Like most Greeks, I have had my medical needs covered by a comprehensive state health insurance programme to which I’ve contributed all my working life. It is supposed to mean that I don’t pay for services and only a token amount for medicines. But at the doctor’s last month, the examination over and the prescription written, I was handed a receipt for €50.
‘What’s this?’ I asked.
‘I’m insured, as you know.’
‘I know. That’s why I’ve given you a receipt.’
‘To do what with it?’
‘So you can be reimbursed.’
‘If and when the crisis ends, and you’re still alive.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘Quite. The insurance scheme ran out of money and can’t pay us. You think we can work for nothing?’
‘But they are still deducting a contribution for health insurance from my pension.’
He shrugged. I handed him €50 and and walked out in a daze. Several elderly patients sat in the waiting-room clutching their insurance booklets. They need continuous care, I thought, how will they cope?
‘I have insurance,’ I told the pharmacist as she picked up a calculator.
‘Don’t we all?’ she replied, handing me a receipt for €13. ‘We terminated our agreements with the state.’
‘We’re owed money since 2009.’
‘So, what happens now?’
‘Only cash from now on. Here’s the receipt and good luck to you.’
The public health system in Greece, dating back to the 1930s, was privatised overnight without public discussion or even an official announcement, simply by bankrupting the insurance programmes.
Well, not exactly overnight: the dismantling began in earnest two years earlier when Greece signed the agreement known here as the Mnimonio (‘memorandum’) with the European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund. Even as a fraction of GDP, which is itself rapidly shrinking, the health budget for 2012 was reduced from 6 per cent to 4 per cent; the allocation for drugs was half the actual cost.
Cancer drugs ran out in the first week of June. The long-serving health minister in the last Pasok government blamed the health minister in the caretaker government, who had been in office two weeks. He scavenged around for drugs and on 6 June, there was a radio announcement that people who needed them should go to a centre in Athens, bringing the appropriate documents. Four more drug centres were opened on 7 June. Queues not seen since the breadlines under German occupation during the Second World War formed outside the centres. Nothing was said about the rest of the country.
On 17 June, for the second time in six weeks, Greeks were called to the polls to say if they wanted to continue with the Mnimonio, with the obvious corollary of returning the establishment parties to power, since they are the only ones committed to the programme.
Eurozone leaders took it on themselves to tutor the Greeks on how to exercise their political rights. One official after another advised them ‘to vote with their heads, not their hearts’, not ‘to let anger dictate their choice’ and ‘to think of the consequences’. The consequences were spelled out clearly. Unless the signed agreements are implemented to the letter, funding will cease immediately. No carrot was offered to pair off the stick. Instead, every statement ended with the demand that ‘Greece pay its debt’. European officeholders generally refrained from voicing the ultimate sanction: Greece’s exit from the euro. But bankers, financiers, speculators, newspaper editors and gurus of the global economy were happy to step in with predictions of doom and ideas about the way ‘Grexit’ would be managed.
The Greek establishment media feasted on these pronouncements, reminding people daily not to be foolish. This was a massive intervention in a sovereign country’s internal affairs, a crude effort to manipulate democratic procedure and panic the electorate into reversing in June the verdict it gave in May. Nothing like it has been seen in Western Europe since the US intervened in the early postwar Italian and French elections to prevent the communists from coming to power there.
On election day I offered one of my neighbours, who has throat cancer, a lift to the polling station. He waved his hand dismissively.
‘Have you voted? I asked.
He shook his head.
‘You mean you’re not going to vote?’
‘Not now or ever again,’ he whispered. ‘I’m through with this game.’ [++]