The Lancet published a report today detailing a sharp rise in suicides, HIV infections and drug abuse as a result of the economic crisis in Greece. The report cites unofficial data indicating a 25 percent rise in suicides in 2010 over the previous year, and a 40 percent rise in the first half of 2011. It also estimates that HIV infections will rise by 50 percent this year.
The report prompted concern about whether Greece's truly universal healthcare system can cope with the rise in poor psychological and physical health. Doctors have reported that outpatient clinics are receiving more visitors as people try to avoid private consultations, which typically cost 40-80 euro. And anecdotal evidence suggests that clinics are losing some of their more highly specialised doctors who are mobile enough to find more lucrative employment overseas; even public hospital doctors rely on their private practice to supplement income.
The nursing staff union says it has shed about 6,500 people in 2010 and thus far in 2011, representing about 10 percent of nursing staff. As difficult as this is for the public healthcare system to absorb, where there is always high demand for nursing services, the cuts are proportionally lower than they are in the rest of the public sector.
Ilias Iliopoulos, the general secretary of the civil servants' union, ADEDY, told me that about 230,000 people will have left the public payroll between January 2010 and the end of this year, representing 30 percent of the workforce. The figures break down as follows: Last year, 35,000 tenured employees took retirement, 51,000 fixed term employees were not renewed and 22,000 Stage employees (subsidised by EU funds) were terminated. This year an estimated 90,000 employees will have left or retired, not including the 30,000 retirements announced last week by the government. So the government can say that it will have reduced the public payroll by 30 percent over two years, with pressure likely to continue from Greece’s creditors for continued reductions next year on a similar scale. If this plan is adhered to, the payroll will stand at about 548,000 by the end of the year, in a total national workforce of four and a half million.
The other bone of contention with the unions is the bill the government submitted to parliament last week consolidating and streamlining public sector payrolls by lowering their above-salary benefits. ADEDY disagrees with Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos' estimate that the best-paid 100,000 would lose 20 percent of their take-home pay, while others would remain unaffected or see a modest increase. Iliopoulos intends to tell a parliamentary committee tomorrow, where the bill is to be discussed, that 98 percent of employees will see income reductions of anything between seven and 52 percent.
There is a huge secondary loss in quality of life resulting from the spats between unoinists and the government. There are ever-more frequent strikes in Athenian public transport. ELLPE, the state refiner, and the Public Power Corporation will begin indefinite strikes tomorrow, and that will likely lead to rolling blackouts and queues at the pump. Municipal rubbish collectors and landfill workers are on partial strike status so fetid piles of rubbish are growing on street corners.
But hovering above all these daily inconveniences is the fundamental insecurity among people that they might lose their jobs not because they haven't done them well or worked hard, but due to bad economic sentiment with Greece now in its third year of recession. There is insecurity in school and university, because there are no jobs for new graduates. The nationalisation of Proton Bank this week has reminded people that their savings and mortgages may not be safe. There is fear that the country could be thrown out of the euro, and there could be mayhem on the streets. That stress is a fundamental reason for deteriorating public health.