The number of poor people in Greece without access to medical care is on the rise, and the NGO Doctors of the World has warned the economic crisis is taking its toll on people's health.
Just a few hundred meters from Omonia Square in downtown Athens, the streets are dirty and dangerous, populated by drug addicts, prostitutes and petty criminals. Nonetheless, dozens of people stand patiently in line in front of a seven-story building, waiting to be admitted to the offices of the international NGO Doctors of the World.
Most of the people waiting are legal or illegal migrants, penniless but in urgent need of medical care. But there are locals too, as a growing number of Greeks depend on aid from the Doctors of the World.
Vassilis, 40, - no surname, no photographs - has been homeless for many weeks and jobless for six months. His hand shake is firm, his voice loud and clear. He was a waiter for 25 years, he says. His last employer promised several times to register him for social security, but he never did, and in the end, he fired Vassilis because of the financial crisis.
Not too long ago, Vassilis had an accident with scalding hot water. "The care here was first-class," he says. "I came here for two months to prevent the wound on my foot from getting infected."
No money to vaccinate children
Doctors of the World, who have worked in Greece for more than 20 years, have noticed a new phenomenon. "Since late 2010, more and more Greeks have been at our doorstep," the NGO's spokeswoman Christina Samartzi told DW. "That's new, and it's a result of the financial crisis."
Most Greeks who request the group's help are either unemployed, retired or families that can no longer afford their children's vaccinations.
With social coffers empty due to bad speculations on a massive scale, many are forced to pay their own medical bills up front, before being partly reimbursed.
People with low incomes or few benefits can barely shoulder these costs in addition to their monthly rent, insurance and grocery bills. "Some are elderly patients who suffer from high blood pressure or diabetes and can't pay for their medicine every month," says Giorgos Papadakis, a young diabetologist. "They come to us and ask whether we can give them what they need."
Greece - a medical crisis zone?
Many patients are seated in the narrow hallway of the organization's Greek headquarters. Doctors and nurses work in the small examining rooms on the ground and first floors. Rooms on the other floors are reserved for asylum seekers.
Nowadays one out of five patients at the Athens Doctors of the World offices is Greek. On some days in Thessaloniki, Perama and Chania on Crete, more than 80 percent of the patients treated by the organization's doctors are Greek.
At the Athens headquarters, ten doctors and nurses treat about 100 patients every day. Vassilis has stopped by to pick up a recommendation for a homeless program. "They wanted to examine my blood for HIV/Aids or hepatitis, but I don't have the required 50 euros," he says.
More and more Greeks are like Vassilis. The demand for free medical care is so great that Doctors of the World has decided to stay in Greece rather than move on to developing countries.
The organization has cancelled its program for Algeria, but is still involved in missions to Tanzania and Uganda. But no one can predict for how long. As Samartzi says, "In Greece, the number of needy people is on the rise."
Author: Maria Rigoutsou / db
Editor: Ben Knight