Greece finally emerges from recession, leaving a battered society behind

Economic Indicators Associated Press

In a tiny, windowless storeroom, elderly women sort through items normally destined for the trash.

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It's an unlikely place to be saving lives.

The women volunteer at a charity clinic that recycles drugs sent by relatives of dead cancer patients, recovering stroke victims, or new mothers who overstocked on baby formula.

The half-filled boxes of medicine are stacked to the ceiling, waiting to be mailed to growing numbers of unemployed Greeks who have been denied hospital treatment since the economic crisis started.

Greece's recession — the economy shrank every year since 2008 — was declared over on Friday.

"I promise that growth will continue at an even faster pace," Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said. "No Greek will miss out ... Hope is back, Greece is back."

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That's bold talk, as the recession has left Greek society looking battered: One in every five households has no working member, and a staggering 3 million of Greece's 10.7 million people have lost state health insurance because the long-term unemployed and their dependents lose benefits.

Cardiologist George Vichas set up the Metropolitan Community Clinic three years ago to continue treating his patients who lost health insurance. Now he oversees a network of 250 volunteers who recycle medicine, provide checkups using donated medical equipment, and set up appointments at hospitals and clinics offering charity slots.

"I had never imagined we'd be working on this scale," he said. "People who come to us have a sense of shame, anger and deep sadness ... Our aim is to replace that with hope."

The consequences of the recession, including the austerity cuts imposed by successive Greek governments, have been felt far and wide, laying waste to many of the country's public services and traditions.

"The timeframe of the crisis does not overlap with the social consequences of the crisis," said Alexander Kentikelenis, a sociologist at the University of Cambridge. "The economic recession may have lasted six years, but the social crisis may end up taking longer."

Here are some of the social impacts — by no means all — of the recession.

THOUSAND A DAY — As many as a thousand people were losing their jobs every day at the height of the depression, which saw the economy contract by a quarter and a million jobs shredded.

One of them belonged to Yiannis Bouchelis, a 60-year-old graphic artist who hasn't worked for four years.

"It's really bad. It's not just the money but our morale," he said. "We want to feed our families and live in dignity — that's the main thing."

Unemployment rocketed from around 7 percent in mid-2008 to nearly 28 percent in late 2013, as more than 250,000 businesses went to the wall. Youth joblessness spiked above 60 percent. At just a little over 50 percent now, a whole generation is being denied the skills and experience needed to secure a future. There are indications that the rise in unemployment has led to an increase in alcoholism, drug use, poverty and a fall in the birth rate, among other things.

Those without work receive unemployment benefits only for up to a year — most getting the basic rate of 360 euros ($445) per month. More than 80 percent of people out of work currently get no financial assistance.

Dimitri B. Papadimitriou, president of the Levy Economics Institute, a public policy think tank based near New York City, argued that hope for a recovery based on strong exports was not realistic.

Growth could only be spurred by a major development program funded, at least partly, by the European Union, he said.

Without a major shift in policy — and budgets are likely to remain tight for years — Papadimitriou said it would take over a decade to get employment back to pre-crisis levels. "A jobless recovery is not a recovery at all."

HOUSEHOLDS WITHOUT HOPE — During the recession, Greek governments enacted wave after wave of austerity in return for the financial bailouts that prevented bankruptcy and a possible exit from the euro currency. The spending and wage cuts, combined with emergency tax hikes, have worsened the recession and strained the finances of Greeks.

According to Unicef, child poverty rates have risen alarmingly. The U.N. body recently found that of 41 developed countries it assessed, Greece had the highest child poverty rate of 40.5 percent in 2012, up from 23 percent in 2008.

It found that since 2008 the percentage of households with children that are unable to afford meat, chicken or fish every second day has more than doubled. And in Greece, the share of respondents saying they "experienced stress today" jumped from 49 percent in 2006 to 74 percent in 2013.

The repercussions of the recession are likely to last. According to UNICEF, many of the children affected by the recession "will suffer the consequences for life."

For Oxford University's Professor David Stuckler, co-author of the book "The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills," the Greek austerity program "undermined the ultimate source of its strength — its people."

TIME BOMB — As Greece slashed spending on welfare, public health problems mounted.

In the first years of recession, HIV/Aids infection rates surged, something many attributed to cuts to the budget for a needle-exchange program. Amid international attention to the issue, a joined-up strategy involving many was forged — HIV infections have since fallen back.

Other health issues, however, are likely to prove more difficult to deal with. Ominously, Greece's mortality rate, adjusted for its aging population, stopped dropping in 2011.

Health clinic founder Vichas offers one explanation — the high cost of treating chronic illnesses, particularly for the unemployed.

Boxes of cancer drugs in his store room cost up to 2,000 euros ($2,500) for a month's course. In all, Vichas said, a cancer patient would need between 20,000 euros and 30,000 euros to pay for drugs.

He warned that long-term effects of the crisis are just beginning to appear.

"We'll be seeing the consequences for another 5-10 years: The children who missed their immunizations, and all the consequences of illnesses that were not treated early," he said.

"And treatment is much more expensive that prevention. It's a time bomb."

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Online:

Metropolitan Community Clinic: http://www.mkiellinikou.org/en/

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Pylas reported from London. AP Television producer Theodora Tongas in Athens contributed.

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