‘We don’t want your IKA’

Very often, the Greeks look like the hostages of a sadistic regime that is accountable to no one. Whichever pressure group wants something is certain to exert pressure on the passive whole. This is not the result of any foreign occupation or dictatorship – it is rather the consequence of individual egocentrism, in combination with a totally incapable public administration and an irresponsible political class. This is a cliche, but no less valid for that. The most intriguing aspect of the situation, however, is how this proud and short-tempered nation has come to accept a reality that is full of injustice and humiliations and, what’s worse, wastes the Greeks’ time and dynamism. In days of great excitement of «social struggle,» as are these, we see that no one is ashamed of proclaiming himself superior to his compatriots and, therefore, declaring his right to greater privilege, such as, say, superior health and pension benefits. «We don’t want your IKA,» declares a banner put up by striking Public Power Corporation employees on Capodistriou Avenue in Filothei. IKA, the Social Security Foundation, is by far the largest health and pension fund in the country, responsible for the health of 5.5 million people and the pensions of 840,000. It is such a mess that anyone who is not on the IKA scheme does not want to join. Those who are already deep in IKA’s chasm of pitiful healthcare and poor pensions hardly raise a sound – it is as if they accept they are second-class citizens because they did not have the good fortune to be insured under a better fund. No one has confidence the government will improve IKA’s benefits. But beyond the times of unrest, all the country’s residents (without excepting immigrants) are continually plagued by a public administration of unbelievable incompetence and often by the irresponsibility of civil servants and fellow citizens. One of the many results of this is the ever-present problem of the long queues that we find everywhere – but mainly at tax offices and hospitals. In the days of the Soviet bloc, we would hear of long queues in those countries and understand that this was the most evident symbol of the failure of central planning. Neither the products nor the planning were there when the citizen needed them. How could such a society survive? In free market Greece, we find everything we want whenever we want it. But what we can never achieve is the correlation between what public services provide and what the citizens need. A visit to any large state hospital shows just how needlessly the lack of organization plagues both those who provide services and those who need them. Doctors and nurses, who are always overworked, are swamped by waves of patients and worried relatives, without the support of an administrative system that will direct citizens to the right place at the right time; the patients expect the worst and are often either in a panic or a rage or in passive submission to their fate; the hospital bureaucracies are another drain on citizens, with patients and family members spending hours in queues. If we were to measure how many hours are lost in this chaos we would begin to understand the crime that is committed each time a citizen is forced to endure hardship for no reason other than the indifference of those who are paid to ensure the smooth functioning of every public service. A recent study by Canada’s conservative Fraser Institute estimated that in 2007, the 827,429 patients who had to wait for an appointment with a specialist doctor in the health system suffered a personal cost of close to 800 million dollars because, while waiting, they could not do other things. We have not seen a corresponding study in Greece, but if we were to estimate the weeks and months (in some cases) that patients wait for an appointment in many public hospitals and add the hours that are lost in queues as well as the days and weeks that family members spend at the hospitals to help the patients, it is obvious that the cost will be frightening. If we were to add to all this the humiliation and fear that a citizen feels in the middle of the chaos, we see that the cost is immeasurable. Then let’s think about the hours that are lost at tax offices, at ministries, at provincial governments and – because bad things are contagious – at banks. Then one can only wonder how this country has not sunk. And we can understand why Greeks do so well for themselves when they work outside Greece. I am afraid that the tolerance that our society shows for things that plague it without reason indicates a nation that is losing hope of something better.

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