As if the economic downfall of Greece in the last decade was not enough to send the country’s economy 30 years back – reaching 62 percent of the EU27 average per capita income in 2020 compared to 88 percent in 2009 (a 30 percent reduction), and now having a per capita income that is 5 percent below that of Portugal’s compared to 28 percent at the start of the euro crisis – the advent of the pandemic added to the woes of Greeks whose pride for their country and heritage, the concern about their health and constant pursue of happiness (or constant complaints) are part of the national psyche. As we have all become more aware about the value of “evidence-based” approaches, let’s see these issues through the prism of some of the latest data for the EU27, OECD (usually reporting around 40 countries) and globally.
The Pew Research Center just conducted a survey of the extent of “cultural chauvinism” in Europe. The percentage of those who agreed that “our people are not perfect but our culture is superior to others” was as low as 20 percent in Spain rising to 23 percent in Belgium, 26 percent in Sweden, 36 percent in France and 45 percent in Germany. Chauvinism in the Balkans exceeded that in the rest of Europe with percentages ranging between 65 percent and 69 percent. Greece claimed the top position by far: The share of Greeks who thought so was 89 percent.
In the Global Happiness Index (2021) Finland is listed as the happiest country in the world of the 149 sampled. Greece was ranked 68th. Had it not been (in descending order) for Montenegro, Bulgaria, Albania, North Macedonia, Turkey, Ukraine and Georgia to be less happy than Greece, Greece would have been the least happy European country.
In the Global Health Index Taiwan came first of 93 countries for which information was collected. Greece was ranked 66th. This was below, among others, the Czech Republic, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Portugal, Turkey, Malaysia, Ecuador, Argentina, Malta, Philippines, Colombia, China, India, Guatemala, Jordan, South Africa, Chile, Lebanon, Pakistan, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Vietnam, Nepal and Brazil.
Part of the low health outcomes in Greece can be attributed to the state of public services. In the latest Quality of Public Services Index (2020) Finland again topped the list of 176 countries. Greece was ranked 114th behind Malta, Czech Republic, Portugal, Poland, Seychelles, Cyprus, Hungary, Croatia, Mauritius, Kazakhstan, Russia, Romania, Malaysia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belarus, Armenia, Argentina, Serbia, Montenegro, Georgia and Thailand.
Yet, Greece is not doing badly in terms of doctors – at more than 600 per 100,000 population, the highest in OECD. However, much of the health of the population depends on the health services provided by general practitioners (GPs) and nurses as well as the share of expenditure that comes from public sources.
Greece is at the bottom of OECD countries with 34 GPs per 100,000 population with Portugal being at the top with 244 GPs. As for nurses, Greece has 330 nurses per 100,000 compared to the OECD average of 880 with Norway reaching 1,770. Moreover, in Greece much of the total health spending is privately funded (40 percent) with only Chile, Korea, Latvia and Switzerland having a higher share.
On the other hand (a bit unexpectedly), the OECD notes: “Eight countries spend less on health services than average but achieve higher life expectancy overall: Italy, Korea, Portugal, Spain, Slovenia, Greece, Israel and New Zealand.” And in terms of inequality, the difference in the life expectancy between those with highest and lowest education level is only 2.4 years for Greek women (OECD average of 4 years) though Greek men are doing less well with the gap between these two education groups rising to 6 years, almost on par with the OECD average of 6.9 years. Can this be due to the fact that Greece has the lowest consumption of alcohol with only Israel and Turkey consuming less? Or is alcohol consumption underreported in Greece? Or is it due to pharmacophilia as Greece has the highest consumption of antibiotics (with Italy) at three times more than Sweden?
Still, Greece has the biggest share of low birthweight infants but by the age of 9 Greek children are among the top four countries where obesity accounts from more than 40 percent. Greece has the highest smoking rates in OECD – at more than 27 percent, with Greek women ably competing with Greek men. The Greeks also defy that across OECD people with a lower education level are more likely to smoke: In Greece the educated smoke more.
Regarding citizen’s attitudes, according to the 2021 Eurobarometer, 24 percent of Greeks have found it difficult to cope with the lockdowns after the onset of the pandemic. In Cyprus the share was 12 percent, in Germany 9 percent, in Spain 6 percent and in Finland it reached as low as 2 percent. And regarding government’s practices, Greece is in the top seven EU27 countries that have to return money to European structural and investment funds due to “financial irregularities” ahead of Croatia, Italy, Slovenia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Spain. Eight countries, including Cyprus, have been found to be compliant.
Still, there is some good news. Back in 2013, Greece topped the list of European countries regarding the percentage of the population “at-risk-of-poverty” that had reached more than 23 percent compared to 16.7 percent in the EU27. This high share has now declined to 17.9 percent, while there has been a marginal decline in Europe to 16.5 percent. Still, the countries with higher poverty rates than Greece are in the rather unenviable lot of Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Croatia, with the others beings the three Baltic countries and Italy at 20.1 percent.
Second, and related to poverty reduction, happiness has been rising. Greece is now ranked in the 51st percentile among the 95 countries for which comparable over time data exist, an improvement from the 59th position it occupied in the second half of the 2010s. And let’s not forget: suicide rates in Greece are and have been the lowest among the OECD countries, in company with Turkey. One day the Greeks may regain their happiness, as long as they managed to live as long as they have done in the past after the tourist invasion that is expected to resume this month.
Zafiris Tzannatos is Chair of the Economics Department at the American University of Beirut. He has been advisor to managing director as well as manager for the MENA region at the World Bank in Washington DC.
[This article originally appeared in Money Review]