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Greece battling virus with austerity-hit health system

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Athens (AFP)

Greece is battling hard to control the novel coronavirus but experts warn that its public health system has been drastically weakened by a decade of dwindling spending and staff cuts.

Since March 12, when Greece registered its first death from the virus, the government has taken swift action to reduce social mixing -- shutting businesses and public spaces, quarantining travellers and banning gatherings among other measures.

"If we manage to limit transmission, we will give our health system the time necessary to deal with emergencies," Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a televised address this week.

Penny Zorzou, an infectious diseases expert at Chios general hospital, said Greece had no choice but to react quickly before its chronically underfunded public health system was overwhelmed.

The system is "very weakened after the debt crisis", she told AFP.

A quarter of national output was wiped out and official unemployment soared to nearly a third of the workforce during the 2010-2018 crisis, originally sparked by reckless state spending and misreporting of fiscal data to the EU.

Thousands of trained doctors emigrated during the crisis, most of them to Germany and Britain.

Sotiria Hospital in Athens, the top facility for respiratory illness, is a stark example of the shortage in medical staff, according to Theodoros Vassilakopoulos, a pulmonology professor at Athens University.

"Before the crisis, the hospital had around 130 pulmonologists-in-training and 60 doctors. Today it has 30 trainees and around 40 doctors," Vassilakopoulos told state TV ERT.

"More than half of them are over the age of 60, a high-risk group," he said.

The scale of the outbreak in Italy -- which has overtaken China in coronavirus deaths -- was instrumental in mobilising the Greeks, says Kyriakos Souliotis, a professor of health policy at the University of the Peloponnese.

- Italy a 'shock' -

"Italy was an example that shocked everyone," Souliotis told AFP.

Greece "only has half the European average in beds in intensive care units", notes Souliotis, adding that the cash-strapped state health system can only afford limited screening facilities which are "expensive".

The union representing public hospital staff has also warned of a possible shortage in essential sanitary equipment, while other insiders say not enough people have access to test kits.

There are currently 120 beds available for coronavirus patients requiring emergency care, the health ministry said this week.

The aim is to "buy time" to forestall a mass propagation of cases that could cause a "collapse" in the system, says Penny Zorzou.

As of Thursday evening, 16 people are in intensive care, and officials say more beds are being added.

Greece has announced 464 infections so far, most of them in mild condition. Six people have died.

But total virus cases are roughly estimated at 2,000-3,000 as not all those infected undergo testing, Sotiris Tsiodras, the health ministry's special spokesman on the virus. said this week.

The government has now put out a call for 2,000 additional medical staff.

- Camps a 'health bomb' -

Officials are also racing to avoid contagion among tens of thousands of migrants in overcrowded camps nationwide, a situation recently termed a "health bomb" by government spokesman Stelios Petsas.

On Wednesday, the migration ministry said it was "drastically" reducing the movement of camp residents on Greek islands, where the worst congestion occurs.

The ministry said that for the next 30 days, the movement of camp residents to nearby communities would be restricted to "small groups" between 7 am and 7 pm.

Specialised medical teams were being deployed to the camps and virus isolation areas would be created.

On Tuesday, Greek authorities said camp access to outside visitors would be barred for two weeks.

"These measures are very positive," said Zorzou.

"The aim is to reduce the migrants' contact with the indigenous population, who travel more than them and are potentially more exposed to the virus than people living in the camps," she said.

There are nearly 38,000 people crammed into overstretched refugee centres on the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos.

As the camps were originally intended to handle around 6,000 people, many sleep outdoors in makeshift shelters with minimal access to hygiene.

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