On the World Health Day on April 7, health workers across Greece marked the Day of Panhellenic Action for Health based on a call given by the Federation of Greek Hospital Doctors’ Associations (OENGE). They demanded state support, including adequate funds, staff, and resources, for the fight against COVID-19 in the country.
As of April 15, around 2,192 people have contracted COVID-19 in Greece and 102 people have died. Dr. Ioannis P. Galanopoulos from the Federation of Greek Hospital Doctors’ Associations (OENGE) spoke to Peoples Dispatch regarding the fight against COVID-19 in Greece and the concerns of the organization. Dr. Galanopoulos, MD, Ph.D. is an Orthopaedic Surgeon and a member of the executive secretariat of OENGE.
Peoples Dispatch: What is the current status of the spread of COVID-19 in Greece? The spread of disease in the country seems to be relatively contained compared to neighboring Italy?
Ioannis P. Galanopoulos: Actually, we cannot have an accurate picture of the real spread of COVID-19 in Greece because only a limited number of cases undergo the special laboratory test which confirms the disease. People with mild symptoms who don’t need hospital care remain without testing for COVID-19. The only exact number we can use is the number of deaths from COVID-19 and the number of intubated patients in ICUs daily. This number remains at a relatively low level although nobody can know how the pandemic’s progress can develop.
The tragic situation in Italy depicts the insufficiency of the public health system to manage an extensive crisis. This is not an unexpected phenomenon. The capitalist system and its governments all over the world treat healthcare for the public as a cost that can only be provided at a basic level. The development of a high-level public health system needs a high percentage of funding from the government and bumps the profits of the capitalists. Furthermore, the example of Italy highlights the contradiction between the need for preserving the public health system alongside the profits of the big businesses. Social distancing is prescribed, but, at the same time, conventional working of the factories and overcrowded public transportation for the workers lead to a high possibility of the spread of the virus.
PD: What has been the government support to the health sector in the fight against COVID-19?
IG: As I said before, the capitalist governments treat the health of the people as cost and not as a fundamental right. In Greece, before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were 560 ICU beds, a number that could not serve the normal needs of the population. Many patients remained intubated on conventional hospital beds because of the limited number of ICU beds. In the last ten years, government funding in the public health sector was very restricted and the number of workers also decreased without replacements. As a result, this public health system cannot sufficiently face any urgent condition.
We have asked the government to enhance the system with the large-scale hiring of permanent staff so that it may become feasible to open 100 ICU beds that remain out of use.
The government has focused mainly on the lockdown and social distancing measures. Only 400 doctors (temporary) have been hired in public hospitals during the ongoing crisis, when we need almost 6,000 additional specialized doctors in the public health system. The WHO suggests that the required number of ICU beds in Greece is 3,500, but the government has only managed to increase ICU beds to 800, with personnel moving between hospitals rather than through additional staff hiring. Even the basics, such as self-protection measures, masks, gloves, glasses, etc. are very limited and often provided through donations. However, plenty of public money is being spent on renting facilities from the private sector, instead of bringing the private sector under central planning for the fight against the pandemic.
PD: What demands have you proposed during the Day of Panhellenic Action for Health on April 7? How was the participation of medics in that campaign?
IG: It is really impressive how the people, not only the workers in the health system, support our demands. On April 7th, in every public hospital, demonstrations and protest actions were organized by the workers, doctors, nurses and other health professionals asking for:
1. Increased staffing and funding of the public health system. Opening of 100 more ICU beds.
2. Access to all the necessary self-protection measures (masks, gloves, glasses, etc.).
3. Large-scale laboratory testing of the population for COVID-19, especially of the health professionals.
4. Accommodation for the health professionals who are COVID-19 positive in order to protect their families.
5. Immediate insertion of the private health sector under central planning by the government.
PD: What is your take on the future of public healthcare in this era of global pandemic, and the role of state in this regard?
IG: It is clear that so far as the public health system is considered as a cost for governments, the future doesn’t seem to be very encouraging. All over the world, with few exceptions such as Cuba, the public health systems have been downgraded because capitalists found health services as a very profitable business. The future depends on the workers’ fight against those policies, on how strong the working-class movement will be in the coming years. Maybe this urgent situation, the COVID-19 pandemic, forces the governments to support the public health system mainly because confronting this situation is not advantageous for the private sector.
PD: Can you briefly explain about the founding and the activities of the OENGE? Mention some of the major interventions of the association?
IG: OENGE is the Federation of Greek Hospital Doctors and was founded in 1987 – one year after the founding of the National Health System in Greece. In the last four years, the association has moved on a more radical line for the rights of hospital doctors. We understand hospital doctors as workers who work under difficult situations with very low incomes, who try every day and night to treat people, to help people return to their normal life. As a result, our main actions focus on doctors’ income, the enhancement of the public health system, a working agreement for the whole sector, and every small or big problem that doctors face in their working life.