Monday, October 24, 2011

Health apartheid entrenched by EU's austerity agenda

Almost two decades have passed since I was first accused of scaremongering. With more energy than knowledge, I organised a lonely campaign against the EU’s Maastricht treaty in the part of Dublin where I grew up. Urging a “no” vote in a 1992 referendum, I stopped people in the streets to warn that the rigorous economic rules contained in that treaty would lead to severe cuts in social spending. It is probably superfluous to add that I was on the losing side.

Having lived in Brussels for 16 of the intervening years, I can claim a reasonable understanding of the Union’s politics. Now aged 40, I have less respect for the Union’s institutions than when I first tried to learn how they work. As I have always disliked the “Euro-sceptic” tag and its xenophobic connotations, it is a relief to have finally found a label that sums up my views. So it is with great pride, I declare myself an “indignado”.

Indignation seems to be the only proper response to a letter that appeared in The Lancet, a medical journal, earlier this month. Written by several academics specialising in health issues, it lamented how the economic crisis has led to a 40% reduction in the budgets for Greek hospitals. “Overall, the picture of health in Greece is concerning,” the academics stated. “It reminds us that, in an effort to finance debts, ordinary people are paying the ultimate price: losing access to care and preventive services, facing higher risks of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, and in the worst cases losing their lives.”

Indignation also seems to be the only proper response to the pharmaceutical corporation Roche, which has announced it will stop delivering cancer medicines to hospitals in Greece and warned that it will take similar action against Spanish hospitals. These measures are being introduced or threatened to punish hospitals that cannot pay their bills. Terminally ill patients are being deprived of treatment because of a crisis they did not cause.

Merkel’s sadistic stance

And indignation seems to be the only proper response to Angela Merkel, who praised as “remarkable” an austerity programme introduced in Portugal earlier this year. Healthcare was one of the main targets in that programme, yet Merkel still demanded that more pain be inflicted on the Portuguese public (literally). José Manuel Barroso, who was prime minister of Portugal before taking up his plum post with the European Commission, argued that drastic cutbacks were “indispensable for confidence in the European economy”.

Last month, the same Barroso claimed that a “silent revolution” had been undertaken. He was referring to how a spineless European Parliament rushed through its approval of half-a-dozen sets of new economic rules (dubbed the “six pack” regulation). These rules give the Brussels authorities greater power to scrutinise the budgets of national governments belonging to the EU and to penalise those who spend more on public services (including health) than the Union’s “Stability and Growth Pact” allows. Rather than constituting a revolution, the Parliament’s decision can more accurately be called a coup, as the writer and activist Susan George has suggested.

Barroso is no revolutionary, unless you count his youthful dalliance with Maoism. He is a reactionary, implementing a system of apartheid. Determining access to healthcare based on wealth is just as immoral as determining access based on skin colour.

Indeed, the experience of South Africa is instructive. Because American and European governments pressurised the African National Congress to dispense neo-liberal prescriptions in the early 1990s, racial inequalities have persisted there. In 1993, the richest 23% of South Africans had access to 61% of total health spending.

Discrimination against the disadvantaged

A form of health apartheid risks being entrenched in Greece. Even though Greeks work longer hours than Germans, the average income in Greece is now lower than it was when the country entered the EU in 1980. Out of a population of 11 million, nearly 1 million are unemployed. Greek governments were certainly guilty of profligacy in certain areas, most notably on military expenditure, which is rightly being decreased. Yet both the Athens and the EU elite are discriminating against the disadvantaged and cosseting those who are already comfortable. The richest 20% of Greeks pay the least income tax. By contrast, one-third of Greek citizens were in danger of poverty even before the crisis started to bite; rises in value-added tax mean they are the ones footing higher bills.

The denial of essential medicines to Greek hospitals appears all the more cruel when you realise that 70% of Greece’s 300 billion euros debt is held by French and German banks.

An audit published last month by the University of Limerick estimated that Ireland’s debt stood at 371 billion euros at the end of March. Of that sum, 279 billion euros related to the covering of bank debt. The Limerick team concluded it was reasonable to assume that a large part of the almost 92 billion euros remaining (identified as “direct government debt”) could be attributed to the banking crisis.

Imagine this situation. You live in the same town as a multi-millionaire, whose playboy lifestyle lands him in trouble. Using some opaque formula, the local court decides that he is not liable for his debts. Instead, it decides you will help repay them by not having an operation your doctor regards as necessary to keep you alive. That would not be fair, would it?

So why should Greek cancer patients die to save German banks?

●First published by New Europe, 24 October 2011.

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