ATHENS, Greece — With the country teetering on the edge of economic collapse and a continuous barrage of news developments, life for Greeks these past two weeks has been mind-numbing and dizzying. Things are happening so fast, people say they can’t think straight.
Even the meaning of something as simple as “yes” and “no” is not all that clear any more. A joke went viral underlining this confusion: “The real question of the referendum: Are the [austerity] measures enough for you or do you want something better? Yes — they’re enough. No — we want more.”
On July 5, Greeks voted in a snap referendum on whether they wanted to accept the austerity program proposed in a bailout offer from its creditors. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras urged Greeks to vote “No” — and they did by a huge majority. A few days later, he pivoted 180 degrees in the other direction, and asked the parliament to give him the authority to negotiate a third bailout offer, which would invariably include another set of austerity measures, that in many ways are much harsher than the ones offered before. The latest development: a 17-hour marathon session in Brussels ended in a deal for a third bailout worth more than 80 billion euros (or around $90 billion) in exchange for a program of austerity that the International Monetary Fund Tuesday reported would leave Greece owing 200 percent of its GDP in just a few years. One IMF official told reporters in Washington that Greece, without any debt relief, would not be able to pay it off until 2095.
The country’s banks have been shut down since June 29 when capital controls were imposed. What this means is that people have not been able to take out more than 60 euros in cash every day; pensioners without debit cards are limited to 120 euros weekly. International banking transactions have been frozen too, essentially halting business — suppliers can’t be paid, many establishments, even as many as 35 airlines, have stopped accepting credit cards.
On Sunday, many feared they would wake up this week to a country without euros — they worried bank deposits might be raided to keep the banks afloat, which happened in Cyprus in 2013, or that Greece would return to the drachma, rendering their money far less valuable. These fears contributed, no doubt, to the withdrawal of billions of euros from the country’s banks. According to figures from the National Bank of Greece, deposits have dropped from 177.8 billion in November, 2014 to an estimated 128.6 billion in June.
People are confused, anxious and exhausted. Many developments have unfolded in the wee hours, leaving many Greeks sleep-deprived. Local psychotherapists say suicide rates have soared; in an oft-cited statistic, two people commit suicide almost daily.
“The rapidity of events is difficult to metabolize,” said Katerina Zymnis-Georgalos, a pschyoanalyst and founder of the Hellenic Association for Existential Psychology. “These last two weeks especially, we’ve lost track of who we are and where we are. We can’t concentrate. We’re sick and tired of all of it and when people get sick and tired of everything they just want it to end, no matter which way it does.”
“Everything has changed. Our reality simply has changed colors,” added Zymnis-Georgalos, who is studying the impact of the five year-long crisis on people’s psyches with other researchers at Panteion University in Athens. She said she has witnessed this mental confusion both with the clients she sees in her private practice and with the students she trains.
Nikos Sideris, also a psychoanlalyst, is concerned about the effect of the crisis on people’s mental health. “Greeks are in a psychological freezer,” he said. “They are in a state of sorrowful numbness. They’re worried about money, their dreams, their plans and they are fed up and can’t make decisions with a clear head.”
The mental upheaval Greeks are experiencing was evident after the announcement of the deal on Monday morning. When it became clear that a Grexit was not going to happen overnight, reaction was split. “Relief is the first sentiment,” said Yannis Koutsoumitis, an independent Eurozone analyst. “But others, who voted against the measures, feel betrayed.”
Indeed, on Saturday in Peristeri, a working class neighborhood in the city, many residents expressed their disappointment with Tsipras’ about-face. But on the eve of the parliamentary debate on the proposal that Tsipras brought back with him from Brussels, it seems many Greeks are begrudgingly giving him a thumbs up, believing that he brought back the best agreement he could considering the pressure from Greece’s European partners. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble pushed for a temporary exit of Greece from the euro-zone.
But many businessmen, especially entrepreneurs, worry that the new measures — which will likely impose an increase in corporate taxes and a requirement that they be paid 100 percent in advance — might stymie growth. Indeed, many companies, especially those in the shipping and financial industry, are contemplating moves to other more business-friendly countries such as Cyprus or Malta. “The developments in Greece are disheartening,” said Zacharias Michas, director of studies at the Institute of Security and Defense Studies. “The political system continues to play the blame game instead of uniting and trying to do what is required to secure the future of the country. At least for now Greece is killing all productive forces, day by day. So sad.”
Not everyone feels that way. According to Greek network Mega TV, a recent poll indicated a shift in much of the Greek public’s thinking. While over 60 percent of the Greek public voted against the June 30 bailout offer in the July 5 referendum, 72 percent in the most recent poll indicated that the agreement was necessary and 70 percent agreed that parliament should vote on Wednesday to support it.
That turnaround in sentiment can be felt on the street. “Wherever you went on Sunday, hardly anyone was out. Most people were home watching TV,” said Katerina Loutzaki, 31, a public relations executive for a media channel. “On Monday night, everyone was out.”
At dusk in a public square in Goudi, a neighborhood in central Athens, children rode bikes and played on swings, as parents sat on benches nearby. The cafes that circled St. Thomas square were busy. Polivios Polikretis, 49, an unemployed airline mechanic, sat on a bench with his mother, Despina, 75, while his father, Panayiotis, 78, supervised his 2-year-old son. “I think Tsipras tried really hard. The Europeans pushed him to accept the deal he had no other choice,” he said. His father chimed in, “We’re only going backwards, not forward.”
“And I say that as a dancer. I’m a great dancer,” he added, doing a little cha-cha as he spoke.
Not everyone is as lighthearted. Labor unions are organizing again to fight against the coming austerity measures. On Tuesday, protests began to pop up around the city.
For the moment, the ball is back in the court of the Greek parliament, where an omnibus bill will be debated all day. Hardline members of Tsipras’s left wing party are lined up to vote against it. “A third bailout will not move our country forward,” said Energy Minister Panayiotis Lafazanis as he went into parliament Wednesday morning. “It will destroy our country.” The bill, however, is expected to pass because the prime minister is likely to receive support from many of the opposition parties, including the conservative New Democracy party, the socialist PASOK and the centrist Potami party. A long debate is also expected, meaning that Greeks are up for another late night.
Greeks, in better times, of course, are famous for enjoying themselves into the wee hours. But this summer, "everybody has been awake all hours, waiting for the next shoe to drop,” the psychoanalyst Zymnis-Georgalos said.