Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Greece's economic woes- More than money

Police officers and firefighters protest against pay cuts in central Athens.

"The first hard part is over, the situation will calm down for a while," says Greek MP Eva Kaili as we talk on a hotel balcony overlooking Syntagma square in central Athens. She doesn't want to go and talk down in the square, saying," some people aren't well, or they might be too desperate and start shouting at us." That's coming from Miss Kaili, a former TV News presenter with the looks of a model. But it's not stalkers she's talking about. Politics here is well and truly on the streets as well as in parliament and it's ugly.

Syntagma square which we're looking down on, and the Greek parliament which sits just above it are now synonymous with the demonstrations and riots which have strained Greece as waves of financial disaster, economic contraction and austerity have washed over the populace. The economy has been in recession for five years now. When Eva Kaili says people are desperate, she is more correct than perhaps even she can appreciate.

While politicians in the parliament sit through to the small hours voting themselves numb over each article of each bill of cuts, Greeks out on the street are being pushed towards the financial edge, and over it.

In the offices of OEK, the 'Organisation of Workers' Social Housing' in downtown Athens I find a scene of chaos. Angry gatherings fill rooms and corridors as groups of staff argue and fret. The government has just announced that OEK, which provided housing support to people on low incomes, will be shut down to save money. Its functions and that of another government body which provided social support will be merged with a third office. The end result is that the seven hundred staff here may lose their jobs. None of them has a clue what is going on or what to do. Two weeks before, one of their staff had threatened to throw herself out of one of the office windows. She had been talked out of it but many Greeks can understand how she felt.

Fraught staff meetings at the offices of OEK. None of those present knew if they would keep their jobs.
 At Klimaka, an NGO which offers all kinds of social support to increasing numbers of desperate Greeks, I find the only phone in Greece people can ring if they feel like that worker and want a suicide prevention line. It is manned 24 hours a day by professional psychiatrists and counsellors who volunteer their time. But as staff there said, the numbers of calls had increased dramatically. Data for suicides in Greece was hard to obtain, but had also increased markedly from 2007 to 2009.

The only phone in Greece you can ring that's dedicated to  stopping suicide.
"I had a call from a lady standing on the edge of the fifth floor of a building," says Elena Bechiari, a psychiatrist and director at the centre, "she said she had a young child, that she couldn't pay her debts any more, that she had lost her job and didn't know what to do. She couldn't stand the pain any more and just wanted to end it all." The staff at Klimaka try to listen and give advice and then offer counselling sessions in person. But Elena admits they're desperately short of resources. Some of their services are government funded, but the suicide prevention line isn't one of them. It's a narrow thread of light for many Greeks struggling with the human costs of Greece's economic catastrophe.

Elena Bechiari knows all her volunteers work hard to help people, but fears how many people they aren't able to reach.
On the streets, Greek police officers and firefighters are protesting. The police are usually the ones on the other side of the protests, variously accused of unnecessary use of tear gas or hailed for preventing opportunist hooligans from causing too much damage. When we talk to them, they too are in a difficult situation. "Our pay has been cut by 30% already. Now they want another 20%. We can"t live on half our pay!" shouted angry members. Another officer’s comments reveal the mistakes made by many Greeks in an era of easy credit. "I took out loans for the house, the car. Now the loan repayments stay the same while my wages go down. I don't know how on earth I'm going to afford it."

Police officers demonstrating outside the parliament building they're usually trying to protect.
Plenty of blame lays with ordinary Greeks who took advantage of irresponsible banks lending cheap credit. The pay of many workers doubled after they joined the Euro in 2001. That was the government's fault as it went on a reckless spending spree. But Greeks in all sectors now grudgingly admit they ignored the warning bells in their heads that told them they couldn't afford to borrow.

The challenge now is not just the necessary economic amputations going on in the Greek parliament. It's managing the potentially tragic human costs brought about the demands of economic austerity.

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