This is the fifth year of a deep economic crisis that has gradually affected all aspects of economic and social life across the Eurozone, and the third year of bailout agreements for peripheral countries that have made daily survival for working people very difficult indeed. The dream of a "Eurozone of development and prosperity," of "solidarity in a Europe of the people" is ending, at least for Greeks, in soup kitchens.
A full-blown humanitarian crisis is emerging in Greece, and the country is far from exceptional in this respect. Indeed, it is arguable that Greece shows the future for working people and the poor in Portugal, Spain, and elsewhere in the Eurozone.
To be sure, the Greek welfare state has been historically weak and proven unable effectively to support those hit hardest by the crisis. But the fact remains that the Eurozone crisis has led to social phenomena more commonly associated with impoverished developing countries following natural disasters. At present, developed and rich Europe, caught in the grip of a dysfunctional monetary union, is generating conditions of a humanitarian crisis for entirely economic and social reasons.
A recent study produced by the respected Institute for the German Economy in March 2013 places Greece third in the list of the poorest countries of the Eurozone and second in the list of countries at the highest risk of poverty. There is no doubt that social conditions became dramatically worse in 2011, the time when bailout measures began to hit hard and the first loud voices against the agreements began to be heard. And yet, neither the Greek government nor the machinery of the EU is openly acknowledging the humanitarian crisis currently unfolding in the country. The disaster has been kept silent because it shows vividly the failure of austerity policy and of the bailouts instigated by the leadership of the Eurozone. Europe is turning a blind eye to the results of its policies, while successive Greek governments have consented to measures that have dragged an entire people into poverty unprecedented in peacetime.
Official silence, however, has not detracted from the explosive political significance of the conditions obtaining among the poor in Greece. Quick to notice have been the organized forces of Greek fascism, which are making a great noise about developing alternative welfare networks for "Greeks only." The true magnitude of social provision by fascist political forces is risible but their political message is loud and clear. Thus, in May 2013, only days before Orthodox Easter, the fascist New Dawn party attempted to distribute food in Syntagma Square in Athens, the political heart of the country. The risks for Greek democracy are grave as long as official forces pretend that there is no humanitarian crisis and an effective international response is delayed.
In the absence of a coordinated official response, the burden of confronting the disaster has fallen mainly on the Church and on a host of ad hoc agencies, including local authorities and citizen organizations. One of the sharpest aspects of the crisis has been deficient access to food among the poorest. An increasingly destitute population is finding it difficult to cover its basic food needs, and the onus for plugging the gap has fallen mostly on the Church of Greece through its network of parishes. The Church has been familiar with soup kitchens for decades but the recipients have always been few and highly specific. They were mostly individuals known to their parishes who had, for one reason or another, found themselves at the margins of social life. Today the lines of soup kitchens are packed with failed businessmen, the self-employed, managerial staff, and wage earners who have lost their jobs. These are people who have traditionally been considered honorable, respectable, dignified.
Archimandrite Symeon Voliotis, who has been in charge of soup kitchens run by the Archbishopric of Athens since 2010, notes that by 2013 his parishes have come to serve 10,000 dinners a day. This is only a small fraction of Church food provision across Greece. The Archimandrite tells me that a sea change took place in 2011 when new people started joining the soup kitchens who were totally different from the "marginals" that used to turn up previously. He says: "The parishes from 2011 onwards have been continually increasing the supply of food because the needs have been going up. There are people who used to have regular jobs but now find themselves without work and without health insurance. Or people who had bought a house by taking out a mortgage, often in 'good' areas, but have now lost their jobs and it is no exaggeration to say that they continue to have a house but no food to eat."
The Archbishopric also operates a social grocery store, while its parishes distribute food parcels to individual homes. Such stores operate on the basis of applications by customers and supply provisions at minimal cost. Father Voliotis stresses that the Archbishopric makes every effort to protect human and social dignity in the midst of potentially humiliating conditions. We talk for a long time about the practical and psychological difficulties of the work.
"The Church cannot avoid this issue," he says. "It is not acceptable that a person would be hungry and we would not be able to supply them with a plate of food. It is elementary."
The same picture emerges from other bishoprics across the country, with the greatest burden borne by those containing large urban centers, or substantial populations of workers. The Bishopric of Thessaloniki, the second largest city of Greece, offers 3,500 dinners a day, which is three times more than in 2010. In the same city, the bishopric of Neapoli-Stavroupoli, a strongly working class area, is distributing more than 5000 dinners a day. Even parts of Greece that have traditionally been attractive holiday places and have enjoyed higher than average incomes are joining the trend. The Bishopric of the idyllic island of Corfu in the Ionian Sea, for example, issued a special appeal for food collection for Orthodox Easter, and continues to run parish soup kitchens in cooperation with the local authority.
For, in addition to the Church, local authorities have borne much of the burden of meeting the food needs of a desperate population. The largest local authority in the country, the Municipality of Athens, distributes about 9,000 dinners daily. The Centre for Welcome and Solidarity operated by the Municipality has played a crucial role in this work. Its director, Nikolaos Kokkinos, tells me: "The Center originally aimed at meeting the needs of vulnerable social groups in the centre of town hoping to lessen anti-social behavior. It now distributes 1,350 dinners daily to homeless and destitute Greeks and immigrants."
Equally revealing of the underlying trends is the contrast in the qualitative indexes referring to the Center's provision for August 2011 and January 2012. Covering the period that followed the first bailout imposed on Greece in May 2010, the Center recorded in August 2011 a stable number of non-Greek recipients but a significantly increased number of Greeks. During the following months the rise among Greek beneficiaries continued in leaps and bounds, and by January 2012 the balance had turned dramatically: The vast majority of those benefiting from the Centre's soup kitchens were Greeks. Just as remarkable has been the change in the characteristic profile of Greek beneficiaries, says Demetra Lousi, one of the directors of the Centre. Only two years ago, the average age was over 60 and the typical beneficiary was a single old-age person. Today the average age is a little over 40 and the beneficiaries include the unemployed and heads of families.
A similar picture also emerges from the social grocery stores run by local authorities. According to its own records, the store run by the Municipality of Athens received 102% more applications in the second half of 2012 than in the first, and the majority of applications were made by Greeks (71%) who were often heads of families (40%). Such trends can also be seen in the rest of the municipalities of the country. Soup kitchens and social grocery stores have been continually emerging in collaboration with the Church and supported by various social collective bodies. Municipalities, especially those with large worker populations, have been constantly issuing appeals for help with food needs.
The attitude of the Greek government has been shameful, refusing to admit that there is a humanitarian crisis and responding with great tardiness. But the tragic reality cannot be airbrushed away, even if it is not recorded by TV cameras, or by the press. After all, the EU is due to make 25mn euro available to Greece in 2013 as part of a program to distribute food to the destitute that is expected to benefit 800,000 citizens, according to the Ministry for Agrarian Development, which will administer the program. Given that the allocation of these EU sums is determined by "the optimal estimate of the number of the destitute," there is no better indication of the deprivation that is forcing Greeks to stand in soup kitchens. Note that the initial request by the Greek government for 2013 was actually for 30mn euro. According to the Ministry's data, two years ago the same program had a budget of 20mn euro and the beneficiaries were only 250,000 people.
The Ministry for Agrarian Development is also belatedly rushing to introduce a milk subsidy in schools, while the Ministry for Education has made available 250000 small dinners for primary school students. Still, the food crisis is so broad and deep that these poorly organized actions are not enough to prevent malnutrition among children, evidenced by the frequent passing out of young pupils in schools across the country. Teachers associations across the country are increasingly taking action to demand that local authorities should intervene at a time when 26.1% of households consume less bread than two years ago, 28.4% buy bread only once or twice a week and two out of ten consumers have stopped buying bread altogether, according to a recent study by the marketing research company MARC AE undertaken for the Federation of Greek Breadmakers.
The Greek state was certainly unprepared for the collapse of food provision among the poorest following the imposition of harsh austerity and wage cuts. Because of its unwillingness to acknowledge the problem, it is impossible even to obtain reliable figures for the people to whom soup kitchens are the only means of survival. Meanwhile, Greek governments continue to sign one bailout agreement after the next pushing society ever deeper into poverty and wretchedness. The country has been set firmly on a path imposing all the costs of adjustment on its people, particularly the poorest. It has refused to transfer the costs to foreign lenders by adopting alternative policies including a unilateral default on its debt.
The forces of officialdom in Greece continue to promise a recovery that is constantly postponed. Meanwhile, enormous social tensions are accumulating as the basic needs of the poorest are not met.
Other countries in the periphery, notably Portugal and Spain, are gradually following on the steps of Greece with recession deepening and unemployment rising.
Austerity and wage reductions are creating social devastation across the continent. At this critical juncture the politicians that run the EU are called upon to decide on what truly matters for social life, and what remains of the cultural and intellectual traditions of Europe.
Has the inheritance of European humanism succumbed entirely to the markets?
Much depends on their reply.
Alex Politaki is a journalist in Greece.