A helicopter appeared last month through the mists that often engulf Greece’s far-flung isle of Amorgos. Two figures, one on a stretcher, waited as the chopper, carrying an emergency medical team, made several abortive attempts to land. When, finally, it touched down on a grassy knoll beneath Amorgos’s hillside capital, doctors rushed to attend to the man on the gurney.
“It was 2:30am and we were desperate,” recalled Rita DeCarlo, one of about 200 foreigners living on the island. “My husband was in critical condition, losing blood internally, and Amorgos doesn’t have a hospital with the ability to give plasma. It was urgent that he got to Athens.”
Amorgos, the most easterly of the Cyclades islands, with a population of just under 2,000, was meant to get a hospital long ago. Greece’s economic crisis, however, has ensured that medical care is a rudimentary affair, despite the rugged outpost annually attracting about 10,000 tourists in the near quarter of a century since it was put on the map by the 1988 French film The Big Blue.
With only basic supplies at their disposal, locals instead depend on the services of a medical crew flown in by helicopter – the only means of reaching Amorgos aside from by ship.
In the runup to Sunday’s snap general elections the lack of proper healthcare is the talk of the island. For Nikitas Roussos, the mayor, it has been an overriding concern since he assumed the post 17 months ago. “Every week I speak to senior officials at the ministry of health,” said the retired pharmacist. “And every week they promise to fix the situation. But the bureaucracy is absolutely incredible.
“We’re meant to have four doctors permanently based on the island but there is usually only ever one. A few more arrived last week but like all the rest they are all straight out of medical school with no training.”
Municipal authorities, taking matters into their own hands, have tried to lure experienced doctors with free accommodation. “Not even that has worked,” said the mayor, whose whitewashed “headquarters” proudly flies the EU flag.
“If you want to have an ordinary blood test, and there are some people here who need them every month, you have to brave the weather and go to [the central Cycladic island] Naxos.”
In Athens, officials blame the shortages on lack of funds. Greek healthcare has emerged as one of the biggest victims of the crisis, with the cash-starved state forced to cut spending from €15bn (£12bn) to €13bn since late 2009.
Islanders’ hopes of being spared further delays are likely to be dashed – whatever government emerges after the elections, it will be forced to slice an extra €1bn from the health budget, a condition of international aid keeping the near-bankrupt Greek economy afloat.
“The crisis was slow in coming but it has definitely reached us now,” said Constantinos Mavros, a local baker. “Just as on other islands, construction has stopped and business has dropped. But mostly, I would say, it is in our minds. Like Greeks elsewhere we are afraid – afraid to spend or even think of spending.”
As the country’s financial woes have worsened, Amorgos has found it is no longer immune to problems suffered by villages and towns across Greece.
“We don’t have a homeless problem as they do in Athens, but over the winter we couldn’t afford fuel to heat our schools,” said the mayor, adding that his own coffers had been dramatically emptied.
“It requires around €1m annually to run Amorgos and this year we had less then €300,000. There wasn’t enough money to buy petrol for rubbish dumpsters or vehicles to clear debris from our roads.”
Locals hope salvation will come from tourists attracted by the island’s spectacular beauty and breathtaking views. Miracles have long been associated with the famous Byzantine monastery of the Panaghia Chozoviotissa, an architectural masterpiece clinging to the cliffs above the sea.
“Thanks to The Big Blue, tourists now know about the monastery and its miracle-making icon,” said Roussos. “All of us on Amorgos see the Panaghia [Holy Virgin] as our protector and are praying she will help us through the crisis.”