Social Structures Caught in the Vortex of Privatization: The Need to Protect the Hellenic Metropolitan Social Medical Center
by Christiana Avarli (lawyer, Athens) and Nikos Passas (Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Northeastern University, Boston)
In August 2019, just a month after parliamentary elections and the return of New Democracy [Greece’s conservative party] to the government, Minister of Development and Investment Adonis Georgiadis signed two Joint Ministerial Decisions (Government Gazette B ‘3294 — B’ 3347), in order to complete the preparatory activities for the privatization of the Athens old airport (“Hellenikon”) and get the investment projects started.
In 2009 the Lamda Development Group was granted a 99-year lease of 6,206 acres of Hellenikon, 30% of which is fully owned, occupied and possessed for an initial bid of €650 million (share purchase agreement of 14/11/2014). Under a contract dated 19.07.2016, the price was redefined and locked in at €915 million. This sale has remained one of the least profitable in Greece’s history with many asking how it could be sold for €148 per sq.m. in one of Attica’s and indeed the Balkans’ most valued prime locations, where today’s land sales value is approximately €1,500 to 2,500 per sq.m. This comparison is inconsistent with expert reports by Anamaterou and Mela, according to which the sale price of the land in Hellenikon in 2016 was estimated at €1.5 billion and €2.3 billion respectively.
The legitimacy of the 2014 contract has been frequently questioned, and the whole process was frozen in the context of mobilizations, public outcry and changeover in governments. In 2015, the left-wing party SYRIZA won the elections and formed a government. Despite earlier objections by SYRIZA’s Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, against the privatization of Hellenikon, a new contract was signed in 2016, which was hardly different from the original one. Incorporated into a law, it was passed by the Greek Parliament in September 2016 (Law 4422/2016). The acceptance or apathy on the part of the general public about this may be due to a lack of knowledge of the adverse effects this agreement has on numerous institutions and public services currently housed in Hellenikon.
One of them is the Metropolitan Social Medical Center of Hellenikon, a self-organized non-profit social structure that offers without discrimination free primary care and medication to all uninsured, needy and unemployed patients. The Center has fulfilled a wonderful function without receiving any funding from any individual. Reflecting the austerity crisis in the country, the Center received 4,000 visits in 2012, 15,000 in 2013, 16,000 in 2014 and 41,000 in 2015. The total number of volunteers who contributed to the Center during that period was 280, of whom 115 were physicians, dentists, pharmacists, psychologists and other specialists.
Many people, both inside and outside the health sector, volunteered and engaged in collective action to care for those who really needed support, while emphasizing that their purpose was not to replace the state but rather to step in and fill some gaps (conversation with George Vichas, spokesperson and founder of the Center).
The Center brought together a network of practitioners of all specialties and a plethora of voluntary collaborations with diagnostic centers and pharmacies. It is dedicated to both diagnose each case and offer immediate treatment by the Center’s physicians. If there is no specialist in the Center at the time of the patient’s arrival, the Center communicates with a volunteer physician in their network, directs the patient to his or her practice, and the patient is examined for free. Noteworthy is the Center’s collaboration with diagnostic centers to which it refers uninsured and needy patients for free examinations. However, the Center’s collaborations to this day remain almost invisible by the broad public, because it has never sought to advertise those who support it.
An important supporter with no public fanfare was the HYGEIA Hospital which collaborated with the Center during for the 2012–2014 period, the toughest years for the Greek people under austere cuts in public health spending. This collaboration helped with difficult incidents, operations, surgeries and childbirth but the hospital never publicized it, remaining thus yet another unacknowledged hero in the midst of the humanitarian crisis experienced by Greece.
Through a letter signed in May 2018, Hellenic SA requested the evacuation of the space occupied by the Center by June 30th of the same year, in order to give the buyer full access to the land. Despite the ultimatum and eviction, there was no relocation plan for the Medical Center. Yet, the Center continued its operations and launched a campaign against the antisocial actions of the Greek state that privatized an area that housed numerous social services and institutions without ensuring relocation and smooth transition.
This struggle spread throughout Europe, with demonstrations taking place in Athens and Brussels with a lot of people expressing full support for the volunteer doctors who saw their work sink into the whirlwind of Greek reality. However, despite the signing of the amended contract and the government actions, the process once again froze giving some fresh life to the Metropolitan Medical Center.
But this lifeline is not going to last long. Two Joint Ministerial Decisions have already been signed, a third is in the works, a tender has been launched for the construction of a Casino as it is a prerequisite for the launch of the Hellenikon Reconstruction project, bids have been submitted, and licensing is just a matter of time.
After all, the Prime Minister himself, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has expressed his conviction that the privatization of Hellenikon is a priority project, as it opens the door to new investments in the country, while Minister Adonis Georgiadis considers it a symbolic equivalent to the Parthenon as it marks the transformation of Greece into a “normal western country”. Time is clearly up for the Medical Center.
The government seems to have taken care of the country’s investment profile and seeks the attention of international markets. But has it addressed the fate of vital services offered out of Hellenikon, especially social initiatives, such as this NGO that is about to find itself homeless and unable to carry out its social work?
Investment or social needs? Openness to markets or the right to health? How does the government ensure that it can achieve the best possible balance? Questions remain on the role the state should play and the position this government will adopt. The Medical Center will try to continue its work, and its staff has declared that “as long as austerity and barbarism continue, we will continue to fight …”. We hope that such social solidarity collective actions will eventually receive the attention and support they deserve, as they illustrate the very best of the Greek citizens’ character.