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A Health Care Tragedy Plays Out In A Greek Port

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A Health Care Tragedy Plays Out In A Greek Port


A Health Care Tragedy Plays Out In A Greek Port

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In explaining the Greek crisis, it's easy to get caught up in the billions of dollars involved and the percentages that bondholders will lose on their investments. For the Greek people, the bottom line is things are really tough. Unemployment is nearly 20 percent. And at the same time, new fees for doctors' visits and medicines are putting state-funded health care out of reach of many.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from the port town of Perama, where an international relief group has shifted its focus from foreign war zones to poverty at home.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI BYLINE: The long, wide piers are deserted. A few rusting skeletons of unfinished boats stand outside abandoned warehouses. Near the port of Piraeus, Perama developed after the Greek Civil War of the 1940s. It grew prosperous thanks to the ship repair industry in the 1980s. But the business then moved to low-cost Turkey and China. In a few short years, jobs dropped from 4,500 to 50.

The official unemployment rate in Perama is 80 percent but actually, it's much higher. Even the underground economy that gravitated around the shipping industry has shriveled up.

And under new austerity measures after a year of unemployment, citizens lose their entitlement to state-funded health care.

Several women and children are waiting to see doctors. Others come to get parcels of food and diapers. The supplies are provided by this free clinic run by Doctors of the World.

Nikitas Kanakis, director of the Greek branch of the NGO, says the situation in Greece is like that of a Third World country.

DR. NIKITAS KANAKIS: People in the queue trying to find food, people who try to find medicine, homeless people in the middle of nowhere. It is a humanitarian crisis.

BYLINE: The Greek public health system was bloated and rife with corruption. But since 2009, a 13 percent budget cut has led to lack of medicines and deteriorating hospital conditions, prompting a team of English researchers to warn of a health tragedy in the making. The cash-strapped government introduced a new fee of $6.50 for each hospital visit, making it too costly for the 30 percent of Greeks living under the poverty line.

Here in Perama, the free clinic is filling a vacuum left by the state. It has some 90 visits a day and, along with free medicines, two months ago it started distributing food parcels to the very needy.

Twenty-five-year-old Chionia Manousakidou, a mother of three, comes for a weekly package of milk, pasta, rice and sugar. She and her husband used to work at itinerant fairs but they can no longer afford the fee to manage a stand.

CHIONIA MANOUSAKIDON: (Through translator) We had to give up our house and now live at my mother-in-law's. We all sleep in one room. This clinic is the only place we can come for help.

BYLINE: The economic crisis has led to an increase in personal and family problems. In October, the Perama clinic started offering free visits with psychologist Katerina Goblia(ph).

KATERINA GOBLIA: A symptom that I encounter very frequently is panic attacks, and also agoraphobia - they have difficulty to leave their home. And all kinds of depressive symptoms, feeling helpless and unworthy and guilty. They have a lot of despair.

BYLINE: One of the volunteers at the clinic is 49-year-old Antigone Varkianou, an unemployed graphic designer. Her husband used to work in the shipping industry, but is now jobless. They belong to a generation, Varkianou says, that has a memory of poverty and can cope with hardships.

ANTIGONE VARKIANON: (Through translator) The problem is young people, 25 to 35 years old, raised in prosperity, who never imagined they would reach this point. They're the ones at risk. They have no practical knowledge. They don't even know how to light a fire if they need to or how to go to the mountains and collect greens and cook them. They don't even know how to knock on someone's door and ask for help.

BYLINE: The Greek parliament has just cut the minimum wage by 20 percent, reducing it to $780 a month. Here at the clinic, there's only one certainty about the future - that for Greeks, trying to survive is going to get harder and harder.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Athens.

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