Greece, hospitals, healthcare and cuts: Interview 7

Olga KosmopoulouAs the general strike continues in Greece, we publishing more transcripts from interviews we recorded last week with people who are dealing directly with cuts and austerity in Athens. Earlier interviews are posted in sequence below this one.

This post is a transcript from a recorded interview with Olga Kosmopoulou, a doctor who specialises in  infectious diseases , including HIV medicine. She works at the General Hospital of Nikaia.

In this interview, she talks about the problems her patients are facing, the political and economic situation in Greece and how this relates to health care and possible solutions for the future.

Speaking about her patients
“I would like to speak on behalf of my HIV patients.

Most of them live in this area, which is one of the poorest in Greece. Not everyone has free access to medicines and free access to healthcare. They have a lot of problems, which have increased over the last three years.

Problem number one: most of them are already stigmatised. It’s not easy for them to find a job. All these patients used to live on a benefit which was cut down. So, I know when I see some of them, they are going to face hunger during the winter. Some of them are going to be homeless during the winter.

Some of my patients are IV drug users. During the last three years, we have had an epidemic of HIV disease in IV drug users. Many are homeless and almost none are insured. We don’t have many social workers and many people who come here cannot be insured at all. They come here and say ‘please keep me in the hospital because I need a roof over my head, and food’, but I cannot do it for everybody.

The state has destroyed rehabilitation programmes. They say that we are doing better, but in fact, the places where people can find methadone are full. They don’t have enough doctors, not enough nurses, not enough psychiatrists and not enough support in general. They don’t even give syringes. On the other hand, the poverty among families made most of these people practice prostitution, which led to a very sudden rise in HIV.

All Greeks have seen their income diminish, but among them, the most frail patients with chronic diseases are desperate right now. They have to pay just to get into the hospital. They have to pay for a prescription. They have to pay part of the cost of their medicine. Sometimes, they don’t find the medicine they used to take, or they are forced to take another medicine by another company.

If people are diagnosed with HIV, they do have access to drug treatment. But, there is a frightening situation, because every time I ask for tablets, I have to refer the patient and the drug companies answer ‘”e approve the scheme, but we warn you that it is your responsibility to advise the patient to get insured.” But, the patient is not able to get insured. There is no insurance for most Greek people at the moment. There are well over 1 million people unemployed… and they are uninsured.

There are no preventative measures, like condoms. Of course not. It’s a joke. Non-governmental organisations may provide syringes and support. This is not correct. The state should organise this.

I don’t think anyone has time to find out which neighbourhoods are being particularly affected. To show you the size of the problem in Greek society, in this corner [points to corner of the room] last year, every month we collected food. We provided this food to schools in a poor area ,as the teachers were asking for food for children and their families. Last year, this corner was always full with food, and now, starting from September onwards, I haven’t been able to collect anything because they have cut down the salaries of the people.

The insecurity they feel makes them reluctant to help others. Although there is solidarity in Greek society, it’s going to have an end and this is the proof. Middle class people and poorer people are not able to help each anymore in the same way they used to. The food is running out. Philanthropy cannot be the solution.

The other disease that is increasing is suicides. We never had a high rate of suicide in Greece, because the weather is so good and family bonds are so close, so people felt secure. Now, we have a high rate of suicide, a high rate of psychiatric diseases, a high rate of depression. There are too many people taking tablets. On the other hand, psychiatric patients with severe illnesses have had their benefits cut down and they don’t have money, not even for cigarettes. The places where they used to stay are closed. So many of them are homeless. It’s really cold over winter, starting in November, through to early March. You can die on the street.

I see about 10 people everyday on the ward, sometimes 20 a day, sometimes 30 a day. When I work in casualty, we see more – about 300 a day at the general medical hospital.

In outpatient clinics, people come to get examined. Sometimes, I substitute for social workers… everything.

On treating everybody
This is a special place because in my way, I am a political person. I see immigrants. I treat people [who do not have] papers. I see everybody without asking for the fee of €5. Me and my colleagues have been downstairs several times to stop patients paying.

On Golden Dawn
I hope I will never meet them. They don’t dare to get into the hospitals yet. But they have declared that they are going to come to the hospitals and take the immigrants – they mean every foreigner – and get them out of the hospitals. But, of course, outside the hospital, there are a lot of Pakistani people living in this area. They have been beaten several times by Golden Dawn. They are legal immigrants.

On solutions and the future
There is no future inside the European Union. The EU doesn’t express the will of the people of Europe. It expresses the will of bankers. I don’t think there is any future inside this European Union. I think the problem is for the whole of Europe, not just Greece. Greece is just a kind of experiment. It was very easy to say ‘oh you’re Greek, you’re lazy,’ which is not true. That makes other people take in what was happening to us without saying anything.

We have two solutions. We can either accept it and go into the darkest years of history, or we do not accept this. I am very, very afraid, because I would not like to live in such times. I am very afraid that people will need their own revolution to get power again. If they don’t, they are going to live in very, very dark years. People in Greece have to take power in their hands.

They don’t have this power by voting. The politicians threatened us [during the last elections, with] -‘if you don’t vote for us, we are going to have to leave the Euro’, which is funny. If you don’t have any money, you don’t really care whether its drachma or euro or anything. I firmly believe that without revolutionary methods…I don’t mean violence – but people in Greece, and other countries like Greece, have to understand that its very important to go radical.

Affected personally
This is like a thunderstorm. We have seen our lives change to such a degree that sometimes, I don’t have money for the mortgage anymore. This means that I would be without a house. My brother and sister and their children would also be without a house [they live together now]. It is not only me – this is a whole family.

An [example of an everyday danger/worry is] – I think – “do I have enough gasoline to go to the hospital?” because public transport doesn’t help. I need two hours for that. To make time for my patients, I need to use my car. We are a middle class family – in wintertime, we decided that we wouldn’t use any heat in the house, except for the bedrooms and the place where the kids study. And we are doing well compared to others. Most people in Athens will not have enough heat during the winter. My salary has been cut by 40% and now they are going cut it by another 20%, from a salary that was about 50% or 60% that of a medical specialist to begin with.

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