Greece debt crisis: The Austrian businessman whose charity is sending tons of medicine and food to the impoverished nation every month

Erwin Schrümpf founded Griechenlandhilfe because he 'could not stand by and watch such poverty and need in the EU'

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The Independent Online

Unvaccinated babies, hospitals begging for insulin and mothers unable to feed their children. Such problems are emerging in the European Union as a result of wealthier northern states attempting to reform the economy of its tiny, southerly member, Greece.

In Athens, as in most of the country, living standards are plunging and unemployment has quadrupled after five years of austerity to over 26 per cent. Those without a job have no health insurance and therefore no right to healthcare. But one northern European is setting out to do something about it. Erwin Schrümpf, a 51-year-old from Salzburg in Austria, has founded a charity Griechenlandhilfe (Greece aid), which is sending tons of medicine and food to Greece every month. The former businessman was spurred into action after watching a documentary about the desperate state of Greek healthcare.

His charity managed to persuade pharmaceutical companies to donate medicines that are urgently needed first to the Elpis hospital in Athens which was one of the few centres treating people without health insurance, and now to 20 clinics and institutions around the country. “I could not stand by and watch such poverty and need in a country of the European Union, whose leaders with their fine speeches always stress the idea of solidarity among its member states,” he said.”

Mr Schrümpf has gathered 60 volunteers in Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Greece and found hundreds of people who donate money to keep Griechenlandhilfe going.

The Nikaia Rentis health centre in the working-class backstreets of Athen’s Piraeus port is one of the centres to receive Griechenlandhilfe donations. Maria Moschos is a volunteer working with the clinic. She said she stepped in after witnessing a “collapse” in Greek society. “Yesterday a young mother came in and asked for help: ‘I don’t know what to do; my children haven’t eaten for three days.’ And this is Europe in 2015. This is why people are so angry. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in two years’ time.”

Michael Tsentides, 41, is a nurse at the health centre who distributes some of the medicines and supplies donated. “Without the donations and the work of the volunteers lots of people – mostly elderly – would be left to fend for themselves. And they would probably die alone in pain and distress,” he said.

The resident GP, Macianthi Pamidou, is phlegmatic. This week she spoke to the parents of a young man injured in a car accident. Hospital doctors stopped the bleeding, but no one will pay for the surgery needed to fix his broken legs, because it’s not life saving.

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A man walks by a mural in Athens on Tuesday (Reuters)

City hospitals approach her with requests for spare insulin. She sees children, 11 years old, who’ve never been vaccinated. Infant mortality in Greece has increased by 42 per cent in the past five years. “There isn’t usually money for vaccines; sometimes I’ve paid for them with my own money. We cannot allow children to go unvaccinated; it’s like going back in time,” she said. Dr Pamidou earns €1,500 (£1,o59) a month for working in the clinic from 8.30am to 3.30pm every day. She tries to make her salary up with private work in the evenings.

It’s not just the unemployed who benefit from the donated drugs. Dr Pamidou’s prescribing limit is €49 per patient per month. She’s been censured and threatened by city authorities for – inevitably – exceeding it. At 2.30pm a five-year-old girl, Marsiana, enters the clinic with her young aunt, Markela Giakoupmopoulou. The centre has recruited a volunteer speech therapist, Irene Gonzales, who’s helping the child. “Without this help, my niece wouldn’t be able to fit in or do well at school,” she said. “This sense of community, of helping each other, is very Greek and one of the few positive messages to emerge from this disaster,” said Ms Moschos.

Officially, Greichenlandhilfe does not comment on politics. But, with the likelihood that more hardship is on the way for a working – or unemployed – class already on its knees, Ms Moschos is unable to disguise her anger.

“I don’t think you’re talking about human beings when you’re talking about those people who want to push more austerity on us. What has happened in Greece is heartbreaking.”

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