadis in power, no attempt will be made to avert further damage.
That is why someone like Georgiadis can be appointed in such an important post in spite of a complete lack of experience in the health sector. He is implementing policies that are indisputably harmful. Under his tenure, we’ll keep getting sick.”
In the face of the government’s efforts to present itself as a success story, the statement read by Mavroudi concluded with this:
“For Georgiadis and the Greek government in total, tragedy in public health is part of its notorious ‘Success Story’ of foisting neoliberal economic policies on society. These policies kill, and Mr Georgiadis is here to promote the suffering of our people.”
A version of this post was first published on The Huffington Post
Picture credit: Aesthetics of Crisis via creative commons