To paraphrase Pastor Niemöller:
First they came for the immigrants, but I said nothing because I wasn’t an immigrant.
Then they came for those with HIV, but I said nothing because I am not HIV positive.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak
Austerity tears society apart. Jobs are lost, and social security is cut just when it is needed the most. People lose their incomes and ability to support themselves, and come under tremendous pressure. Politicians deflect blame from their own failures by finding convenient – and vulnerable – scapegoats. The cracks widen and split open, and the bigotry, fear and negativity that simmers under the surface of any society, stoked by the right wing press, explodes into the mainstream.
Greece has seen the worst austerity programme in post-war Europe as the country is forced to pay for an economic crisis that it didn’t cause. The Greek crisis is due to structural faults in the Eurozone, not the actions of Greek people, who live and work like everyone else in the world. And yet the Greek people are paying, and are witnessing an experiment in the slow and deliberate destruction of a society. This is disaster capitalism – the Shock Doctrine – at its worst.
And we’re seeing the effects on a society on the brink. We’ve seen the rise in homelessness, suicide and HIV infection. We’ve read the horrifying statistic that around half the Greek police actively support the Nazi Golden Dawn party. Immigrants, gays, leftists and intellectuals are beaten up as the state outsources oppression to force through unworkable austerity packages.
We’ve seen both veiled and explicit attacks by politicians on immigrants, the disabled and other vulnerable groups, with some immigrants being indefinitely detained amidst reactionary pronouncements from Health Minister Andreas Loverdos about a “bomb” going off in Greek society.
In May 2012, in a reactionary round of social cleansing, the Greek police rounded up just under a hundred women from the streets of Athens, accusing them of prostitution. They were tested for HIV against their will by the Greek Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. Twenty-six women were arrested. Their identities were exposed on the police website, and in much of the media. They were accused of intentionally causing serious bodily harm, which completely ignores their clients’ and partners’ responsibility to take care of their own sexual health. Most of them are still in prison.
HIV-Aids went from a public health crisis in the 1980s and 90s to a manageable syndrome. Most HIV-positive people today can experience normal lifespans. This is largely due to the development of new drugs – which also retard HIV transmission – but it also has a lot to do with tackling the stigma associated with HIV. HIV treatment activists fought long and hard against this stigma, which finally gave people the confidence to come forward and get treatment.
This case in Greece demonstrates how quickly those advances can be rolled back. The Greek health ministry has taken a medieval approach to public health: instead of using science and policy to tackle the rise in HIV infections, they are essentially marching through the streets ringing plague bells and scapegoating those with the virus.
We need to defend society. It is the glue that holds us together, that allows us to share and cooperate and build a future. The first step is spreading the word, so people know what is happening. The second is to express solidarity for those who are most vulnerable – so that, in Martin Niemöller’s words, there is some one left to speak for us if we’re ever isolated and in need.
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