Austerity

The terrible price Greece continues to pay

Bailout has done little for well-being of the people
Photo: Pedro Szekely
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The day I landed in Greece, my nephew was flying out from Athens airport on his way to Denmark for post-graduate studies in renewable energy. He had told me years ago, when he first passed his university entrance exams, that he already knew his future would be outside of the country. Faced with a staggering 42 per cent youth unemployment rate, he’s joining half a million young Greeks who have also recently done the same.

His grandfather, my uncle, is 78 years old and a car mechanic. He continues to work six days a week at his garage, alongside his wife and one of his sons. He has a cot in the back of the shop where he takes a short afternoon nap, so he can labour well into the evening. People who think Greeks needed a bailout because they don’t work hard should get to know Greeks. When I ask my grandfather how things are here, he just shrugs stoically and says, “Eh, to palevoume. Ti allo na kanoume?

“We’re fighting. What else can we do?”

It’s been seven years since I was last back. It feels like it was only yesterday, as do my teens, which were spent here. Time has a way of speeding up as you age, which has always struck me as incredibly unfair. I no longer see the despair and worry I saw in people’s eyes when Greece was starting to experience the worst of its economic woes and the European Union and the IMF were gearing up to decide so much of its fate and future in exchange for desperately needed financial aid. Aid that would essentially bail out German and French banks — not Greeks.

No relief in sight

What I mainly now see is resignation. Not a passive kind of giving up, but a kind of fatalism that things are what they are and all people can do is try and make the best of them. After years of harsh austerity in the form of ridiculously high tax rates and savage cuts in pensions, salaries, public health, and education, Greeks have been beaten down.

The country is experiencing a huge brain drain as many of the country’s best and brightest have left for study and work opportunities abroad. On the plus side, it’s working extra hard on its tourism — an industry that represents approximately 25 per cent of its GDP and continues to thrive and expand thanks to the country’s never-ending supply of natural beauty, gorgeous blue seas, and perfect summer weather. Greeks haven’t lost their love for life and their gentleness, but you can sense the exhaustion in the air.

My arrival coincided with Greece’s final bailout officially ending after eight years of brutal austerity measures. While it made front-page news, it also seemed to be accentuated by a resounding “So what?” The bailouts may have technically come to an end, but everyone knows that’s far from the truth. There is no relief in sight.

Terrible human cost

While the economy seems to be growing and unemployment has fallen below 20 per cent for the first time since 2011, the human cost of these measures has been unfathomable. Frances Coppola recently wrote an op-ed in Forbes magazine where she links to medical journal The Lancet and an analysis of changes in life expectancy in Greece during the recent crisis. While global death rates have fallen almost everywhere, no other country saw mortality rates rise so drastically as Greece did. Needless deaths were seen in infants and seniors, the results of massive healthcare cuts. Numerous cases of self-harm in teenagers and young adults were also seen, often observed in communities where hope seems to be in short supply.

Former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, in a scathing op-ed for The Guardian, wrote that he believes the bailout has effectively turned Greece into a “debtor’s prison.”

We’re fighting. What else can we do?

“Having put Greece into a coma,” he writes, “they made it permanent and declared it ‘stability’: they pushed our people off a cliff and celebrated their bounce of the hard rock of a great depression as proof of ‘recovery’. To quote Tacitus, they made a desert and called it peace.”

Even former Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem now admits in interviews that the Eurozone countries asked too much from Greece regarding the bailout program and reforms, but has that resulted in a meaningful change of course? Of course not.

Shouldering unfair burden

Amid the horrors of a country sliding into an economic depression, slashed pensions, tragic suicides borne out of desperation, abysmal unemployment rates (even though it recently decreased from 21.7 per cent to 19.5 per cent), and a worrisome brain drain, Greeks have somehow still managed to open their doors and hearts to people with even less. Filoxenia, kindness to strangers, the opposite of xenophobia, is a word that’s still valued here.

But more than 60,000 asylum seekers stuck in Greece due to closed borders and the EU-Turkey accord on refugees has put a major strain on even the most hospitable of people. On top of its severe economic woes, Greece has also been asked to unfairly shoulder the burden of a refugee crisis, while European “solidarity” seems strangely absent. While the EU has agreed that it’s a shared responsibility, the Greek government has been left to handle a crisis that is disproportionate to its small size.

Leafing through a daily newspaper, I come across a translated op-ed by former Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio stating that with European Union elections coming up next year, Europe has three main focuses: Brexit, immigration, and the rise of nationalism. It’s easy to see how much of a global village we’ve become because those three issues concern me — a Canadian — just as much.

The EU was meant to be a safety net for its members.

I ask a taxi driver how things are in Greece right now. He asks me if I know who Rita Pavone is. “Isn’t she an Italian singer from the ‘60s or something?” I reply. He’s impressed I even vaguely remember. “There’s a popular song she used to sing with the lyrics ‘la verita fa male’ — the truth hurts,” he says.

“We need lies. Politicians feed people lies and promises so we can go on. It’s hard.” I tell him that’s not a uniquely Greek problem, and he laughs.

Whether the EU wants to acknowledge it or not, the bailout was essentially also a conscious decision to offset human lives against money and wealth. The end results of so many bad moves — both from the Greeks and the EU — has been a humanitarian disaster. Does Greece have issues with tax evasion and a bloated underperforming public system? Every Greek will tell you so. But that doesn’t mean that innocent people should have paid with their lives for it.

The EU was meant to be a safety net for its members and looking back it’s easy to see that its weakest links were quickly thrown overboard for others to keep from drowning. To add insult to injury, despite promises to the contrary, Greece has been primarily left to fend for itself with the refugee crisis that has crippled a country already dealing with its own economic freefall.

A popular Greek greeting that I’ve always loved is “Kali Sineheia”. It’s something you say when you’re saying goodbye. It literally means “Good continuation.” Whatever it is that you’re currently doing or about to do, may you do it well and in good health. May you continue along the path you were taking according to your intent.

I love how vague and unstructured it is as a greeting and a wish. It lets you define what you want out of it. It lets you continue unencumbered by expectations and limitations what it is you’re going to do next. It applies as a wish for the next hour, the next day, the rest of your life. May you have a good continuation, whatever that may be. I want to shout it from the rooftops for Greece — a country that I dearly love, a country that still remains so kind and dignified, despite its recent woes.

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