HERAKLION, CRETE – I sat down at a small table in a café with two comrades from the Communist Organization of Greece (KOE), Maria and Lefteris. Maria and Lefteris have been pivotal in the initiation of the Social Solidarity Medical Center of Heraklion, a free healthcare center that has emerged in response to the austerity measures to public healthcare.
This center began after the Squares movement, initially to provide healthcare, mostly, for the undocumented. As the socio-economic landscape of the country has changed dramatically over the past couple years, the center has had to expand its services to many Greeks that have little to no income. Bathing in the always bright sun of Heraklion, I learned about the devastation of the people’s healthcare and the collective responses to it.
Maria and Lefteris tell us that the Social Solidarity Medical Center of Heraklion began in resistance to the neo-liberalization of the health sector. Maria says that the basis for this center actually emerged during the Squares Movement of Greece in 2011. Doctors and medical assistants were organized to care for those injured by the police brutality and heavy street fighting.
Initiators of the center used these foundations to create a medical center in the capitol city of Crete, Heraklion. The center was initially created to provide healthcare for undocumented immigrants for the large part, who had a harder time accessing free healthcare.
Since the continual implementation and stress of the budget cuts to healthcare, however, the scope of the center has expanded to providing care for the lowest strata of people who have no income, which now includes many Greeks. Our KOE comrades explain to us that although the center has been busy since its implementation, the volume of patients seeking care has rapidly snowballed.
The center now takes appointments about a month in advance and has to turn away many, unable to fill in the gap that public healthcare once provided in Heraklion. Maria acknowledges that in comparison to Athens, Heraklion’s hardships are much less severe. The cuts have hit the large, populous city of Athens even harder, creating, what the UN described as “a humanitarian crisis”.
Since the acceptance of the IMF memorandum by the Greek government in 2010, the state has scheduled to close about half of the public hospitals of the country. Hospitals that have survived the closures, are struggling with minimal budgets that have been slashed by about 40%. This has caused severe shortages of many hospital’s abilities to purchase necessary medical supplies.
From the rooms of deteriorating hospitals come horror stories of patients contracting HIV/AIDS from the re-use of syringes. Maria tells us that many doctors lack supplies as basic as gloves. Diseases such as Tuberculosis that were close to extinct in Greece have seen a re-emergence. These shortages and their consequences have been paired with the memorandum’s inclusion of cutting public worker’s salaries by about 20%.
Lefteris tells of doctors, nurses, surgeons, and other healthcare staff who have been reduced to accepting bribes to complete tasks properly. He reminds me that the salaries of most public workers, not just hospital staff, have been greatly reduced, thus creating an impasse, where troubled families are unable to give in to troubled staffer’s bribe baiting.
Maria tells me that the average check-up in Greece now cost 5 Euros, a seemingly small cost, but a large stress on the over 20% unemployed all over the country. It can only be assumed that this cost will rise as private companies fill in the gaps of the healthcare system that have recently been created. More and more costs are being accrued on to the patient, from prescriptions to life-saving surgeries. At this point there are only about 10 fully state funded pharmacies that are operative in Greece. Long lines encircle these pharmacies, due to the scarcity of the medicine and the money to purchase medication elsewhere. Many pharmacies have closed down or remain open with half-filled shelves lining the inside. Pharmacies import about 60% of their goods to Greece, and it is said that pharmaceutical companies have refused shipments because they do not receive their full payments. Many Greeks cannot afford necessary medications because of the cuts, which means that boxes of untouched, but needed medicines collect dust, and pharmacies are unable to pay off distributors.
Maria also wanted to make an important point of distinction: “What we are doing is solidarity, not charity. There are many NGOs who come here like Doctors Without Borders, but what we are doing is very different.” She explains that the solidarity healthcare is politicized and coupled with a view that this is a part of the resistance to the E.U. and I.M.F. rulers of Greece. And it is also a part of KOE’s view of “reconstruction of the society.”
In other words, KOE has a view that in order for a revolution to take place, new institutions of social solidarity, self-sufficient economy, and new culture and relations among the people have to be implemented on the road to that revolution. And they believe that the people themselves have to be the ones to lead and transform the society.
As I listen to Lefteris and Maria, I recognize that the IMF’s imposed restrictions are ones that the US has already adopted and institutionalized. Tens of millions in America are uninsured; thousands die each year because of the inability to access proper care. Many Greeks are refusing to endure such conditions, such as those in Heraklion who have created and continue to sustain the Social Solidarity Center Medical Center. Everywhere in Greece we see forms of resistance cropping out of necessity. As Maria eloquently states, “We have to fight. And in order to fight, we must be healthy. This is what we are striving to do.”