Thursday, December 5, 2019

"China sees Europe as a waning, decadent region"

Last night a friend of mine, a flamenco guitarist, said he was worried about the future of the world. He thinks that the dramatic extinction of the species and climate change will not be stopped. He is also concerned that China will first conquer the world economically and then politically and promote authoritarian and repressive regimes in Europe.

I said that I kept my optimism that we can do something instead of waiting for the worst to come, and that I had to stay optimistic because I have children and grandchildren who I love living in a beautiful world.

The next morning I received a long letter from a friend who lives in India and who I asked what he thought of my article about China and Europe that I published on this blog (Europe should see China as an ally).

My Indian friend said: "I liked your piece on Europe and China. It exuded all your ingrained friendliness, optimism about human and country relationships, presumption that all countries operated on sound, sensible lines and principles and saw value in cooperating rather than confronting one another in addressing the core, key issues of the day and the future -- especially the transformation of the world's economy and business model toward a greener future."

And then my friend explained, in a detailed way, why he did not share my optimism about China. One of the things he said was:

"China sees Europe as a waning, decadent region that is gorged on material consumption beyond its needs but with the capacity and desire to serve China's interests for eventual hegemonic power. It does not see Europe as a competitor but as a collaborator on China's terms. It sees European society as flatulent and unconcerned about anything other than maximizing its own immediate well-being and pleasure. The welfare state that Europe has created, and which has evolved considerably over that last fifty years, is not something China admires or wishes to emulate or propagate because it considers such a 'something-for-nothing' approach to welfare to be demeaning to the human spirit, creating permanent dependencies which must be avoided."

I am very happy with the long letter from my Indian friend and wonder what I will answer him.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Europe should see China as an ally

China's COSCO co-owns two terminals at Port of Genoa.

Europe should no longer see China as a threat and instead see it as an ally.

There are economic reasons for considering China as an ally. Europe must work closely with China on sustainable, inclusive, social and green economic policies and on addressing international economic issues such as global warming, extinction of the species and the need for reform of the global financial system*). This benefits Europe, China and the rest of the world.

There are environmental reasons for considering China as an ally. In the fight against climate change, China is at the forefront of some clean air policies, investigating opportunities to improve green technologies and make them cheaper, while striving for international cooperation rather than competition. China is the world’s largest investor in renewable energy. China has signed the Paris Climate Agreement, while the United States has not done so and has now even officially declared it will not sign it.

There are political-military reasons for considering China as an ally. Europe should stop China bashing and presenting the country as a threat to global security, as is popular with Western media and politicians today. Europe needs to develop a fresh, unbiased view of China's role in international security. China’s main concern on international relations is its own national security, similar to Europe’s.

Instead of saving NATO from its "brain death" (words of President Macron), Europe should look at China without prejudice, fear and arrogance. It should distance itself from American arrogance and hegemonic pretension. Seeing China as a potential ally will provide a sensible European perspective on world security. At the same time, such thinking can help improve relations with Russia, another major player in global security.

There are also mass psychological reasons for considering China as an ally. It will help enormously in overcoming the racial and political rejection of China. The framing of China as a threat in recent years has been successful in brainwashing the minds of many intellectuals and politicians from whom I had expected a more distant, objective look.

What about the authoritarian or dictatorial characteristics and tendencies in China. Should we in Europe not clearly reject the way in which China deals with its minority of Oigurs? Should we not reject China's assumed or real secret espionage through Huawei? Should we not reject Chinese exploitation of minerals and other resources in poor countries? Should we not reject China's hidden or not so hidden intervention in Hong Kong's policies?

I am concerned about such dictatorial issues and, too, about a good representation of the facts. But then I expect equal concern about similar authoritarian and dictatorial issues in Europe. And although it may require more explanation, I want to close this brief comment by saying that European democracies are more dictatorial than they claim to be. An example of this is how European technocrats in economic and central bank ministries dictate economic policies to the detriment of large sections of the population, thus undermining democracy - see the case of Greece. But it goes further than that, as I will argue in a next column.

To conclude, I think China is also interested in good relations with Europe. A lot is being written about China's expansion in Europe, buying ports and making other foreign investments in European countries like Greece, Italy and Spain. It is presented as if the Chinese are taking over key infrastructure in Europe -- the Huns of the east invading civilised Europe. But history has it differently: it were the civilised or not so civilised Portuguese, Dutch and British who invaded South and East Asia and occupied or subjugated (parts of) big countries like India and China. Holland even stuck to its colony Indonesia after the Second World War until the United States convinced the Dutch to give it up. China's interest in Europe is not to invade or occupy it. Its interest is to develop in a sensible way both China and Europe.

China and Europe play an important role in the cooperation of the multipolar world, particularly when the US is becoming an insecure superpower behaving irrational or irresponsibly in many areas due to bad domestic politics and lingering Cold War mentality.

Together China and Europe could balance the US so as to avoid the collapse of an already fragile world system under threat by global warming, extinction of the species**), and war. If history has taught one dire lesson to the Europeans it is that every effort should be made to maintain peace and a just social order. The issue of how European countries could be better governed by involving its inhabitants in policy making rather than leaving it to technocrats and powerful business (see my post Is Europe run jointly by its technocrats and CEOs?), and the faltering and criticism of European democracies and institutions, are pressing issues that Europeans have to solve to become real democracies and become the stable and socially just ally that China needs, and vice versa.

*) In March 2009, there was a plea by China's central banker Zhou Xiaochuan to create a new global reserve currency replacing the dollar. Jan Joost Teunissen reminded in his 2009 speech "Why should we have listened better to Robert Triffin?" in Louvain-la-Neuve that three years earlier Fan Gang, member of the Monetary Policy Committee of China's central bank and member of the Fondad Network, made a similar plea in his contribution to the Fondad conference and book Global Imbalances and the US Debt Problem: Should Developing Countries Support the US Dollar? 

**) A recent UN panel report on biodiversity says that humanity faces a biodiversity crisis just as profound as the climate crisis."Biodiversity," the panel declared, "is declining faster than at any time in human history." "What is needed, is a change to the definition of what a good quality of life entails—decoupling the idea of a good and meaningful life from ever-increasing material consumption."

Jan Joost Teunissen, Director FONDAD

Friday, November 8, 2019

Johannes Witteveen: "Music goes much deeper

I still regret the death of Johannes Witteveen in the spring of this year. He was an advisor and friend of FONDAD and helped me enormously (I am the director of FONDAD). Below I reproduce part of an interview I had with him. 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Johannes Witteveen: "Music goes much deeper"

Johannes Witteveen, former managing director of the IMF
Johannes Witteveen and I had a long and interesting conversation about "the" global economy, the "crisis", and the need for a change in thinking and policies... And, then, towards the end of our meeting at his house in Wassenaar, we suddenly were speaking about the making of music. Here is a transcript of that part of our conversation:

- When I was ten years old I stretched rubber bands on an old shoebox. (Witteveen laughs) I liked the vibration. 

Yes, yes, that's nice. 

- And when I was a bit older, I made a guitar of cardboard on which I could play a Christmas song ("Silent night, holy night..."). And when I was 13,  I bought a guitar and since that time I play guitar. 

Beautiful. 

- The best part of playing guitar is to let emerge something from one tone. Often I feel myself more as a kind of medium than a creator... 

Yeah ... By improvising something happens to you. That is very nice, and plays a large role in Sufism. Meditative music. The tambura is used for that, that's an Indian instrument my wife has played many times, to come to meditation. Through the sound of one tone, over and over again, and then she softly sang a bit. 

- As a boy I climbed in tall trees, and then I felt the wind blowing around my ears ... 

(Laughing) Yeah. That is different from thinking. It goes much deeper.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Debt Relief for Argentina?

From Transcript of IMF Press Briefing, November 7, 2019, by IMF Director Gerry Rice

QUESTIONER: I have a question about Argentina. I was wondering if you're planning any mission there, or is there any meetings scheduled here in Washington, D.C. And could you give us a sense of where we are with the Argentina issue?
MR. RICE: Sure. Thank you. So where are we on Argentina? The Managing Director, Kristalina Georgieva, congratulated President Elect Fernández on his election, and reiterated the Fund's readiness to engage with Mr. Fernández and his administration to help Argentina address the important challenges facing the economy there, and to pave the way for inclusive and sustainable growth.
So, there was that message from the Managing Director, as the first thing I would say. The second thing is that we stand ready with President-Elect Fernández and his team at their convenience during the transition period. I don’t have any dates for missions planned at this stage. Again, it will depend on the discussions going forward. And again, we stand ready to engage, that's kind of where we are.
QUESTIONER: Thanks, Gerry. Just a quick follow up on that. Has Argentina given you any indication or have they made a formal request for modification of the program? Is that sort of what you're waiting for to begin this engagement?
MR. RICE: You know, we're just ready to engage. We're ready to discuss at any time, again, at the convenience at the new administration in Argentina. And, you know, that's not contingent on any, you know, prior conditions. We're just ready to engage whenever is convenient for them to do so.
QUESTIONER: Yes, thanks Gerry. To follow up on these questions, there's going to be an event in Miami where Alejandro Werner is going to be one of the speakers and also Mr. Nielsen which is a member of Alberto Fernández's team. Wanted to know if there was any meeting scheduled between the two of them in Miami.
MR. RICE: Well, I have the same understanding that you do that Alejandro Werner and Mr. Nielsen are both participating in this conference organized by the University of Miami tomorrow. I'm not aware of any planned meeting but they're both going to be there and often on these occasions, there are meetings on the sidelines of these events. So again, no planned meeting but we'll see what happens tomorrow.
QUESTIONER: There's a lot of debate about Argentina's upcoming negotiations with both the IMF and the bond holders. I wanted to ask if you have, the IMF's staff has any position regarding of which negotiations should come first. If Argentina's new government should negotiate first with the bond holders or with the IMF and do the bond holder negotiation under the IMF program.
MR. RICE: So, again we stand ready to engage straight away and regardless as I said earlier. On the issue of potential debt negotiations and discussions, I mean, a couple of things. Alejandro Werner talked about this during the recent Annual Meetings. But, you know, as is the case with all countries, so not just Argentina but all countries, the decision to restructure debt is entirely the purview of the member country and in consultation with their legal and financial advisors.
Our role, the IMF's role, is to assess whether debt is sustainable with a high probability in line with our exceptional access policy. So, in order to conduct our debt sustainability, we need the analysis, we need the information on the authority's policy plans as well as take a look at the macroeconomic outlook consistent with those plans. So, I mean, trying to answer your question, we are not in a position to make that assessment right now because the discussions with the new administration have not yet taken place. But again, you know, the role, the responsibility for the debt restructuring lies with the member country and our role is to assess the debt sustainability. Just very clear responsibilities there.
QUESTIONER: One more on Argentina. The new government, the elected government in Argentina said that in a conversation with President Trump, President Trump said that he has instructed the IMF to work with Argentina. Can you specify what does he mean by that and has there been any conversation between MD Georgieva and President Trump regarding this?
MR. RICE: So, just on your last part I'm not aware of any discussion between the President and Kristalina Georgieva. But, you know, what I would say is that we work with all our member countries and I would really just point to the statement that Kristalina Georgieva made which I referred to at the beginning of the press conference that we stand ready to work with President-Elect Fernández and his administration. And, you know, to help Argentina overcome the challenges and get back on the path of sustainable and inclusive growth. That commitment from the Fund to Argentina has been there and that commitment to Argentina continues to be there today.
QUESTIONER: Last night, Georgieva referred to Argentina, she said she was willing to discuss with Argentina (inaudible) commitment as soon as the IMF could foresee what kind of policies would the new government apply in Argentina. Do you have by now does the IMF have by now a certain idea about what kind of policies, economic policies would the new government display in order to start a conversation?
MR. RICE: Well, you know, I wouldn’t want to again, preempt any discussions that might take place with the new administration and, of course, first to hear their thoughts on the policy path. But perhaps, you know, just to note that during his election night speech and subsequent public pronouncements, President Elect Fernández stated that he is looking to lift Argentina's economy out of the current crisis and pave the way for more solid and inclusive growth. And we fully share those objectives is what I would say on that.
And again, our commitment to help Argentina get onto this better path of sustainable and inclusive growth and we are ready to engage on that as convenient with the new administration.
QUESTIONER: Mr. Fernandez has also talked about restructuring, reprofiling the debt without any removal of the debt, any (speaking Spanish) in Spanish terms. (Speaking Spanish).
And in Argentina, some people have said that the IMF would not recommend that kind of approach in restructuring of the debt. What is, is it true the IMF thinks that there should be a removal of debt in Argentinian negotiations with private creators?
MR. RICE: Yeah, you know, again I wouldn't want to preempt any discussions that might take place on that or other issues. I think those of you who follow the IMF know that from, you know, discussions in other countries, the capacity of the IMF itself to restructure its debt is constrained by its legal and policy frameworks. I'm talking about the IMF debt. So that’s clear and that's true, not again, not just in the case of Argentina, that’s just the case for all member countries.
And responding to the previous question, I tried to delineate the different responsibilities of, the government has the role, the -- in the decision to restructure debt and we have the role of assessing whether the debt is sustainable.
And again, I think all of this has to wait for the engagement to take place between the Fund and the new administration and we will be carrying forward the discussions after that.
QUESTIONER: The, there was an interview by Alberto Fernández --
MR. RICE: I'm sorry, say again, Jeff. Could you speak into the mic?
QUESTIONER: There was an interview on television last night with Alberto Fernández and he said that the IMF prohibits debt haircuts and hopes the IMF will help Argentina pay down its debt.
So the IMF -- does the IMF prohibit debt haircuts and would it help Argentina pay its debt and I'm just asking in a little bit of a different question. Thanks.
MR. RICE: Yeah. Again, Jeff, you know, I think that’s pretty much along the lines of the previous question. I wouldn't want to get ahead of any discussions that might take place and I have explained the IMF position on its debt, on our debt, and that’s just a long-standing policy for the IMF.
But the discussions on any potential haircut, debt restructuring, that’s really for the government to carry forward and more broadly we remain committed to helping Argentina in any way we can and we stand ready to engage as soon as it's convenient for the new administration.

Recommended reading:

The crisis that was not prevented: lessons for Argentina, the IMF, and globalisation

Open full report
What caused Argentina's financial crisis?
This book provides an overview of the current thinking about the Argentine crisis and reveals the limitations of the so-called "Washington Consensus". The book results from the international research project Global Financial Governance Initiative, which brings together Northern and Southern perspectives on key international financial issues. The book examines lessons to be learned, and present ideas on how future crises in emerging and developing economies might be prevented.
Chapters include:
  • introduction, by Jan Joost Teunissen and Age Akkerman
  • Argentina: a case of globalisation gone too far or not far enough?, by Dani Rodrik
  • the mistaken assumptions of the IMF, by José Antonio Ocampo
  • growth, instability and the crisis of convertibility in Argentina, by José María Fanelli
  • the regional fallout of Argentina's crisis, by Ricardo Ffrench-Davis and Rogério Studart
  • the puzzle of Argentina's debt problem: virtual dollar creation?, by Bernardo Lischinsky
  • the Argentine drama: a view from the IMF board, by J. Onno de Beaufort Wijnholds
  • some lessons from the Argentine crisis: a Fund staff view, by Mark Allen

Monday, October 7, 2019

Are we producing less greenhouse gas?

Lately, in all ports Aafke Steenhuis and I have visited for our book on world ports, efforts are made to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide. An oil company like Shell (Dutch-British) already knew in the 1980s that oil consumption would lead to climate change and... to actions by climate activists. So it's better late than never.

Over the last couple of years, the buzzword in ports and other economic activities is "energy transition", from fossil to non-fossil, or from diesel to electric. That is clearly the case in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in California, a state reknown for its clean air policies. Also, in the ports of Singapore and Hong Kong where Aafke and I just were for our book on world ports, energy transition is high on the agenda.
However, the use of fossil energy has not been reduced over the last decades and is not likely to be reduced substantially - see, for example, the article below that I put a year ago on one of my blogs and now publish again, and see the charts that I copied from the article "CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions", by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser. There are more interesting charts in that article.


When I was in Los Angeles in December last year, I read an article in the Los Angeles Times saying that one-third of Germany's electricity is produced by power plants that run on coal. Amsterdam is the fourth largest port of Europe (after Rotterdam, Antwerpen and Hamburg) and the second largest coal port of Europe. Sometimes, when I walk along the shore of the IJ next to my house, I see ships passing by loaded with coal, on their way to the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal, and to Germany.
One of the reasons power plants in Germany still use coal is that the German government decided to close nuclear power plants.

Recently I checked the percentage of coal in German electricity production and found in a Wikipedia article that in 2016, around 40% of the electricity in Germany was generated from coal. So it may have been reduced lately to one-third of total, as Los Angeles Times stated, and it may have been reduced further last year.

In the article below you can read that coal is not only used in Germany to produce electricity. "More worrying still," says the article, "after a few years of decline, coal regains market share (38.1% of the global energy mix, according to BP's 2018 report on global energy) and regained its position from twenty years ago."

There is always reason for hope, even though the figures sometimes point to the opposite. However, they then point to the need for more 'energetic' action.

Here is the article that I published a year ago in one of my blogs:

Monday, November 05, 2018


No enterraremos el petróleo

Oil and gas pipelines in Europe
Copio abajo un artículo interesante del periódico suizo "Le Temps" sobre la transición energética, que es un tema importante en el libro que Aafke y yo estamos escribiendo sobre puertos en el mundo. Dentro de poco iremos a Los Angeles, donde "climate change and energy transition" is a key issue, o sea un asunto clave.

Nous n’enterrerons pas le pétrole


Publié lundi 5 novembre 2018
Or noir, charbon, gaz naturel: il n’y a jamais eu autant d’énergies fossiles sur le marché. La transition énergétique ne viendra pas du marché… ni des sanctions contre l’Iran
Le Club de Rome avait tout faux. Au début des années 1970, en plein choc pétrolier, un groupe d’académiciens annonce la fin de l’or noir. Les Trente Glorieuses sont derrière et la société s’interroge alors sur les limites de la croissance. Il ne resterait alors plus que trente-cinq ans de consommation de pétrole.
Nous sommes en 2018. Une tribu d’irréductibles analystes continue périodiquement de nous resservir la théorie du haut de la courbe. Un «pic pétrolier» serait sur le point d’être atteint, suivi d’un irrémédiable déclin du carburant de la globalisation amenant directement l’humanité dans l’ère de l’après-pétrole.

La consommation pétrolière? +105%

Mais les faits sont têtus. Le monde consomme 97,4 millions de barils de brut par jour. C’est 105% de plus qu’en 1973. Qu’importe les sanctions iraniennes, le chaos libyen, le sabotage des pipelines nigérians. L’avènement des voitures électriques, les parcs solaires ou éoliens et autres engagements énergétiques non contraignants n’y changeront rien non plus. L’économie mondiale a plus que jamais soif d’énergies fossiles.
Si les cours n’ont pas pris l’ascenseur, malgré la politique volontariste de l’OPEP et la perspective des sanctions contre l’Iran, c’est notamment parce que le pétrole de schiste a pris la tangente. Les Etats-Unis produisent 11,346 millions de barils par jour, et l’exploration n’est plus taboue en Grande-Bretagne.
Lire aussi Le marché ne croit plus aux sanctions contre l’Iran
Certes, les découvertes d’hydrocarbures conventionnels sont à leur plus bas niveau depuis les années 1950. A la suite de l’effondrement des cours en 2014, les compagnies pétrolières ont taillé dans leurs dépenses d’exploration et de production. Il n’y a pourtant jamais eu autant d’hydrocarbures sur le marché; et notre génération ne peut plus prétendre enterrer le pétrole.

Le charbon en guet-apens

Plus préoccupant encore. Après quelques années de déclin, le charbon regagne des parts de marché (38,1% du mix énergétique mondial, selon le rapport 2018 du pétrolier BP sur l’énergie mondiale) et a retrouvé sa place d’il y a vingt ans. Glencore s’est d’ailleurs lancé, devant ses investisseurs, dans une défense passionnée de la durabilité (commerciale) de cette ressource. Le trader zougois, qui a investi près de 3 milliards de dollars dans des mines australiennes, parie que la croissance explosive en Asie contrebalancera le fléchissement de la demande dans les économies mûres.
Lire aussi Les traders suisses surfent sur le rebond du charbon
Même en Europe, où l’on croyait cette industrie reléguée au XXe siècle, on continue à brûler du dioxyde de carbone pour produire de l’électricité. Jusqu’au non-sens. «Les jours de beau temps et lorsqu’il y a un peu de vent, les prix peuvent descendre en dessous de zéro. On vous paie pour consommer», déplorait l’hiver dernier le directeur d’une maison de négoce.

La transition ne se décrète pas

En Suisse, où les barrages tournent au ralenti et la production éolienne reste confidentielle, Romande Energie admet une part d’électricité provenant «d’agents énergétiques non vérifiables» de 16%. Pas terrible pour effectuer un bilan écologique. Sur le papier, la Confédération a pourtant décidé de tourner le dos aux énergies fossiles. Fini la hausse des importations d’énergies fossiles! On veut tirer la prise des centrales nucléaires. Et on veut les remplacer par le solaire et le biogaz, sauf que ces deux énergies ne représentent pour l’heure que 0,63% de la consommation finale, selon l’Office fédéral de l’énergie.
La Stratégie énergétique 2050 tourne le dos au gaz naturel, alors que la Suisse s’apprête à jouer un rôle central ces prochaines années.
Lire aussi Sous les Alpes, le plus grand gazoduc de Suisse
Depuis octobre, elle est capable d’inverser les flux gaziers, qui allaient traditionnellement du nord de l’Europe (Norvège, Pays-Bas ou Allemagne) vers le sud. Un reverse flow qui anticipe l’après-nucléaire allemand, l’arrivée du gaz de la mer Caspienne par le pipeline transadriatique en 2020 et, à plus long terme, l’exploitation de nouveaux gisements en mer Méditerranée orientale (Chypre, Israël, Egypte).
Le Club de Rome n’avait pas pu l’anticiper: l’évolution technologique du secteur énergétique permet de creuser toujours plus profond, de tirer des conduits toujours plus loin ou même de se passer d’une partie de ces tuyaux. Transporté par bateaux méthaniers, le gaz naturel liquéfié (LNG, dans le jargon) permet d’interconnecter les marchés américains, européens et asiatiques, qui fonctionnaient auparavant en vase clos.
A l’ère de l’abondance énergétique, la dynamique de la transition énergétique requerra davantage de volonté politique que la signature d’accords non contraignants. Surtout si on ne peut plus compter sur la rareté pour forcer la transition. Le Club de Rome se hasarderait-il aujourd’hui à annoncer la fin du pétrole pour 2050?

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Visiting the Port of Los Angeles - A Video



I was with my wife in Los Angeles where I made this film about our visit to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. We are writing a book about world ports, maritime history, globalization and global warming.

Previous short films I made about ports include:



Thursday, March 14, 2019

Greeks losing their house, their hope and their life


Shocking news from Greece: 

Greece: Death by hanging

Α 56 year-old man has been found hanged in the yard of his home, at Isthmia, Korinthia, Greece.
The previous day the 56 year-old man had been notified officially that he is going to lose his house.
The man let a note in which he asked from his relatives to forgive him and explaining the reasons he was pushed to suicide.
The Finance Ministers of the Eurozone, under the leadership of the German government, the European Commission and the IMF, acting like a kind of Mafia operatives of the Bankers, are exercising now a maximum of pressure to the SYRIZA governement in order to alleviate any protection of houses from Banks demands.
DDP


The criminals of Eurogroup: They want Greeks out of their homes!!!


Eurogroup delays €1 bn disbursement to Greece

By ELENI VARVITSIOTIS
11.03.2019
The finance ministers of the 19-member Eurozone have decided to postpone disbursing 1 billion euros ($1.12 billion) to Greece.
The reason for postponing the payment is that Greece has not yet changed the provisions of a law protecting debtors’ main housing property from creditors to the EU’s satisfaction.
The disbursement will now be discussed at the next Eurogroup meeting, on April 5, provided Greece has made the necessary changes.
Pierre Moscovici, European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, had indicated earlier Monday, that he expects an agreement with Greece on the issue in the coming days.
Valdis Dombrovskis, the Commission Vice-Chairman for the Euro and Social Dialogue, and Portuguese Finance Minister Mario Centeno, the Eurogroup President, echoed Moscovici’s views.
Read more at http://www.ekathimerini.com/238475/article/ekathimerini/business/eurogroup-delays-1-bn-disbursement-to-greece

Greece, 10 Years Into Economic Crisis, Counts the Cost to Mental Health

Health workers during a general strike in Athens in 2017. Annual state spending on mental health was halved in 2012, and it has been trimmed further each year since then.CreditAris Messinis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
 
The New York Times - Feb. 3, 2019
ATHENS — Greece’s decade-long economic crisis has taken a heavy toll: Hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost, incomes were slashed and taxes were raised. Hopes for the future were dashed.
For Anna, 68, the crisis had particularly devastating consequences. Her husband, a retired bus driver, killed himself in a park two years ago at age 66 after a series of pension cuts deepened his despair.
“He kept saying, ‘I’ve worked so many years. What will I have to show for it? How are we going to live?’” said Anna, who asked that her full name not be published to protect her family’s privacy. After two years of therapy, she now volunteers to help others struggling with mental health issues.
Depression and suicide rates rose alarmingly during the Greek debt crisis, health experts and studies say, as the country’s creditors imposed strict austerity measures that cut wages, increased taxes and undermined the ability of health services to respond to a crisis within a crisis.
“Mental health has deteriorated significantly in Greece, with depression being particularly widespread, as a result of the economic crisis,” Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, said in a November report. That has led to overcrowding at psychiatric hospitals and clinics and a 40 percent increase in suicides from 2010 to 2015, the report said.
For those fighting the problems on the ground, the trend does not seem to be abating. The mental health organization Klimaka reported a 30 percent rise in calls to its suicide hotline last year, and a comparable rise in visits to its day center.
“The financial crisis has increased people’s vulnerability to suicide,” said Kyriakos Katsadoros, Klimaka’s director. “Some even ask about euthanasia.”
Suicide rates in Greece remain relatively low for Europe, with five suicides per 100,000 people compared with a regionwide average of 15.4, according to World Health Organization data for 2016, the most recent available. The rate of increase is high, however. It spiked from 3.3 per 100,000 to 5 between 2010 to 2016.
The highest annual increase came in 2015, the year strikes and social upheaval reached a climax as Greece’s leftist-led government wrangled with the country’s international creditors over the terms of a third bailout.
The suicide rate then dropped in 2016 and 2017, police figures show, only to rise again in the first 10 months of 2018, according to police figures that also show that suicides among those ages 22 and under more than doubled.
Many suicides in Greece go unreported because of the Orthodox Church’s reluctance to provide burial services to those who take their own lives, although the church’s stance is changing, nongovernmental organizations say.
The Greek Health Ministry set up a committee of mental health experts in November to prepare awareness campaigns, as well as plans to train general practitioners to better detect depression and other mental health issues. In the meantime, the health system’s struggles to address the problem are evident.
At Evangelismos, one of the capital’s largest state hospitals, dozens of patients were being treated in the corridors of the psychiatric ward during a visit in April, “an unacceptable situation,” the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee said in a report published in June.
In the summer, the hospital’s workers’ union complained to a prosecutor that the clinic was accommodating twice the maximum capacity, with foldout beds set up in corridors and in doctors’ offices.
“It’s like a stable,” said Dr. Ilias Sioras, president of the union, adding that people in all states — “catatonic and psychotic” — were being treated in the same space.
Dromokaiteio Psychiatric Hospital in Athens is also overcrowded, with admissions up 12.3 percent in 2017 and staff members regularly staging strikes denouncing the conditions. And at Dafni, the Attica Psychiatric Hospital, which takes only very serious cases, “the impact of the economic crisis is reflected in the admissions,” said the director, Spiridoula Kalantzi, citing a 9.6 percent increase in 2017.