Economic crisis proving lethal
“The Greeks are dying!” The post on Facebook was both striking and frightening. A good friend, a retired Greek ambassador with years of service in Turkey and now a member of a small, extra parliamentary Euroskeptic party, supported his gloomy proclamation with updated statistics. The number of deaths in Greece for January were double compared to same time last year, he wrote. This year, about 15,000 people died in Greece of various causes but all linked to living conditions, lack of proper medical care, insufficient nutrition, and general hardship and deprivation due to the economic crisis.
Greeks were always proud of the ideal climatic conditions in their country, and they attributed their longevity to their health-boosting, homegrown products like olive oil while expressing happiness that their seas could still offer enough fish to feed them. The older ones liked to remind those younger that their country had gone through really harsh times of famine, hunger and destitution and that they would look down on today’s difficulties.
“This is nothing,” my aunt who died two years ago at the age of 96, would say. “During the German occupation, we would eat boiled stinging nettles for dinner, and a bottle of olive oil would cost as much as gold.”
But while my aunt had enough stamina to reach that age maintaining all her senses until the end, this will perhaps not be the same in the future.
A comprehensive report that came out a few months ago from the Bank of Greece confirms that the physical and mental health of Greeks is deteriorating. According to the report, which is actually about the bank’s monetary policy, the impact of the continuing overbearing austerity, unemployment, income decrease and chronic stress have increased the risk of suicidal behavior and infant mortality (with an increase of 50 percent for infants less than 1 year old) combined by a decline of births by 22.1 percent.
The economic crisis, which has continued to hit Greece since 2008, has caused a drastic revision in the stereotype of the “happy-go-lucky Greek.” While that might have been true in 2008, when only 3.3 percent of the populations was suffering from any sort of mental illness, the numbers increased dramatically during the years of austerity, reaching 12.3 percent and counting in 2013.
Greeks may now be depressed and desperate, but would still not choose to put an end to their lives. In spite of their decreasing living standards, a dramatic change in lifestyle and huge financial problems, they still maintain the lowest rate of suicide.
Going back to the message of my Facebook friend, the coming of the new year brought together some addition cause for alarm. The dramatic decrease in per capita spending for public health – by almost 30 percent since 2009 – has caused a serious fall in the supply of vital health services, both in terms of personnel and medication and general hospital care. The 9.9 percent that used to be saved in the state budget for health went down to 4.7 percent, and it is likely that more cuts will be in the pipeline. This, in combination with the high number of people simply not having the means to get proper medical care, has brought an increase of chronic diseases by 24 percent!
We may not have detailed data yet for the cause of death among the Greeks who died in January, but we know at least how many were lost from flu: 185. That’s the highest in the last five years, and that is really alarming.