Hit by economic crisis, Greek society is in free-fall

Athens, Greece - A sign taped to a wall in an Athens hospital appealed for civility from patients. "The doctors on duty have been unpaid since May," it read, "Please respect their work."

Patients and their relatives glanced up briefly and moved on, hardened to such messages of gloom. In a country where about 1,000 people lose their jobs each day, legions more are still employed but haven't seen a paycheck in months. What used to be an anomaly has become commonplace, and those who have jobs that pay on time consider themselves the exception to the rule.

To the casual observer, all might appear well in Athens. Traffic still hums by, restaurants and bars are open, people sip iced coffees at sunny sidewalk cafes. But scratch the surface and you find a society in free-fall, ripped apart by the most vicious financial crisis the country has seen in half a century.

It has been three years since Greece's government informed its fellow members in the 17-country group that uses the euro that its deficit was far higher than originally reported. It was the fuse that sparked financial turmoil still weighing heavily on eurozone countries. Countless rounds of negotiations ensued as European countries and the International Monetary Fund struggled to determine how best to put a lid on the crisis and stop it spreading.

The result: Greece had to introduce stringent austerity measures in return for two international rescue loan packages worth a total of $313 billion, slashing salaries and pensions and hiking taxes.

The reforms have been painful, and the country faces a sixth year of recession.

Life in Athens is often punctuated by demonstrations big and small, sometimes on a daily basis. Rows of shuttered shops stand between the restaurants that have managed to stay open. Vigilantes roam inner city neighborhoods, vowing to "clean up" what they claim the demoralized police have failed to do. Right-wing extremists beat migrants, anarchists beat the right-wing thugs and desperate local residents quietly cheer one side or the other as society grows increasingly polarized.

"Our society is on a razor's edge," Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias said recently, after striking shipyard workers broke into the grounds of the Defense Ministry. "If we can't contain ourselves, if we can't maintain our social cohesion, if we can't continue to act within the rules ... I fear we will end up being a jungle."

Crumbling living standards

Vassilis Tsiknopoulos, runs a stall at Athens' central fish market and has been working since age 15. He used to make a tidy profit, he says, pausing to wrap red mullet in a paper cone for a customer. But families can't afford to spend much anymore, and many restaurants have shut down.

The 38-year-old fishmonger now barely breaks even.

"I start work at 2:30 a.m. and work "till the afternoon, until about 4 p.m. Shouldn't I have something to show for that?"

Private businesses have closed down in the thousands. Unemployment stands at a record 25 percent, with more than half of Greece's young people out of work. Caught between plunging incomes and ever increasing taxes, families are finding it hard to make ends meet.

Vigilantes

In September, gangs of men smashed immigrant street vendors' stalls at fairs and farmers' markets. Videos posted on the Internet showed the incident being carried out in the presence of lawmakers from the extreme right Golden Dawn party. Formerly a fringe group, Golden Dawn - which denies accusations it has carried out violent attacks against immigrants - made major inroads into mainstream politics. It won nearly 7 percent of the vote in June's election and 18 seats in the 300-member parliament. A recent opinion poll showed its support climbing to 12 percent.

Immigrant and human rights groups say there has been an alarming increase in violent attacks on migrants. Greece has been the EU's main gateway for hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants - and foreigners have fast become scapegoats for rising unemployment and crime.

Healthcare

Healthcare spending has been slashed as the country struggles to reduce its debt. Public hospitals complain of shortages of everything from gauzes to surgical equipment. Pharmacies regularly go on strike or refuse to fill subsidized social security prescriptions because government funds haven't paid them for the drugs already bought. Benefits have been slashed and hospital workers often go unpaid for months.

And it is the country's most vulnerable who suffer.

"When the pharmacies are closed and I can't get my insulin, which is my life for me, what do I do? ... How can we survive?" asked Voula Hasiotou, a member of an association of diabetics who turned out for the rally.

The disabled still receive benefits on a sliding scale according to the severity of their condition. But they are terrified they could face cuts, and are affected anyway by general spending cuts and the pharmacy problems.

"We are fighting hard to manage something, a dignified life," said Anastasia Mouzakiti, a paraplegic who came to the demonstration from the northern city of Thessaloniki with her husband, who is also handicapped.

With extra needs such as wheelchairs and home help for everyday tasks such as washing and dressing, many of Greece's disabled are struggling to make ends meet, Mouzakiti said.

"We need a wheelchair until we die. This wheelchair, if it breaks down, how do we pay for it? With what money?"

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