French NGO Médecins du Monde (the umbrella network that includes Doctors of the World), which provides healthcare to the needy across the globe, originally opened its clinic in the Greek capital Athens to provide help for destitute immigrants and asylum seekers. But now the debt crisis has changed all that.
The severe austerity measures introduced by the Papandreou government, imposed in return for successive bailouts, has led to a sharp rise in the numbers of Greeks unable to pay for essential medical care. Greeks now account for almost one in three consultations at the humanitarian organisation's polyclinic, twice as many as last year, and include public sector workers, former small business owners, young mothers and rising numbers of the homeless.
With about 50 medical staff, mostly benevolent nurses and doctors, the Médecins du Monde (MdM) clinic is situated at the centre of
Athens, on Koumoundourou Square, and offers its consultations and medicines free of charge.
MdM also runs a similar clinic in Perama, a port city some 35 kilometres from the capital where the patients are nearly all Greek, and operates an itinerant mobile medical unit that visits the islands and remote country areas.
Christina Samartzi is the head of MdM's programme in Greece, and in this interview with Mediapart's Carine Fouteau she describes the desperate plight of increasing numbers of Greeks who, almost overnight, have plunged through the social floor into poverty.
Mediapart: What effect has the economic crisis and austerity measures had on the profile of your patients?
Christina Samartzi: The major new thing is that we see more and more Greeks coming for help and to be treated here, where they know they can find, free of charge, General Practitioners, dermatologists, psychologists and pediatricians. That was not the case before, or at least only marginal. Médecins du monde set up in Athens to bring help to migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, principally from sub-Saharan Africa and central Asia.
Now coming here are the unemployed, low income workers in precarious employment, and the homeless who no longer have the means to pay for treatment. They can no longer pay private sector consultation fees. Nor do they have access to public hospitals where there is a standard entrance fee of 5 euros, that's already too much. They cannot buy medicines, either. They come here to obtain them free.
In 2011, the Greeks represented 30% of people admitted [to the centres]. There were half as many the previous year. In our centre at Perama, which is situated in a very poor region, only Greeks come.
Mediapart: When did you become aware of this evolution?
C.S.: It began at the end of 2010 and it was amplified at the beginning of 2011, then reaching a summit. In total, about 30,000 people have passed through us this year, against 20,000 one year earlier.