Greece: Austerity Undermines Healthcare – MSF’s Dr. A. Veizis

Interview: Dr. Apostolos Veizis, Director of Medical Operational Support (Greece), Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), June 24, 2016

By Stas Margaronis

The Greek economic crisis of 2010 continues to undermine healthcare in Greece. Hospitals have experienced major cutbacks, medical insurance has been cut back due to unemployment and the treatment of disease has been adversely impacted, according to Dr. Apostolos Veizis, Director of Medical Operational Support (Greece) for Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).

For example, Dr. Veizis noted “the cutbacks in the supply of needles resulted in drug users sharing needles with as many as ten different people and resulted in a 1,500% increase in HIV cases in central Athens in 2011. This then led to the spread of related infections such as TB (tuberculosis) and Hepatitis B & C.”

He noted: “In the hospitals, not only were there cutbacks in hospital spending, but people on pensions had their pensions cut substantially so that they were less able to afford the co-payment for items such as drugs. At the same time, generic drugs were not always available and people had to pay the higher cost of the non-generic drug. This should have prompted the Ministry of Health to switch over to generic drugs to buffer the impact on healthcare clients, but change was slow and many people couldn’t afford essential drugs anymore. In addition, there were many people in Greece who had lost their jobs and could not afford very much, so they too were impacted by the cutbacks in the healthcare system.”

Austerity Results In Vaccination Cutbacks In Greece

With government spending cutbacks came the cutback in vaccinations that is just now being addressed, Veizis said: “Organizations, such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), are now helping to relieve vaccination needs, but problems persist. There is a problem with donations arriving from outside of Greece, due to lack of relevant regulation for taxation, etc. The Greek government needs to play a more assertive role coordinating policies and practices and resist making cuts which make a bad situation worse.”

Mental Health Impact

Compounding the problem has been a crisis in mental health: “Between 2009-2011, there was a 40% increase in suicides in Greece. People surveyed, who attempted but did not succeed in killing themselves, said economics and the loss of their job was a major cause.”

One tragedy provides evidence of the human toll:

“There is the story of the Greek man who lost his job and became so unhinged because he could not help his 80-year old mother that he threw her off the balcony of their apartment and then threw himself off. Both were killed. This is the kind of desperation we are living with.”

Refugee Crisis

Compounding the problems even further has been the increase in refugees arriving from Syria and Afghanistan:

“Refugees that came to Greece had unmet medical and humanitarian needs, and MSF increased its presence in the field from 12 (professionals) in 2014 to 700 (professionals) in 2016. These were doctors, medical support staff, logisticians, etc. deployed to help refugees. This number is likely to decrease as a result of the decrease in refugees, but there are still 56,000 refugees in Greece that are in limbo and are exposed to medical conditions due to the dismal conditions of the housing. You can see the problem in a different way when you see (Greek) people demanding an end to shelters for the homeless and for refugees. (The result is) they end up in the streets and in front of businesses where their exposure to vulnerability gets higher and their presence hurts the (Greek) daily life, having a negative effect on the very people who wanted them out of shelters.”

MSF relies almost exclusively on private donors for funding its work: “This provides us with an independence from political interference but it also allows us to work with refugees and indigenous people.”

MSF’s Role

MSF deploys people to treat disease and vaccinate people, but they also act as an advocate. Greece is in need of advocacy due to the continued deterioration of public health that has been caused by EU mandated austerity measures:

“As advocates in Greece, we have to encourage the Greek government to take a more active role in the healthcare crisis that has been caused by austerity measures. We need to advocate for access to a healthcare system for example that reduces drug costs by providing more generic drugs.”

Veizis says: “There is a need to house the 56,000 refugees; Greece is a country of 11 million. This is the best solution. Other EU countries now house their refugees; Greece needs to do the same and not allow them to live in tents where they and their children are exposed to disease.”

How Greek-Americans Can Help

Finally, he urges Greek-Americans to take a more active role with the U.S. government in calling for an end to austerity measures: “Greek-Americans can help by providing support for Greece, providing advocacy for our plight and encouraging the governments to make the plight of people living in Greece more clear to the European Union and the world. Last, but not least, by advocating for people living in Greece you send out the message that we are not alone.”