In Greece, the combined effects of the financial crisis and the budgetary cuts purported to mend it have been swift and devastating. Since 2008, the unemployment rate has increased over 200%. About 50% of youths under 25 are unemployed – compared to 7% in Germany. More than a million people have been laid off in the last 6 years, and the number of Greeks suffering from depression has increased 300%.
Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, has not been spared. In some of the main shopping streets, more than 50% of the stores have permanently closed down. For the local population, the iron curtains of the closed shops are just the tip of the iceberg; they are the most visible aspect of the austerity shock that hit them in May 2010, when the first memorandum of agreement between Greece and its creditors was signed.
Closed down shops and bankrupted businesses that have turned the nearby industrial zone into a post-apocalyptic landscape; endemic unemployment, long queues in front of soup kitchens, and an ailing health care system: these are the stigmas that have come to traumatize Thessaloniki and its inhabitants.
In March 2014, Kostas Arvanotópoulis, the Minister of Education at the time, broadcast two commercials, in which Greek youths were encouraged to opt for learning a trade and forego longer and more expensive studies. Eight months later, Andréas Lovérdos, his successor in the government of Antonis Samaras, proposed to make up for the shortage of teachers by resorting to unpaid volunteers. The volunteers’ sole incentive was a potential advancement in ranking if a position were ever to open in the future.
Public schools and universities as well as students of working and middle class backgrounds bore the brunt of the austerity measures imposed by the Troïka. From 2008 to 2013, the percentage of youths out of work, school or apprenticeship increased by 92.6%. Throughout the country, the administrative staff in schools and universities were reduced to part-time employment. The ensuing strike lasted several months. As for the teachers, 2500 of them were suspended, recruitment was brought to a halt, and the non-renewal of temporary contracts was thoroughly implemented. In December 2015, tenured professors at the University of Thessaloniki were expected to hold classes until 10 pm in order to make up for the scarcity of teachers.
Signed in August, 2015 by the Greek State and its creditors, the third Memorandum of Understanding allocates a mere 3.5% of the total health care budget to public hospitals. For other member states of the EU, the average share of the health care budget going to public hospitals is 7%. According to hospital practitioners, the Greek system would need an additional 26,000 health care professionals, including 6,000 doctors, in order to function properly.
On the rare occasion that new personnel are hired, their employment is always precarious: a 5-month contract with a salary of 600€ ($652) per month for a young medical doctor. At this point, the entire system owes its survival to the overly exploited staff. Students and seasoned professionals alike are leaving the country in droves: just in the last 3 years alone, the medical association reports, the city of Thessaloniki has lost 2000 practitioners.
Public hospitals often lack basic sanitization material (alcohol gel, toilet paper, soap, cotton…) and pharmaceutical products (serums, injections). Patients are therefore expected to provide the necessary equipment themselves. Doctors com- plain about the recent increase in hospital-acquired infections, most notably in intensive care units.
According to Katsiba Dafni, the President of the Union of Thessaloniki Hospital Practitioners, in the last 6 years, life expectancy has decreased by 3 years for women and by 5 years for men – a devolution that is usually only found in war-torn areas.
Translated by Sacha Le Chêne
Recommended citation: Berthe, Vincent. “The Marks of Austerity in Thessaloniki, Greece.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).