Greece: Curing the economy kills the sick

Printer-friendly version

In December 2012, the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported on a visit to Greece.

In October 2012 the trauma therapist Georg Pier made the following observations in Greece: ‘Very pregnant women hurried desperately from one hospital to the next. But since they had neither any medical insurance nor sufficient money nobody wanted to help them give birth to their children. People, who until recently were part of the middle classes, were collecting residues of fruit and vegetables from the dustbins. (…) An old man told a journalist, that he could no longer afford the drugs for his heart problems. His pension was cut by 50% as was the case with many other pensioners. He had worked for more than 40 years, thinking that he had done everything right; now he no longer understands the world. If you are admitted to a hospital, you must bring your own bed-sheets as well as your own food. Since the cleaning staff were sacked, doctors and nurses, who have not received any wages for months, have started to clean the toilets. There is a lack of disposable gloves and catheters. In the face of disastrous hygienic conditions in some places the European Union warns of the danger of the spreading of infectious diseases.” (FAZ, 15/12/12).

The same conclusions were drawn by Marc Sprenger, head of the European Centre for the Prevention and Control of Diseases (ECDC). On 6 December, he warned of the collapse of the health system and of the most basic hygiene measures in Greece, and said that this could lead to pandemics in the whole of Europe. There is a lack of disposable gloves, aprons and disinfectant sheets, cotton balls, catheters and paper sheets for covering hospital examination beds. Patients with highly infectious diseases such as tuberculosis are not receiving the necessary treatment, so the risk of spreading resistant viruses in Europe is increasing.

A striking contrast between what is technically possible and capitalist reality

In the 19th century many patients, sometimes up to a third, died due to lack of hygiene in hospitals, in particular women during childbirth. While in the 19th century these dangers could be explained to a large extent through ignorance, because many doctors did not clean their hands before a treatment or an operation and often went with dirty aprons from one patient to the next, the discoveries in hygiene for example by Semmelweis or Lister allowed for a real improvement. New hygiene measures and discoveries in the field of germ transmission allowed for a strong reduction in the danger of infection in hospitals. Today disposable gloves and disposable surgical instruments are current practice in modern medicine. But while in the 19th century ignorance was a plausible explanation for the high mortality in hospitals, the dangers which are becoming transparent in the hospitals in Greece today are not a manifestation of ignorance but an expression of the threat against the survival of humanity coming from a totally obsolete, bankrupt system of production.

If today the health of people in the former centre of antiquity is threatened by the lack of funds or insolvency of hospitals, which can no longer afford to buy disposable gloves, if pregnant women searching for assistance in hospitals are sent away because they have no money or no medical insurance, if people with heart disease can no longer pay for their drugs … this becomes a life-threatening attack. If, in a hospital, the cleaning staff who are crucial in the chain of hygiene are sacked and if doctors and nurses, who have not been receiving any wages for a long time, have to take over cleaning tasks, this casts a shocking light on the ‘regeneration’ of the economy, the term which the ruling class uses to justify its brutal attacks against us. ‘Regeneration’ of the economy turns out to be a threat to our life!

After 1989 in Russia life expectancy fell by five years because of the collapse of the health system, but also due to the rising alcohol and drug consumption. Today it’s not only in Greece that the health system is being dismantled step-by-step or is simply collapsing. In another bankrupt country, Spain, the health system is also being demolished. In the old industrial centre, Barcelona, as well as in other big cities, emergency wards are in some cases only kept open for a few hours in order to save costs. In Spain, Portugal and Greece many pharmacies no longer receive any vital drugs. The German pharmaceutical company Merck no longer delivers the anti-cancer drug Erbitux to Greek hospitals. Biotest, a company selling blood plasma for the treatment of haemophilia and tetanus, had already stopped delivering its product due to unpaid bills last June.

Until now such disastrous medical conditions were known mainly in African countries or in war-torn regions; but now the crisis in the old industrial countries has lead to a situation where vital areas such as health care are more and more sacrificed on the altar of profit. Thus medical treatment is no longer based on what is technically possible: you only get treatment if you are solvent![1]

This development shows that the gap between what is technically possible and the reality of this system is getting bigger and bigger. The more hygiene is under threat the bigger the danger of uncontrollable epidemics. We have to recall the epidemic of the Spanish flu, which spread across Europe after the end of WW1, when more than 20 million died. The war, with its attendant hunger and deprivation, had prepared all the conditions for this outbreak. In today’s Europe, the same role is being played by the economic crisis. In Greece, unemployment rose to 25% in the last quarter of 2012; youth unemployment of those aged under 25 reached 57%; 65% of young women are unemployed. The forecasts all point to a much bigger increase – up to 40% in 2015. The pauperisation which goes together with this has meant that “already entire residential areas and apartment blocs have been cut off from oil supplies because of lack of payment. To avoid people freezing in their homes during the winter, many have started to use small heaters, burning wood. People collect the wood illegally in nearby forests. In spring 2012 a 77 year old man shot himself in front of the parliament in Athens. Just before killing himself, he is reported to have shouted: ‘I do not want to leave any debts for my children’. The suicide rate in Greece has doubled during the past three years” (op cit)

Next to Spain with the Strait of Gibraltar, Italy with Lampedusa and Sicily, Greece is the main point of entrance for refugees from the war-torn and impoverished areas of Africa and the Middle East. The Greek government has installed a gigantic fence along the Turkish border and set up big refugee camps, in which more than 55,000 ‘illegals’ were interned in 2011. The right wing parties try to stir-up a pogrom atmosphere against these refugees, blaming them for importing ‘foreign diseases’ and for taking resources that rightfully belong to ‘native Greeks’. But the misery that drives millions to escape from their countries of origin and which can now be seen stalking the hospitals and streets of Europe stems from the same source: a social system which has become a barrier to all human progress.  

Dionis 4/1/13

[1]. In ‘emerging’ countries like India more and more private hospitals are opening, which are only accessible to rich Indian patients and to more solvent patients from abroad. They offer treatment which are far too expensive for the majority of Indians. And many of the foreign patients who come as ‘medical tourists’ to the Indian private clinics cannot afford to pay for their treatment ‘at home’.


Recent and ongoing: 


Working Class Living Conditions: Health