The Chronicities of Crisis in Athens’s Social Solidarity Clinics

From the Series: Greece is Burning

Photo by murplejane, licensed under CC BY SA.

Dominant accounts of the Greek crisis highlight aberrant, even spectacular qualities. Images of forests and banks on fire, or Molotov cocktails exploding, contribute to an aesthetics of crisis marked by sudden, unexpected, even inexplicable events. The title of this “Hot Spot,” Greece is Burning, captures the ethos of sociopolitical upheaval and deep uncertainty that has marked this period of protracted crisis in Greece. Nonetheless, in my research on community-based health care in Athens, I have observed that crisis is very often experienced and articulated as a chronic and even banal set of struggles. Research participants themselves link these struggles to structural factors much larger than individual or family trajectories of socioeconomic or somatic health.

Arthur Kleinman (1988, 180) shows that chronic conditions are structured and normalized, writing that “chronicity is not simply a direct result of pathology acting in an isolated person. It is the outcome of lives lived under constraining circumstances with particular relationships to other people.” Chronicity of illness, social marginalization, and even crisis is reproduced not just through individual bodies but through the social body and the body politic (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987). The chronicities of crisis are often elided through the discursive and aesthetic focus on that which is spectacular. Chronic cases are the quiet, uncelebrated, unmourned casualties of the ultimately explicable and even systematic sociopolitical configurations that constitute austerity in Greece.

My current research focuses on clinics and pharmacies that operate on the principle of “social solidarity,” providing care and pharmaceuticals to people who do not have access to health care or medicine. Part of a larger movement of solidarity networks, which include soup kitchens, time banks, anti-middlemen markets (see Agelopoulos 2015, Rakopoulos 2015), and venues for the distribution of clothing and foodstuffs, these grassroots clinics and pharmacies have been organized throughout Greece since 2011. Solidarity initiatives operate on voluntary donations of labor and materials (Rozakou 2011). At the clinics, doctors, mental health professionals, dentists, pharmacists, and those performing secretarial duties donate their time. Families, private pharmacies, schools, and even other social clinics donate surplus or leftover medical supplies and pharmaceuticals. Medicines (which, in Europe, come in sealed blister packs, thus limiting the chance of contamination, even if partially consumed) are checked carefully to ensure that they have not expired; they are then counted, stored, and redistributed.

In interviews with care seekers and through participant-observation at the clinics and pharmacies, I found that many struggle with chronic conditions that would be relatively manageable with regular care and medicine. Take, for instance, the former welder of Albanian origin, living with his family on a pension of €30 a month (extraordinarily low, even for Greece), who told me how he often cannot leave his house owing to the severe asthma that he can only occasionally treat. Or the house cleaner, knuckles swollen from arthritis, who speaks of blood pressure (piesi) that gets so high that it makes her “eyes bug out.” Or the long-term resident who came to Greece from Eastern Europe, who told me that her debilitating psychological struggles came on so gradually that she did not even notice that she “was not OK” (dhen imoun kala) until her whole world had transformed. These illness narratives index existing, historical struggles with marginality along lines of class, gender, and national and ethnic origin, but recent austerity measures have made it increasingly difficult for my interlocutors to access liveable—let alone good—lives. Discussions of illness were also tied to more recent events: unemployment, pension cuts, expired social insurance booklets that could not be renewed. The result was that many could not afford even two-week supplies of medicines such as atorvastatin, olanzapine, sertraline or voltaren (some of the more sought-after pharmaceuticals, ranging from antipsychotics to treatments for high cholesterol.)

Austerity has rendered crisis chronic and thus increasingly easy to mistake for common sense. We must, however, remember that crisis is not simply the product of the market’s invisible hand but has resulted largely from the austerity packages imposed by the Eurozone powers-that-be. Austerity has attacked the already stumbling Greek welfare state, forcing cutbacks in the public sector and encouraging privatization, disciplining Greece (and Greeks) through the logic—not necessarily rational—that everyone must pay their debts. My research has explored neoliberal governance in Europe and its asymmetrical effects on countries and people on the margins. For nearly ten years I studied how Greek civil society groups responded to the large numbers of asylum seekers entering Greek territory (first owing to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now in Syria) in the face of limited state and EU support (Cabot 2014). In my current work, I observe how the strangling of the social system in Greece affects not just refugees and recent and long-term migrants, but also those with formal citizenship.

Austerity has encouraged the devolution of human and social rights from state institutions to semiformal or informal venues outside the state—such as the clinics and pharmacies—where people labor to create partial spheres of rights and liveable livelihood. For the care seekers I interviewed, the clinics and pharmacies made the difference in their capacity to access care; “without the pharmacy, I would die,” said one interviewee. Of course, as in all potentially revolutionary projects, solidarity initiatives have their own limitations; new forms of exclusion haunt even the theory and practice of solidarity. Still, solidarity initiatives rupture, in part, the chronicities of crisis, reminding us that other worlds may be possible. They show what it is to sustain partial alternative worlds within intolerable systems, insisting on the imperative for liveable lives and healing on Europe’s margins.


Agelopoulos, Giorgos. 2015. “To Whom Are the Greek Bearing Gifts? Aspects of the Refugee Crisis in Greece.” Irish Journal of Anthropology 18, no. 2: 9-11.

Cabot, Heath. 2014. On the Doorstep of Europe: Asylum and Citizenship in Greece.Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kleinman, Arthur. 1988. The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, and the Human Condition. New York: Basic Books.

Rakopoulos, Theodoros. 2015. “Solidarity’s Tensions: Informality, Sociality and the Greek Crisis.Social Analysis 59, no. 3: 85–104.

Rozakou, Katerina. 2011. “The Pitfalls of Voluntarism: The Production of the New European Citizen in Greece.” Vienna: European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, and Margaret M. Lock. 1987. “The Mindful Body: A Prologomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology.Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1, no. 1: 6–41.