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Letter From Athens: Where’s Greece’s Doctors When You Need Them Most?

March 29, 2021

Nobody respects the expertise or dedication of Greece's doctors more than I, three saving my life and health after suffering an embolism, needing an emergency appendectomy, and having a blood platelet ailment discovered by a sharp-eyed physician.

That's why it's painful to take a shot at a profession in the home of the Hippocratic Oath, but needed during the COVID-19 pandemic that has seen too many people die and the New Democracy government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis turn from outstanding to inept, vacillating over how to handle a third wave.

There's a serious shortage of doctors, especially specialists, after some 18,000 fled the country – taking their critical skills with them – during a near-decade long economic crisis worsened for the most affected by brutal austerity measures.

The country is reaping a deadly harvest for that, the doctors held down by a system skewed toward clientelism, those in public hospitals where there was even a shortage of toilet paper and nurses sometimes not paid for months on end and disrespected.

Now they're not there, but in Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and other countries where their work, and they, are valued and are paid accordingly and on time, not in Greece to help their homeland and its victims.

A year after the pandemic raged through the country and is still lingering – and when Mitsotakis said he wouldn't hesitate to commandeer private hospitals and doctors but waited even as the death toll rose – Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias pulled the trigger.

Finally. After he gave private doctors 48 hours to volunteer or be conscripted, only 61 out of a pool of 3,000 responded, so he drafted them, sending cops to knock on the doors of 206 with orders to report to duty in public hospitals.

“I cannot imagine any of my doctor colleagues, who have sworn the Oath of Hippocrates, not wanting to volunteer,” Kikilias, an orthopedic surgeon, said during a visit to Athens’ Genimatas Hospital after almost all refused to help, some reportedly saying they would have to abandon their own case load of patients.

Mitsotakis tried to wiggle out of not doing anything in the face of public hospital Intensive Care Units (ICUs) at full capacity while those in private hospitals sat empty, reserved for the rich and people who could afford private health insurance.

“We always have cooperation as a first step. Because, you understand, mobilization has a strong legal basis, but when we ask a doctor to volunteer his services, it is not enough to issue orders. We must also inspire (them) to do it,” he said lamely.

Here's some inspiration: “Doctor, you're going to volunteer and we'll call you a hero and if you don't we're going to suspend your license and call you a bum, which is what you are.” Let them sue, which would only take about 10 years.

“But, if I need to use this ultimate constitutional instrument at my disposal, that of requisitioning personal services, I will do it,” Mitsotakis told the newspaper To Vima before COVID-19 made him do it.

So if Turkey attacked he would ask private manufacturers to switch to making weapons or nationalize them but wouldn't squeeze reluctant doctors? Power doesn't work if you don't use it.

The oath that doctors took and to which they swore allegiance has a little line that goes: “I will apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice.”

After careful scouring there was nothing that said, “If they can afford my private rates or slip me a fakelaki” (a little enveloped stuffed with cash because, you know, that makes a doctor's hand steadier when he or she's opening you up.)

So this diatribe isn't directed at the huge majority of Greek doctors who put their lives at risk in public hospitals, nor those in the few private clinics who volunteered their services, but those who had to have their arms twisted to help, fearful of being near the riff-raff or the virus.

Everyone's scared but that's part of a doctor's duty, and they are at risk daily from a host of other possible infections and viruses and bacteria. Firefighters can't say they'll put out brush fires but not house fires.

During the more than year-long pandemic, Mitsotakis initially moved swiftly with measures to control COVID-19 and they largely worked, but he had the unsolvable dilemma of trying to save lives and the economy simultaneously.

That led to a roller-coaster ride of tough measures being eased and toughened and people frustrated, spiraling into violence in a riot after police too forcefully, and brutally in one case, properly tried to fine violators of lockdown measures.

That's what happens when people lose confidence in a leader, and after he admitted being too slow to bring a third lockdown, he didn't squeeze the private doctors hard enough for them to step up, even as hospitals filled and people died.

He was counting on vaccines, but little more than one million of the country's population of 10.7 million has gotten one of two required shots, far below the 7.49 million needed to slow the pandemic.

That's where doctors who wouldn't help should have gotten another fakelaki with something else inside: their revoked licenses.

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Before plunging into a controversial and polarizing rant about the pandemic, I’d like to begin with a couple of disclaimers: first and foremost, I am profoundly saddened by all the suffering the virus’ victims and their loved ones have endured.

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