Cardiologist Giorgos Vichas, along with 90 other doctors and 140 volunteers, runs a free clinic in a middle-class neighborhood in Athens, offering free medication and health care in austerity-hit Greece.
Inside the Metropolitan Community Clinic in the district of Hellinikon in Athens, the waiting room is busy with volunteers and the phones are ringing non-stop. All the seats are taken. Some patients keep their eyes to the floor, because they are embarrassed – they cannot afford a simple doctor’s visit and have to come to the free community clinic instead.
Doctor Giorgos Vichas, is working with a volunteer, in one of the consulting rooms. He and his colleagues have one of the toughest jobs in Greece right now, helping cancer patients get access to medical treatment. Vichas is about to sign a referral for a 36-year-old cancer patient.
“This is a patient who will most likely lose her life because she was blocked from the national health care system. It’s a 36-year-old woman with two small children,” Vichas says.
The woman and her husband have been unemployed and uninsured for years, so her cancer went undiagnosed.
“Someone has to be held accountable for this woman’s murder,” Vichas says. “And if she survives, she will be condemned to a life full of health problems. We can’t have crimes like this happening but unfortunately it is common in Greece at the moment.”
Since 2011, thousands of uninsured Greeks have found themselves locked out of the national health care system. Until then, the state provided free health care for all. But after three years of austerity measures brought on by the eurozone debt crisis, a humanitarian crisis is developing.
Standing up to the government
Vichas, along with two other doctors, angry and frustrated from seeing people dying due to the lack of access to health care, created the Metropolitan Community Clinic.
By standing up to the government, he has put his own career on the line. The group has decided not to become a non-governmental organization (NGO) and not to accept any cash donations. Medicine and other pharmaceutical items are the only donations it accepts.
There is no president or board, while all decisions are voted on in general meetings once a week. The utility bills are paid for by the local authorities and the offices are based in a prefabricated container that the municipality has provided.
Seeing tragedy on a daily basis, Vichas doesn’t believe in the widely trumpeted “success story,”a term the current Greek government has used to describe Athens’ efforts to curb the country’s debt and comply with the requirements of a rescue deal from the international community.
“This is a ‘success story’ for the government and for Prime Minister Samaras, and this is what Germans have to become aware of,” Vichas tells DW. “A 36-year-old cancer patient with two children is dying because Samaras’ success story left her without treatment. If this is what is called civilized Europe, then I am not part of it. Once this government starts to think about the human story, then I will agree it is a Greek success story,” he adds.
Working without insurance
Thirty percent of working Greeks have no health insurance, despite a law that requires employers to provide health care for staff. But with an unemployment rate of over 27 percent, people will work for as little as 200 euros ($270) and no health insurance.
“We’ve seen this neo-liberal policy with [former British Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher, but even Thatcher’s policies seem progressive compared to what’s happening in Greece right now,” Giorgos complains.
“We’ve also seen [these policies] more recently in Argentina, when Argentina borrowed from the [International Monetary Fund] IMF. We’ve seen it in Chile. Even in Russia after the fall of communism. But what’s happening here is much more extreme,” he adds.
Vichas has joined a group of doctors who have formed a watchdog on Greek health care. Its goal is to legally challenge the government in cases where patients have either died or have had severe problems due to the lack of access to the health care system.
In November, Vichas will also travel to Strasbourg to give a presentation to the Council of Europe.
Stress takes its toll
But his efforts have taken a personal toll on Vichas. He sees 30 patients a day at his public clinic, 15 a day at the community clinic and is busy keeping up pressure on the government.
“The crisis has changed all aspects of my daily life and my personal life, these past two years. I work a lot more and it’s a constant battle with the ministry [of health],” he says.
“But, it also gives me strength. First because during the crisis, I feel that I’m doing my duty as a citizen and as a doctor, but also because I see that a self-organized society doesn’t need an institutional framework in order to function as long as it stands for what’s just and moral.”
Vichas is convinced that what he and others are doing at the clinic and at other volunteer organizations will be a blueprint for society in the future.
For now, more austerity measures are likely to affect Greeks this winter, but Vichas and his team are still hopeful for the future.
Ancient Greek spirit
“The reason I take part in this fight along with everyone else is in order to see the day that the ancient Greek spirit prevailsin society,” Vichas says.
“It stipulates that we live in harmony, respect each other, no matter what country of origin, religion or skin color.”
Vichas believes that sometimes ethics are more important than the law. It is about applying the lessons of Sophocles’ Antigone, he tells DW.
In Sophocles’ ancient drama, Antigone, a lone girl, stands up to the unjust commands of her uncle, Creon, the ruler of Thebes. It is a classic tale of an individual standing up to the state for moral reasons.
Antigone’s story ends in tragedy, but Dr. Vichas is convinced that, this time, things will turn out differently.