Angels on the head of a pin

The Chilean miners’ adventure, an estimation of what illegal immigrants cost to Greece’s grossly indebted National Health System and a poor immigrant’s good deed are related to each other. At their center, all have the swiftly changing value of a human being. Each story touches on the point where the material and the immaterial meet, with the only catalyst and criterion being how each one of us and our society see and experience an incident. It is the «human» equivalent of the old theological question regarding how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. And the way in which we evaluate each person reveals more about us as individuals and as a society than it says about him or her. The miners’ story gripped the world. For 70 days, the whole planet watched anxiously as efforts were made to free them, right up to the moment the last of the 33 emerged from the depths of the earth last Thursday into a starlit sky. The global emotion that it aroused made the achievement of rescuing the 33 humble miners seem the equivalent of the first moon landing in 1969. The cost of the operation was estimated at 20 million dollars, or 606,000 dollars for each miner. According to The Associate Press, the miners’ monthly wage is 1,600 dollars, which means that the cost of rescuing each of them is the equivalent of 31 years’ work. If we consider how many miners die all over the world each year, how many fall ill or lose their jobs without their families getting much in return, then we understand how much the cost of rescuing the 33 exceeded their «worth» as workers. What happened? The government of Chile decided to invest in the rescue operation right from the start, when it was still not known whether any miners had survived a rockfall in the mine, and to be seen to be doing all that it could to save them; television and other means of communication made the rescue operation big news across the world, far beyond the society of those directly involved; new drilling technology made the rescue possible. Possible and expensive. Given all these factors, it is obvious that the rescue operation would be carried out, whatever the cost. It had to be carried out because lives that were in danger could be saved. The rest of us, who were not in any immediate danger ourselves, realized, as living beings, that we could find ourselves in need at any moment. The rescue of others gives us hope and creates a sense of security that we need. On the day that the last miner was brought to the surface of the Atacama desert in Chile, Greece’s Health Minister Andreas Loverdos was admitting in Parliament that he did not know where some 400 million euros were lost in the National Health System each year. But he hastened to add: «Those on whom the Greek state spends more than 150 million euros are migrants who are not in our country legally.» This estimate was in answer to a charge from a deputy of the right-wing populist LAOS party that Pakistanis and Afghans enjoy greater privileges in the health system than Greeks do. This estimate, if accurate, may be small in relation to the system’s 5.6-billion-euro debt but it opens up a dangerous issue at a time when many are looking for scapegoats. In this crisis, though, it is comforting to think that our doctors and other hospital employees are not losing their humanity but are offering their services to people in need. In the middle of all the waste and corruption, such a «humane tax» could be something to make us proud. On the same day, driving to work, I heard one of Skai Radio’s satirist-commentators, Giza, telling a story of how her car broke down in heavy traffic earlier that morning. While other drivers honked their horns and shouted at her to get out of the way, with no one doing anything to help her, the only person who offered his assistance, and helped push the car to the side of the road, was the Pakistani who cleans windows at the traffic light. When Giza opened her purse to offer him some money, he said: «No, madam. Thank you.» For him, work was one thing and offering a helping hand to another human being was another. The poorest among us had shown the greatest wealth.

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