You don’t expect to see so many hungry people in a major European city. They line up each day looking for a handout in the soup kitchens and bread lines run by the municipality. But the 40 workers under contract to prepare a basic lunch of pasta and bread say they will lose their jobs in June because the city has run out of money to pay them.
Essentially, the country is broke. And to borrow enough money to stay solvent, the Greek government has agreed to severe austerity measures imposed by the European Union, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The money will run out next month unless another chunk of the bailout is handed over. But the European Union wants even more cuts in government job, salaries and benefits.
Public employees have already taken a 40 percent pay cut and pensions are being reduced. The private sector has also been hit and unemployment is nearing 20 percent. A staggering 40 percent of youths between the ages of 18 and 24 are without jobs.
Take, for instance, Leo, a 64-year-old painter of religious icons for devout Greeks and tourists. His business dried up. The money ran out and he ended up living on the street. Evicted for not paying rent, Leo, who didn’t give his last name, took warm clothes, books and ten boiled eggs to his new home – a metal bench near a park in central Athens. He spent 45 days in the open with what he called the “unhappy homeless.”
What makes Leo unhappy is the realization that the government is to blame. “They borrowed,” he said. “Every time they needed money they borrowed and then borrowed some more.”
Successive Greek governments borrowed an estimated $498 billion, in essence to bribe the Greek people into being happy. Governments who could offer cushy office jobs, fat pensions and long vacations got re-elected. It made perfect political sense, but it was economic suicide.
Imagine for a moment taking a 40 percent pay cut. Then suffer an increase in sales tax to 23 percent. Add on increased rates for electricity, a new tax on heating oil and the cost of a gallon of gas hitting almost $10. Oh and your pension is not secure, and your kids stay home because there aren’t enough teachers. It is enough to make you sick.
And that’s precisely what the Greeks are doing. Getting ill. Hospital admissions are up 25 percent. At the same time hospital budgets have been cut 40 percent so there are shortages of medicine and staff.
Nikitas Kanekis is the director of Doctors of the World, a charity that runs health clinics. He has the genteel manner necessary to be a pediatric dentist, but the economic decline has unsettled him. “We have seen four times the number of Greek patients over the last year,” he said. “We are afraid the humanitarian crisis can develop into a humanitarian catastrophe.”
It may already be happening. The department of health reports that suicides are up 40 percent. And violent crimes including murder are up almost 100 percent. “We have all the characteristics we see in big cities in the Third World,” said Kanekis. “People with no shelter, starving people and people looking for doctors and medicine.”