Updated 10 July 2015

Aids, Malaria and suicide, the far-reaching effects of austerity in Greece

Greece's debt crisis is being debated by some of the most powerful people in the world, but it's the people at the bottom who are suffering the most.


Greece, in case you hadn’t heard, is having a tough time economically. Think of it as the hangover to the 2008 recession, a hangover that really isn’t going away.

Rather than a health website try and explain the crisis, we suggest you watch this excellent video by Bloomberg which explains the situation rather nicely.

The future of Greece is uncertain, but aside from the talk of leaving the Euro, debt write-offs and resigning Finance Ministers, the past few years have been exceptionally hard on the people of Greece. Regardless of whether these people did or didn’t contribute to Greece’s problems, they have had to bear the brunt of substantial austerity measures for several years.

These austerity measures have included cuts to healthcare expenditure, and big ones at that. Between 2009 and 2012, Greek government spending on healthcare dropped 22% while Germany, one of Greece’s biggest creditors, increased spending by almost 10% according to data from the World Bank.

The results of this cut in spending are widespread, affecting everything from training healthcare workers to drug purchases. The latter means that many Greeks are now covering the full cost of their medication, and a recent survey found that as many as 70% could not afford what they had been prescribed. Of course, this in turn results in their condition worsening, putting more strain on the already beleaguered health system.

This excerpt from a letter to Fin24 shows just how dire the situation has got.

"I do recall an incident of my friend’s father being in hospital. The nurse was kindly asked for some cotton wool and replied that there wasn’t any, sorry, but it could be bought from a shop. When bought she politely asked if she could keep the rest for other patients! I do recall my mother in the intensive care, dying. We had to bring our own masks to enter the ICU since there weren’t any. Many just went in with no masks, bringing their germs together."

As the Greek healthcare system has come to look less like that of their European neighbours and more like that of a third world nation, so too have the health issues plaguing everyday Greeks.  The slashed budgets of public health programmes have resulted in a huge drop in condoms and needles being supplied to drug users, an intervention designed to cut down on HIV transmission through needle-sharing.

Read: Action needed to halt malaria in Greece

The result of the cuts to this programme? New HIV cases surged 200%, according to David Stuckler, an Oxford researcher who helped produce a paper into the effects of budget cuts on health in Southern Europe. Junkies who need 200 needles a year are now receiving just 3.

The demise of mosquito spraying programs also saw a resurgence of malaria, something Greece had controlled for the past 40 years. “Greece is an example of perhaps the worst case of austerity leading to public health disasters,” he explained in a telephone interview with Quartz.

There’s also the mental toll to consider. 7 years of financial uncertainty coupled with rising unemployment has created a deeply stressful environment for Greek citizens, driving a spike in depression and suicide. Greeks are traditionally a happy people, and enjoy a very low suicide rate, but between 2008 and 2011, the number of Greeks taking their own lives increased by almost a third, uncovered Buzzfeed.

Essentially, being a Greek is now worse than it has been in recent history. Greece has slipped from an admirable 18th on the UN’s Human Development Index to 29th, obviously still relatively high, but such a dramatic slip in just 4 years indicates how quickly the situation has deteriorated. It should become clearer in the coming weeks just how bad it’s going to get.

Read more:

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Recession damaging Europe's health

SA health budget not fit for purpose


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Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria in 2005. She is a patients' rights activist and loves using social media to teach about HIV. She is in private practice in Johannesburg.

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