A referendum planned for February 16 on the Cycladic islands of Paros and Antiparos over whether or not to maintain the public healthcare system or to go it alone should be cause for some deep reflection on the part of the government but also on the rest of society as well.
Reforms that were part of the country’s bailout deal certainly led to a partial shake-up of the National Health System (ESY), though this was mainly restricted to curbing exorbitant spending on medicines and on across-the-board cuts to shrinking public healthcare services. A recent report by the European Parliament on the social impact of fiscal austerity on four eurozone countries, in fact, laments the effect cutbacks have had on healthcare. Within the context of national and European criteria for social equality, there is nothing more reasonable than the residents of Paros and Antiparos demanding the same access to healthcare services as other parts of the country.
On the other hand, we cannot overlook the fact that many health services, and health centers especially, have suffered in the recent past from lousy management, wasteful spending and politically expedient appointments in top management positions. These problems should have been fixed by now, though not at the expense of residents on islands and other inaccessible parts of the country who now lack fundamental services such as cardiologists and orthopedists.
Greece is a nation of islands and it is its islands that have given it so many of its unique natural, intellectual, cultural and geopolitical characteristics. Islands are also a key part of the country’s capital as they are a major magnet for tourism.
Protesting Paros, beleaguered Santorini and understaffed Myconos are the big tourism factories of the Aegean. Yet neglected infrastructure and facilities make them unattractive as permanent homes, undermining their demographic rejuvenation. These problems also contribute to stunting the further growth of tourism into a form that can have a more long-term effect and be more sustainable. How could any foreigner – pensioners especially – agree to spend the off-season on the islands knowing that there is a shortage of basic healthcare facilities? How can new forms of tourism be developed, aimed at, for example, the elderly or those recovering from illness?
Fiscal adjustment is a tool, not gospel. It should be applied with flexibility, understanding about the problem and ingenious adjustments, especially when what is at stake is the survival of the country’s islands, the symbolic core of Hellenism and the Mediterranean world.
CORRECTION: Due to an editorial error, this commentary suggests the residents of Paros and Antiparos will vote on whether or not to stay with the public healthcare system, when in fact the referendum's purpose is to register public discontent with the system and to propose ways of acting on that sentiment.