Archive for January, 2013

16/01/2013

Healthcare Exhaustion

by anekdotales

The nurse squeezes between boxes of humanitarian aid stacked from floor to ceiling, to call the next patient. The toddler’s mother holds her baby tight as she explains her daughter’s symptoms. After hearing the mother’s concerns the pediatrician listens to the baby’s heartbeat and looks in her ears and mouth. This is no easy feat given the toddler is kicking and flailing. The pediatrician reassures the worried mother her toddler is healthy and is only suffering from a seasonal cold. In the corner the nurse is organizing the vaccines in the refrigerator. She passes them off to the pediatrician, who prepares the syringes while she talks. It seems the toddler knows what’s coming. She is screaming and after the vaccines is even less happy. The pediatrician tells the mother to keep an eye on her daughter and if the symptoms don’t get better she should come back next week, no need to call ahead. The appointment is short, fifteen minutes at the most. In an economic crisis, efficiency is unfortunately everything.

The international humanitarian aid organization, Medicins du Monde (MDM), originally created this clinic in Perama to meet the needs of undocumented migrants. Today, the clinic serves a predominantly Greek population. With unemployment over 25%, many Greeks have been excluded from the public healthcare system. Without work they are unable to independently pay for public health insurance. As a result, it is estimated that more than 500,000 Greeks are effectively without any healthcare. Increasingly Greek and international NGO’s are filling in the gaps in public health.

Families from across Athens make the trek to the Perama clinic for its free pediatric care on Tuesdays. They patiently wait hours to see a doctor. The waiting area is a chaos of kids climbing and running, and mothers chatting squeezed two to a seat. However for many this is their only option for vaccines and basic check-ups. Without a vaccine, Greek children are prohibited from enrolling in the public school system.

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The Troika is demanding further public sector cutbacks before it releases Greece’s next tranche of rescue funds. Unfortunately healthcare has been one of the public services most affected. More than a billion dollars has already been cut. Emergency rooms are clogged with the uninsured looking for basic medicine. Hospitals are running low on basic supplies like latex gloves and band-aids. The national association of pharmacists is suing the Greek government for months of unpaid medications. Healthcare professionals have been laid off left and right, and those remaining have suffered drastic pay cuts. Many have chosen to abandon Greece to look for work abroad. The public healthcare system appears to be in a free fall.

While the Troika’s aim is supposedly austerity for long term sustainability, it appears more like a wholesale push towards privatization of the Greek economy. According to the agreement with the Troika, Greece must raise 50 billion euros through privatizations by 2022. As a result Greek healthcare is gradually starting to look more like American healthcare. Those with the resources to buy into this growing market are generally finding the services they need. However the poor and unemployed, drug addicts, and patients with diseases and syndromes requiring expensive long term treatment like cancer and HIV/AIDS, are effectively finding themselves abandoned in this transition from the public to private.

Downtown Athens is littered with men and women lost in a roller coaster of fixes and withdrawals. Austerity measures in public healthcare have been paralleled by a surge in drug use. Members of OKANA, the publicly funded national drug awareness organization, say they’ve never seen the situation this bad. Konstantina, who has worked with the organization for more than a decade, says she sees new faces among the users on the streets. There are an increasing number of middle class Greeks seeking to escape the crisis through heroin and other narcotics. Making matters worse OKANA, the only public organization with the stated mission of addressing addiction, has seen more than 40% of its annual budget cut over the last three years. This has translated into a reduction in the number of syringes OKANA has to hand out, and the number of programs it can effectively manage. Today in Greece there is an epidemic of HIV/AIDS among intravenous drug users. It is estimated transmission through needle sharing is up more than a 1000%. Konstantina openly wonders what will happen in the future when OKANA’s resources diminish further and the demand for their services continue to grow.

A cold night’s wind cuts through the winter jackets of the Praksis members on duty at the mobile HIV/AIDS test unit. Praksis, a Greek healthcare and social services NGO, has been running this mobile test unit for the last year and a half. Anyone interested in getting tested can sign up and step into the white van to get a swab of their DNA examined. In twenty minutes they get their results. The team always a doctor and psychologist, and normally two or three other healthcare professionals on call as well. Every weekend the mobile unit parks in a different place and offers the free service. The HIV/AIDS epidemic in the intravenous drug user community worries members of the Praksis team. If this epidemic spills over into the general population the consequences could set the diseases treatment back decades.

Like OKANA and MDM, Praksis offers various different services beyond the mobile HIV/AIDS testing. There is a Praksis clinic in both Thessaloniki and Athens, as well as a homeless day center, and a housing service for asylum seekers, a counseling program for ex-prisoners, and public awareness campaigns. Praksis understands public health in broad terms attempting to connect the dots between social services, education, healthcare, and direct aid. But their funding is limited and the scale of the challenges facing public health are far beyond the capacities of the organization.

Nicholas Fakiolas was the first Greek to come out in the national media as HIV positive. He says breaking the stigma around the disease has always been one of his goals. But today he is struggling to keep up his treatment. Unemployed Nicholas spends most of his free time volunteering with Zentro Zois, a local HIV/AIDS awareness NGO that operates a clinic and various education and support groups. Nicholas says the cost of his drugs has gone up dramatically in the last couple of years. So much so that he often has to decide between one drug or another or between food and his meds. On a few occasions Nicholas’s hospital has rationed out his meds pill to pill, meaning Nicholas had to make multiple trips to the clinic.

Nicholas says he finds solace in Zentro Zois and his volunteer work with them. The crisis has made him more convinced of their necessity. However he recognizes that it is impossible for organizations like Centro Zois, OKANA, Praksis, and MDM to effectively address the collapse of public healthcare. Unfortunately it seems those in public office and the Troika are convinced the pain of this collapse is necessary for an economically sustainable future. The eventual growth of a private healthcare system is apparently their definition of economic sustainability. However their conviction begs the question, will there be anyone around healthy enough to enjoy this future? And if so, how much will it cost them?

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16/01/2013

Nothing like getting jumped by the Greek Police!

by anekdotales
On December 6, 2008, Athens metropolitan police shot and killed Alexis Grigoropoulos.  Every year on this date there is a march in memory of Alexis's life.  This year the march ended in riots in the central neighborhood of Exarchia.   There were multiple detentions and injuries.

On December 6, 2008, Athens metropolitan police shot and killed Alexis Grigoropoulos. Every year on this date there is a march in memory of Alexis’s life. This year the march ended in riots in the central neighborhood of Exarchia. There were multiple detentions and injuries.

 

 

Enjoying My Press Freedom in Greece

Bottles crash against the pavement, the broken glass glittering in the light of the flames. There is a heavy cloud of tear gas that has settled throughout Exarchia, a central Athens’ neighborhood. Hooded youths push back the police with a rain of rocks and molotovs. It has been two hours since these street battles kicked off. In comparison to years passed, this is supposedly tame. Riot police repeatedly try to advance and disperse the crowd but they are up against a stiff resistance.

On the 6th of December, 2008 Alexis Grigoropoulos, a teenager, was murdered by the police. He was gunned down in this very same neighborhood. The death sent Greece into weeks of riots. Decades of penned up rage spilled over. In Athens there were pitched battles across the downtown. Some say it was the first signs of the serious cracks in Greek society.

Every year since, there has been a march in honor of Alexis’s death. This year there was no break with tradition. The crowd was slightly smaller in size and there weren’t the usual clashes in Syntagma square. However when the protesters returned to Exarchia to the vigil on the corner where Alexis was killed, clashes erupted.

Its getting late and it seems like many in the crowd are tiring of this seemingly nihilistic dance. I run to a corner with another photographer just in time to see a group of youth charging a small battalion of riot police. I try to take cover and photograph the police. But its too late. The police have begun a charge themselves. I try to run around the corner, out of the way. The mass of people is running the opposite direction and as they pass they bump into me knocking a lens off my belt. I stop to pick it up off the ground but before I know it there is an officer on top of me. He lifts me, and I put up my hands showing him my camera. I’m being held by my shirt. I explain I’m a photographer. “I’m press ummmmmfff…”, the officer I’m with knees me in the groin twice. I double over and am pushed from behind by someone else. I find myself on the ground on the corner where I’d originally been standing. Four officers are standing over me, yelling and kicking. I try to protect my body. One officer pulls off my gas mask and slaps me in the face. I pray they aren’t arresting me. They are screaming in Greek. I don’t understand anything. I show them my passport. One of the officer looks at it while the others continue to slap and kick me. He throws it back at me and I’m told to run. Instinctively I reach for my lens, but they kick it away. As I scramble to leave I’m sprayed with tear gas. I run around the block and find the photographer I was with earlier. I’m shaken. My nerves are shot. I’m jittery. I won’t let the police, who now stand half a block away, out of my sight. Adrenaline is pulsing through my body and self-protection guides my every thought.

We start calling the photographer’s union and looking for my lens. But I can’t stop thinking of what it must be like for the people detained earlier in the evening. Being powerless at the feet of someone who is willing to use violence and protected by impunity is perhaps the scariest of positions to find oneself in. For a moment I think I’m beginning to understand what it must feel like to be Greek. Unable to affect the systems of power that are orchestrating the “bailouts” and “rescues”, Greeks and others find themselves at the feet of an economic system they do not control. I don’t think it is too rhetorical to say the austerity measures are violent. The cutbacks in healthcare and education are literally putting lives at risk, and killing possible futures. A systematic corruption of the national political system has left the population without hope. Finally unemployment and downward mobility is threatening faith in the European Union. The talking heads keep repeating there is no other option but austerity. The vultures of capitalism have already swooped in and taken everything that is of value. The country’s brain drain has already begun. The feeling is there is no other option but survival.

This is the kind of shock doctrine Naomi Klein describes in her book. What is occurring across southern Europe is a wholesale attack on the welfare state. This system of social protection that has existed since the end of the second World War, is finally being dismantled. Greece is the first European state to undergo this shock treatment. But there are countless examples of other countries that have undergone similar processes. A state of crisis has been created where all normal negotiations of power are off the table. Basic rights once taken for granted are suddenly under threat. The unionized public sector is being replaced by a lean un-unionized private sector. After Greece the privatization of the European Union will continue. This long protracted economic crisis is the newest form of shock. The shock being administered upon Greece today, builds off of previous experiments of laissez-faire economics. Unfortunately looking at the past we can estimate what awaits Greece in the future. Economic disparity and the collapse of representative democracy is the future no one wants to admit.

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