Cypriots turn to handouts after decades of ‘good life’

Caroline Nelly Perrot
“I would never have thought we’d come to this,” sighed Chris, collecting a bag of free food from a Nicosia church as the economic crisis in Cyprus bites.
“I was a carpenter, my wife was in the catering industry. We had two cars, our life was easy until we lost our jobs” earlier this year, he said. “Now we use a candle at night because we can’t even pay the electricity, and I come and take food here” - something that would have been unthinkable in what had for decades been an affluent country.
The east Mediterranean island, whose economy thrived on tourism and as a financial services centre, has been dragged down for the past two years by recession. It was rescued from the brink of bankruptcy in March by an EU bailout that saw its banking sector drastically downsized while imposing an austerity regime and sharp curbs on public spending.
Unemployment which had long hovered at around five per cent has shot up this year to a record 17 per cent and is still rising. Adding to the squeeze, many employees have at the same time been forced to take pay cuts, along with civil servants and pensioners.
“I have no other choice as no one is working anymore in my family,” said Eleni, a healthy-looking woman in her 50s, picking up a bag of oil, flour and other basics from the Red Cross.
The supplies will have to help feed three sons who have come back home to live because like her, a former van driver, they are jobless.
Once the maximum six months of unemployment benefits have run out, more and more Cypriots are having to turn to charities that previously served the island’s large number of foreign workers. “Since March, the number of Cypriots has increased dramatically,” said Red Cross director Takis Neophytou.
“We used to have mainly migrants. Now the number of Cypriots has increased to 50 per cent” of the thousands of families receiving aid from the Red Cross.
According to the Cyprus Statistical Service, 48,000 people - almost six per cent of the population - now depend on food banks run by the Greek Orthodox Church, municipalities or individual donors.
The crisis has risen to a spirit of solidarity likened to the shock of the 1974 Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus that displaced tens of thousands of people who lost everything overnight. Since last spring, an association of doctors who normally venture to crisis zones abroad has instead focused its humanitarian efforts on their own country’s five cities, offering consultations free of charge.
‘I can’t go to hospital’
In the capital, dozens of patients turn up every weekend at a makeshift surgery run by Volunteer Doctors in Nicosia’s Venetian-walled Old City. A doctor and a nurse operate out of a chilly, spartan room, with a stock of medicine and impressive-looking medical equipment provided mainly by private surgeries.
“The doctor last week diagnosed my daughter with pneumonia,” a father said, warmly thanking the volunteers for the treatment. “I can’t go to hospital. I lost my job and with it my social security. They’re good professionals here and it’s free.”
The NGO, financed by company and private donations, is made up of dozens of doctors who give up their time on weekends. It is backed up by a network of specialists to whom patients are referred.
“Lately, our patients are 25 per cent foreigners, including many illegal migrants, and 75 per cent Cypriots, mostly retired and unemployed - and many children,” said the head of Volunteer Doctors, George Macriyiannis. “Some people have trouble paying even the few euros charged since two months ago by public hospitals for each test and appointment,” said Macriyiannis, a cardiologist. –AFP

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