Long before the current economic crisis, Greece was facing a serious immigration problem — a problem that has been growing over the last two decades. As a result, Greece has been struggling with the risks posed by unimmunized populations arriving from countries with very low living standards and nonexistent health services.
Private initiatives sprang up to care for those ineligible for treatment under state law. Today, though, those efforts to meet an earlier challenge are now taking on a new one: the disastrous effects of the economic crisis on Greeks themselves.
Opened in 2008, the Social Solidarity Clinic in Rethymnon, Crete is a volunteer initiative by doctors, pharmacists, nurses, obstetricians, dentists and volunteers from local social service agencies. Working under the motto “We’re all in this together”, the clinic provides free health services to the young and old, to uninsured Greeks and immigrants both legal and illegal.
“The clinic’s mission is to help those who, because of fear or poverty, cannot or do not seek help through the Greek healthcare system.” says Eleni Ioannidou, the head of the medical team. Over the years the clinic has grown both in importance and in size.
“We started with a team of 8 to 10 volunteers four years ago and now we are approximately 60 volunteers.”
“There is a wide network of private doctors in town who collaborate with us.” says Ioannidou. “So for what the clinic can’t provide, we nevertheless have the ability to send our patients for examination or treatment to our own specialists, as needed.” The local public hospital also supports the clinic by allowing free lab tests for one patient every day.
The clinic was established to to deal with the limits imposed by state law that, ultimately, have a detrimental effect on the entire community.
Even though all children, for instance, can receive care through the Greek healthcare system, regardless of citizenship status, the lack of supplies in major hospitals prevents this from happening in practice. Pregnant women are also entitled to free checkups under the government’s system. However, medication and critical screening exams like mammograms and pap tests are not free. For both Greeks and immigrants without healthcare, it is difficult to find treatment for chronic health problems such as hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.
To help fill these gaps, the free clinic seeks out surplus medications and medical supplies whenever possible for its patients. Nonetheless, the clinic is still dependent on funds from private donors in order to carry out its mission. The cost of immunizing children alone topped 25,000 euros last year at the clinic.
Ioannidou hopes that with continued support from the state and private donors, they will be able to treat more people. The need, however, continues to grow.
According to the clinic’s statistics, the number of people who have sought help has been rising each year. So far there have been over 5,000 visits from patients – 3,500 adults and 1,500 children. 200 children have been immunized and more than 30 uninsured pregnant women have been given help and advice on for their pregnancy.
During these few years, Ioannidou has seen it all.
“We’ve seen mothers visit the clinic only on the month they are to give birth, as well as older children that are completely unimmunized. We’ve seen diseases found only in textbooks.”
Unfortunately, the latest statistics though show another disturbing trend. The effects of the economic crisis for Greeks themselves have started to become apparent at the clinic. Last year, 12% of patients at the clinic were Greeks and that number continues to rise as the economic crisis ravages Greece. In the last half of 2011, for instance, fewer immigrants and more Greeks sought help, as immigrants leave and the number of unemployed or uninsured Greeks begins to increase.
“The law has become very strict concerning the preconditions that are needed for someone to receive health insurance and social care.” says Ioannidou. “For example, an employer has to pay 80 days of work a year to insure each employee. This is becoming increasingly difficult for employers and so there is a rise in what we call “black” labor – unofficial work.”
Looking at the clinic’s immediate future, Ioannidou believes that free medical care services will become increasingly necessary, and foresees that volunteer clinics like hers could become an integral part of the Greek healthcare system.
You can read more here about a similar volunteer doctors clinic in Perama, an excerpt of which is below.
The Medecins du Monde’s Volunteer Clinic in Perama
According to Dr. Nikitas Kanakis, the dentist who’s president of the Greek branch of Doctors of the World, the number of patients coming through the door of the group’s Perama clinic has quadrupled in the past two years. Eight in 10 patients now are Greeks, four times what it had been.
The doctors group has been handing out 45-pound food parcels to families since December — 4,000 around the country, 1,000 in Perama alone. “I think we are the sole support for at least 300 families here,” he said.
All medicines are donated. When a new cancer patient arrives, Kanakis issues a community appeal, and locals donate their leftover pills. “It’s a Greek thing,” he said of the practice, something not seen even in most war zones.