As he dispenses his pills and powders in his pharmacy in Athens, Giannis Dagres is counting the primary cost of his country’s economic crisis: a severe shortage of drugs.
“Almost every category of drugs: antibiotics, drugs for high blood pressure, vaccines for children. We’re running short of almost everything,” he says.
Supplies are dwindling because the government has been forced to cut spending on health care. Dagres admits that the shortages make him ashamed of Greece, a nation that “claims to be a developed country.”
Drug shortages are not the only challenge Dagres is facing. Greece’s international creditors want to scrap the pharmacists’ current monopoly that gives them the sole right to sell over-the-counter drugs like aspirin and painkiller paracetamol. Supermarkets and other outlets aren’t allowed to. The creditors call this blatant protectionism. Pharmacist Lefteris Marinos disputes the negative connotation.
“Protectionism means protecting something, and in this particular case it means protecting the health of the Greek people,” Marinos says.
He argues that a pharmacist should always be on hand to ensure that it’s safe for a particular customer to take aspirin. But Nikolaos Haritakis, professor of economics at Athens University, doesn’t buy that.
“ Nonsense! It’s a … stupidity!” he says, laughing. “This is pure protectionism and totally detrimental to society.”
It’s not just economists who say that. Dr. Dimitrios Papadimitriadis, a psychiatrist and a health economist, agrees that the pharmacy regulations must be loosened and that foreign pharmacy chains — currently banned — should be allowed to operate in Greece.
“I think the patient would be better off if the competition was actually working, because drug prices will be lower,” Papadimitriadis says.
Darges points out that Greece has many more pharmacy shops per capita than all other European countries. He argues that foreign takeovers would cut the number and that remote rural areas would suffer. He accuses the creditors of neo-colonialism.
“Every time the foreigners come here, the first thing they say, “We want privatizations. Because they want to come and get our assets so they want us to work for them, as a colony,” he complains.
But without the creditors’ help, and that help is conditional, Greece could be booted out of the eurozone. Any new currency would plummet. The cost of imported drugs — and most of them are imported in Greece — would soar. More woe for the pharmacist … and his customers.