Greek health workers have been protesting against compulsory vaccination for 17 days.

In Greece, 7,500 health workers have been suspended from work and pay for not being vaccinated. For 17 days they have been staging continuous protests in what is the most consistent and sustained opposition to the restrictions imposed by the Greek government. Five of them have gone on hunger strike.

“We don’t need vaccine passports to be free,” Zoe Vagiopoulou, one of the suspended protesters, told a crowd of demonstrators in Athens yesterday. Vagiopoulou delivered a speech to parliament that has shocked Greek social media.

“We have been on hunger strike for 17 days for the right to work. Work is a right that no one can deny us. We are 7,500 families [referring to the number of health workers who remain dismissed] outside the public health system, to which our parents and grandparents contributed but from which we are excluded by permanent decisions that violate the law and the constitutional order” (*).

Vagiopulu is one of five Greek health workers who went on hunger strike on 21 March to protest against their suspension and pandemic-related restrictions. The Greek health ministry has suspended all workers who did not receive a booster dose by 31 March.

In an interview, Argyri Kagia, a radiologist fired from his hospital in Athens since 1 September last year for refusing to vaccinate, spoke about the hunger strike and protests. Since the start of the hunger strike, Kagia said, the suspended workers have established a permanent presence in front of the Greek health ministry “every day and every night in shifts”. Protests and marches “to various ministries and public bodies” are also being organised.

The hunger strike represents a new and unprecedented phase of protests against pandemic-related impositions and restrictions. Perhaps the closest equivalent is the hunger strike launched in September last year in Nice, France, by two hospital workers – Christophe Nait, an emergency room orderly, and Thierry Paysant, a fire safety officer – to protest against compulsory vaccination in France.

On 30 March, during a march to the Greek Parliament, riot police fired tear gas at the demonstrators, including the five hunger strikers in wheelchairs, one of whom was injured.

The incident was filmed and broadcast on Greek social media.

Unlike health workers, police officers in Greece are exempt from compulsory vaccination.

Riot police escorted Greek health minister Thanos Plevris, known for his links to fascists, during a visit on 4 April to the Thriasio hospital near Athens.

Greece’s mainstream media have not reported the workers’ hunger strike. Since the start of the pandemic in 2020 they have received 40 million euros in public subsidies to sustain the discourse and restrictions imposed by the government under the pretext of the pandemic.

The Greek government has refrained from formally dismissing the workers, although it has threatened to do so. On 30 March, the work stoppage of the unvaccinated health workers was extended until 31 December, thanks to protests and mobilisations.

However, the workers receive no salary, no unemployment insurance and no pension contributions. Most survive thanks to solidarity and the help of family and friends.

Leading on restrictions, passports and vaccinations
After Austria, Greece was the second European country to impose compulsory vaccination on certain segments of the population, requiring anyone aged 60 or over to be vaccinated by 15 January or face a monthly fine of 100 euros, a large sum in Greece, where the average monthly pension is 722 euros.

However, the Greek health ministry revealed that the imposition of the fine would be suspended from 15 April and that the measure would be reviewed again in September.

The Greek government also announced that second booster doses, using only mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna), would be available for the elderly from 7 April.

The availability of the second booster dose will be extended to the general population in September.

The monthly fine has not convinced most of the unvaccinated elderly to get vaccinated, or even to pay the fine. In fact, an estimated 500,000 elderly people remain unvaccinated or have not received a booster, and only 14 per cent of those fined have paid the fine.

Vaccination passports, along with masks, are still required in Greece for access to many public and private places, such as restaurants and most shops, despite the fact that the initial expiry date of the passports is 31 March.

Most other European countries have lifted these measures.

Although the government has hinted that the passport requirement could be lifted after Greek Orthodox Easter (24 April), government officials have not specified an exact date.

Greece was the first country to officially propose the introduction of EU-wide digital passports for vaccines, and the extension of these passports to include the booster dose.

Until recently, Greece was the only EU member that applied a shorter validity period for its vaccination passports: seven months for those vaccinated and three months for those already infected with “covid”, instead of nine and six months, respectively, in the rest of the EU.

Pressure from the EU led the Greek government to bring the validity of its passports into line with that of the EU as of 2 April.

Despite the restrictions, Greece ranks first in the number of “cases” and deaths attributed to “covid”, and the government blames the “unvaccinated segment of the older age groups” for the excess mortality. Others, however, have a more convincing explanation. They point to the poor state of Greek public hospitals as an important factor. Overcrowding in hospitals is not due to “covid”. There is a waiting period for routine surgery and routine medical appointments, tests and chemotherapy.

Every winter, hospital congestion due to seasonal flu becomes a hot topic in the Greek media. The Greek healthcare system developed with hospitals at the centre. The family doctor hardly exists as an institution, while regional and local medical clinics are understaffed and ill-equipped.

As a result, people go to hospital for any reason, even for a simple cold, and the hospitals on call are overcrowded. They do not have sufficient facilities to treat so many patients, and there is a lack of trained and competent staff who can take measures to mitigate the spread of hospital-acquired infections.

In many cases, medical equipment in public hospitals has not been replaced since it was purchased in 2004, on the eve of that year’s Olympic Games in Athens. Most of this equipment is no longer reliable and much of it is obsolete.

Austerity measures, which have led to deep cuts in public health spending over the past decade, are to blame. There has been no new hiring in the public health system since 2016 – the first such hiring in nine years – while medical staff who have retired in recent years have not been replaced.

Greek hospitals cannot meet the needs of the country’s population. They are understaffed and the existing ones are overworked.

Kagia said that while a “relatively small percentage” of unvaccinated health workers had initially “succumbed” and returned to work, the majority had not.

He also noted that unvaccinated health workers who have been suspended from duty have not been replaced, despite government promises to the contrary, putting additional pressure on the health system.

This pressure is blamed on the unvaccinated and is used to justify continued restrictions.

According to Kagia, the unvaccinated workers are not only fighting to get their jobs back. They are also demanding an end to compulsory vaccination and the preservation of freedom of expression.

A growing number of unvaccinated medical workers have realised that, apart from their personal situation, there is an additional reason to protest: the preservation of the right of every individual to preserve their bodily integrity and to do what they believe is best for themselves.

(*) https://www.pronews.gr/ygeia/ygeionomikos-se-apergia-peinas-eimaste-kai-tha-eimaste-eleytheroi-den-ypoxoroume-akomi-kai-ean-pethanoume/

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