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Fear itself

By Nick Malkoutzis

Fear is a sentiment that Greeks have learned to live with over the past couple of years. As the thread by which the country hangs grows ever thinner, fear has begun to pervade all aspects of life. It is so prevalent and has been lingering for so long that most people have become desensitized, blocking from their minds the worst scenarios that could lie ahead.

Every now and then, though, there is a jolt to the system that reminds us of how precarious Greece’s situation is and how there are about 11 million people clinging to this fraying thread, hoping that it will somehow repair itself before it snaps and they are cast into the dark valley below.

This week, there have been plenty of reminders of just how close the abyss is. Perhaps the most shocking came on Tuesday when during a Skai TV report about drugs shortages, a woman’s cries could be heard from inside a pharmacy. “Where am I going to find my medication?” she screamed with a fear that pierced through the shield of inurement that Greeks drag along with them wherever they go these days.

It was the cry of a woman exasperated by not being able to find her medicines due to pharmacists’ refusal to provide drugs, including those to treat cancer or diabetes, on credit. Fed up with being owed millions by social security funds, pharmacists refused to bankroll a state that can’t pay its bills. This unfortunate and incensed woman, like thousands of others, was caught in the middle of this tug-of-war, which has led to elderly and seriously ill people traipsing from one hospital or pharmacy to the next in the hope of finding the medication they need. In northern Greece, for example, the state-run health organization EOPYY only operates one pharmacy, in Thessaloniki.

It is a scene from a pre-apocalyptic Greece that is being played over and over. The difficulty the country is having in paying its medicines bill, which has been slashed by about a third this year, is symptomatic of the breakdown in Greece’s public finances, exacerbated by the deepening economic crisis.

Unemployment was up to almost 22 percent in March, according to figures published on Thursday, and social security contributions have fallen by almost 10 percent. State hospitals are 1.6 billion euros in arrears and social insurance funds owe 2.8 billion euros. The government will need to find 1.4 billion euros from somewhere by the end of the year if pensions are going to be paid, experts say. Authorities scrambled this week to provide a 250-million-euro loan to the state energy providers amid fears of imminent cuts. The gas company, DEPA, is looking for a loan to pay its suppliers because Greek energy suppliers have not paid their bills.

The rivets have started popping off the rickety joints in the Greek economy but society is also coming apart at the seams. The queues at pharmacies this week were a visible reminder but there are plenty of signs beneath the surface: crime, suicides, mental illness, homelessness and the hopelessness of scavengers who sift through rubbish on many street corners in major cities, where the effects are more pronounced.

Perhaps the only reason that the social impact of the crisis is not more visible is the safety net that has been stretched from Alexandroupoli to Ierapetra by the ultimate Greek institution: the family. But even this bedrock of Greek society is now under severe pressure and, unless the mounting pressure lets up, it can only be a matter of time before it gives way. More than 1 million people are unemployed, of whom some 600,000 receive no benefits at all; many more have no health insurance, while social transfers for families with disabled and sick children are being slashed.

All this is happening against the backdrop of an economy that seems to be in free fall. Data out on Friday showed a drop of 6.5 percent in GDP in the first quarter of 2012 -- the fifth year of the economic downturn. Greece’s recession has already lasted longer than the 1929-32 Great Depression. “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” became a hit song in the US during that time but today it’s the code by which many Greeks survive. Brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters are now the only barrier between some struggling Greeks and destitution. But dwindling pensions, savings and wages (if they exist) can only stretch so far.

The family as the last bulwark against impending disaster is perhaps a far cry from the role it has played in contributing to the crisis. The idea of looking after family members, even if at the expense of society, contributed to a whole host of problems, such as the lack of meritocracy in the public sector, corruption and tax evasion, that have exacerbated Greece’s weaknesses. Philosopher Stelios Ramfos is one of those who identify the family as a great obstacle to progress in Greece.

“In our society, time is a closed concept; it is founded on a great historical past and is perennially based on the idea of a family that is willing to accept reality only to the extent that it presents itself as a familiar whole, in the form of an endless repetition of past experiences,” Ramfos said in a recent speech. “Our tendency, the key problem of our culture is that it needs to do away with the transforming time. Societies that resist their modernization are societies that transform time into space.”

These regressive family values were transposed to political parties over the last few decades. Allegiances to brothers and cousins became allegiances to party colleagues and officials. Like the family, the party stood above society in terms of importance. It granted impunity if it was in the party’s, although not the country’s, interests. This had a tremendously damaging effect on Greece’s economy and society. It fostered special interest groups, usually clustered around particular professions, and a resistance to change.

The May 6 elections and the current political flux confirmed that the party, as an institution, is being demolished. The seeds it planted throughout Greek society are now shriveled weeds that will have to be pulled up if the crisis is to be overcome. In this arid no-man’s land, New Democracy and PASOK are struggling to find a new relevance, while SYRIZA is trying to straddle both worlds -- the past, which allows time to stand still, and the future, which allows Greece to break from the past.

All, however, have played on people’s fears. New Democracy and PASOK have exploited people’s concerns about power being granted to an untried SYRIZA with risky and unrealistic policies. A TV spot aired by ND this week showed schoolchildren (the most vulnerable and loved family members) asking their teacher why Greece wasn’t part of the eurozone. At the same time, SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras was suggesting to civil servants that there was no need for them to go through an evaluation process that is being set up with the help of French experts. The message seemed to be that outsiders can’t tell us how to run things in our family, thereby allaying fears that things would have to change.

Trying to scare people when they are already living in fear can have no positive outcome. Equally, providing false hope to those who are scared cannot stand the test of the time. Toying with fear will only produce even more frightening results than the ones we see around us now.

[Kathimerini English Edition]

ekathimerini.com , Friday June 8, 2012 (19:19)  
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