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Austerity Measures Contributing to Declining Public Health in Greece

April 05, 2017
by Denise Meyer

The Greek financial crisis has been growing for decades, but it came to international attention in 2009 when the European Union, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund agreed to impose austerity measures on the country.

That agreement further weakened a health care system already struggling.

“Greek health care is a humanitarian crisis promoted by the European Union,” said Charalampos Economou, Ph.D., during a panel discussion at the Yale School of Public Health on Friday, March 31.

Since 2009, Greece’s GDP has dropped 26 percent, unemployment has increased to 25 percent and net income is down 40 percent. Economou, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Greece, said that lack of planning and limited administrative capacity to implement changes in just one year, as required, has left the health care system in even worse shape. Furthermore, there are more people not covered by insurance, additional limitations on the services covered and new restrictions on accessing services. Public health expenditures in most of Europe are about 8 percent of GDP; Greece’s are 4.9 percent.

Economou said the Greek public will have to create change in the future, emphasizing primary care in the community. The country’s health care model needs to shift away from hospitals toward municipal centers, community clinics and NGOs. The Church of Greece must also continue to provide an important safety net for those with limited resources.

Another important driver of deteriorating health is changes in the Greek diet and nutrition in the last few decades, said panelist Elena Paravantes. The Greeks began abandoning their traditional diet in the 1960s when times were more prosperous and people moved to the cities. “We had the prototype Mediterranean diet for health and sustainability,” said Paravantes, an independent food and nutrition consultant. The diet was largely vegetable-based, with some fish and, occasionally, meat.

In 1961 individuals on average consumed 48 pounds of meat each year. That figure has since risen to 175 pounds annually and commodity agriculture now undermines the diversity of local food production. Many Greeks are consuming more calories, predominantly coming from saturated fats and processed foods. Processed Greek foods have also changed nutritional intake, substituting palm oil for olive oil, and cheese from cow’s milk instead of traditional feta from sheep’s milk, said Paravantes.

Yet, there are some hopeful trends emerging as a side effect of the crisis in the country. Small start-ups are making beans, rice and greens trendy again and entrepreneurs are returning to farming to bring specialty crops to market. There is also a move toward recycling leftovers for those in need, which is especially important as Greeks, demonstrating fully their filotimo even in times they themselves struggle, seek to help thousands of hungry refugees landing on their shores. “That is a reflection of who we are,” said Tassos Kyriakides, Ph.D., host of the panel and an associate research scientist in biostatistics at the Yale School of Public Health.

Debbie Humphries, Ph.D., clinical instructor at the Yale School of Public Health served as moderator of the event, which was co-sponsored by YSPH and the Hellenic Studies Program at Yale and funded by the Kempf Memorial Fund at the McMillan Center.

Submitted by Denise Meyer on April 05, 2017