Greece: COVID-19 crisis exposes urgent need to bolster austerity-ravaged health system
The COVID-19 pandemic affecting Greece has revealed how years of recession and austerity measures have left the country’s health system on its knees, Amnesty International said in a report published today.
“Resuscitation required: The Greek health system after a decade of austerity” documents how severe cuts since 2010 have left many people unable to afford and access health care. Health workers told Amnesty International that they are operating with significant staff shortages, a crisis situation which has been exacerbated by the onset of COVID-19.
“Staff and equipment shortages are now making headlines, but the reality is that Greece’s healthcare system has been crumbling for years,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Europe.
“It is vital that the government recognises this crisis as a wake-up call and begins investing in health and social care.”
Staff and equipment shortages are now making headlines, but the reality is that Greece’s healthcare system has been crumbling for years
The Greek government began to introduce austerity measures in 2010, in response to the global financial crisis that started in 2008. Public spending was slashed by 32 percent across sectors, with public health expenditure falling by nearly 43 percent between 2009 and 2017. Structural reforms shifted a greater portion of health care costs onto patients. Furthermore, the three financial assistance programmes concluded with Greece’s creditors included conditionalities, some of which encouraged, or influenced, the austerity measures that resulted in a debilitated health system.
If it is not an emergency, you just wait in pain
The impact has been sharply felt by staff and patients. Amnesty International interviewed 75 people seeking care in the public health system and 55 health workers. Around 90 percent of those interviewed told Amnesty International they had faced lengthy waiting times and many described difficulties they faced in accessing health care due to high costs.
One man told Amnesty International: “If you don’t have money, you can’t have health care now days”. Another said: “If it is not an emergency, you just wait in pain.”
One man told Amnesty International in 2019: “The groups who have paid for this crisis are people with low incomes and workers. They have paid with their tax, with their social benefits, and with their health.”
The first case of COVID-19 was reported in Greece in February 2020. In early April one health worker told Amnesty International: “During the financial crisis when there were cuts in the health sector this resulted in most hospitals operating with half the personnel required… [In our hospital] we work with half the required staff and if [COVID-19] cases increase it would be impossible.”
Aware of the weakness of the health care system, the government responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with a series of containment measures, including a swift lockdown, which helped to minimize the number of infections and deaths. The government also offered some economic support to the population and allocated an additional 200 million Euros to the health system.
After a decade of underinvestment, public health services are facing another serious challenge in the face of the current pandemic
Many of the challenges faced by health workers, during the period of austerity have been exacerbated during the pandemic, raising serious concerns about their health, safety, and working conditions.
Health workers told Amnesty International that they face difficulties due to low staff numbers, lack of adequate personal protective equipment, and lack of adequate medical equipment including ventilators and ICU beds.
Whilst economic crisis and austerity measures particularly and disproportionately impacted some groups before the pandemic, their health and livelihood are at particular risk since the arrival of COVID-19.
“After a decade of underinvestment, public health services are facing another serious challenge in the face of the current pandemic,” said Marie Struthers.
“With a post-pandemic recession looming across the world, there are important lessons that can be learned. Greece’s painful experience of the last decade must not be repeated or replicated and there should be no return to the harmful strategy of austerity.”