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Protecting the weak

By Nikos Xydakis

The tragic death of a 13-year-old Serbian girl from carbon monoxide poisoning in a Thessaloniki home that had no power and no heating other than a brazier has drawn public attention back to a problem which first became painfully apparent last year. Simply put, the problem is that a significant part of the country’s population cannot afford to pay their bills to the Public Power Corporation – even when they are being charged special rates because they are poor – and are unable to heat their homes safely or protect their children and older family members.

The government’s initiative on Thursday to take steps to ensure that the poor who have been cut off have their power turned back on is, of course, a step in the right direction. The measure comes later than it should have, though, as the problem became apparent last year when thousands of people did not switch on their central heating because of the cost and blankets of smoke from fireplaces and wood stoves covered almost every Greek city.

That said, better late than never.

The question that arises, however, is how the government will find those who are most in need and really help them. Recent reports suggested that municipal and regional welfare services will undertake the task, but it is not clear how they will go about it. The problem is that regional and local authorities are not exactly in much better shape than the central government, neither in terms of their finances nor in their ability to get organized. They have basically already done all they can do for the poor, and that is organizing food handouts.

The economic crisis, which is increasingly assuming the characteristics of a humanitarian crisis, caught the entire state by surprise and unprepared to provide a safety net for those who would be hit the hardest. The Greek welfare state was never much to boast about anyway. It was designed for periods of prosperity and was and remains prone to fund mismanagement. Six years of recession and three-and-a-half years of harsh austerity have driven the last nail into its coffin. The crisis has also exposed the fact that the welfare state was not set up to function in the long term, or to protect everyone from the unemployed to the uninsured self-employed professionals during the bad times.

The only thing helping the victims of the crisis is the immense effort being made by nongovernmental organizations and citizens’ groups, though the magnitude that the problems have now assumed are becoming overwhelming for them.

What we need now is a national effort. The state and citizens need to come together to think of ways to make sure that no more lives are lost as a result of the crisis.

ekathimerini.com , Saturday December 7, 2013 (13:30)  
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