My weekly Guardian column:
The story from an Athens hospital beggared belief. In May a 54 year old man needed immediate heart surgery. He was unemployed and uninsured, a common reality for many Greek citizens since the economic crisis hit in 2008. The hospital initially refused to admit him, fearing they would never get paid, but the man said he would submit the required welfare document when he received it. His doctor convinced the facility that the patient was in jeopardy and must be operated on immediately.
The man, whose name has not been released – though the story has been verified by reliable sources – was lying in the operating theatre waiting to have a pacemaker installed, when a person from the hospital’s accounting department arrived. Because the patient hadn’t submitted the necessary welfare documents, the accountant forced the doctors to stop the procedure.
It was only the next day, after pressure from a unique organisation called the metropolitan community clinic in Helliniko, that the man had the life-saving work. Instead of acknowledging fault, the Greek health ministry preferred to blame the messenger, accusing the metropolitan clinic of concocting the story.
Such issues are increasingly common here in Greece. According to Transparency International, Greece has the most corrupt public service in Europe. The Institute of Economic Affairs found that Greece’s shadow economy in 2012 was equivalent to 24% of GDP.
On a balmy evening last week I visited the metropolitan clinic to see their response to this sad state of affairs. Situated on an old US army base on the outskirts of Athens, the organisation has become an invaluable service for 28,000 people since it began operations in 2011.
A storeroom full of donated medicine is the foundation of its operations. Visiting rooms are staffed entirely by volunteers, 250 Greeks who rotate on a roster.
Spokesman Christos Sideris explained to me that the centre treated the most desperate. “The clinic only accepts the poor and unemployed, people who have no insurance, those on low wages and pensions, all ages and sexes and even former industrialists who have fallen from financial highs,” he said. “Neoliberal ideology is putting money above people’s lives.”
There are a few key rules implemented by the group’s assembly: “No party politics and no money but we will take drugs as donations. We won’t have Greek politicians with TV crews to look around here. The clinic does not advertise who gives drugs, it’s anonymous, and we will try not to associate ourselves with companies, individuals or NGOs who got us into the financial crisis in the first place.”
Founder and key doctor Giorgos Vichas hoped that there would be no need for the facility in a few years’ time – though he’s being asked to advise on similar community clinics across Europe, including a new one just opened in Hamburg, Germany.
Vichas told me that the medical association of Athens tried to close the centre down in 2013, saying the clinic lacked the correct permits to operate. “But then in late 2013 the drugs police arrived with a magistrate who came with a bag of drugs to donate,” he said. “She could have shut us down.”
The clinic is a necessity in a country where extreme poverty, suicide and drug abuse are surging. Every time I catch a train around Athens I see Greeks begging for money or selling small pens for a pittance. A constant presence around the city are signs of protesting cleaning women, sacked by the finance ministry in 2013, holding constant protests to demand their jobs back.
For many, they’ve become a symbol of opposition against a state bureaucracy that prefers to talk of selling public assets to appease the EU and arrest the financial decline. China is now getting in on the act, keen to purchase its own part of the Greek state. Brussels is even financing a continent wide drone program. Greece has announced, without any public consultation, that the unmanned vehicles will be used to monitor immigrants over its sea borders.
I find myself agreeing with Slavoj Žižek, who argues that only a radicalised left can save Europe, including Greece, from slipping deeper into the morass of a populist, anti-refugee right.
This left is undoubtedly growing. During a public event last week in Athens with writer Christos Tsiolkas and me, talking about the concept of nation in a fractured, patriotic world, organiser Eugenia Tzirtzilaki encouraged the audience to challenge popular and simplistic notions of identity and find a more inclusive European perspective.
The crowd argued that Greece’s dark and racist past, along with its similar present, must be rejected. Yet finding an effective response to the use and abuse of nationalism, so beloved of the far-right and current government, is no easy task.
Thankfully, there are signs that many Greeks are blaming those directly responsible for the current crisis and not believing a person like IMF head Christine Lagarde, who remains in denial about how her organisation punishes the most vulnerable in Greece.
Greek lawyer Thanasis Kampagiannis is a member of Keerfa: Movement United Against Racism and Fascist Threat. he has spent years campaigning against the growth in extremism. He recently successfully represented the family of Pakistani man Shehzad Luqman, who was murdered by Golden Dawn thugs in Athens in 2013. The accused are now serving life sentences for the crime.
The lawyer is also involved in the likely, upcoming trial of the Golden Dawn leadership, though Kampagiannis remains skeptical it will happen.Collusion between the state and Golden Dawn is rife; nevertheless, he will appear to defend Egyptian fishermen assaulted by the party’s henchmen.
Kampagiannis is encouraged by the growing success of left-wing Syriza. It’s now the biggest party in the nation, but he is concerned its leadership won’t take the necessary “radical” action to rescue Greece.
“I worry that they accept the EU framework”, he said. “Leader Alexis Tsipras thinks you can reform the EU terms on which Greece implements measures against austerity.” With a majority of Greeks now having a “negative opinion” of the EU, Kampagiannis argued that Greece should leave it. In the transition away from Brussels, he told me, “we can have a policy where the working class interests are protected and capital should pay”.
It’s a vision that may find resonance beyond Greece’s borders in the coming decade.