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Putting a Human Face on the Euro Crisis

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As Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, or "Merkozy," met this week in yet another round of shuttle diplomacy to stave off the meltdown of the eurozone, we were reminded that the euro crisis is much more than just an economic battle over currency intervention, debt, and deficits. This week, in the Italian parliament, the new prime minister and his cabinet were presenting their technocratic team to the world to return market confidence.

In front of national and international media we saw the stoic labour and welfare minister, Elsa Fornero, stop in the middle of her statement on the sacrifices Italian families would need to pay in the coming years, to withhold her tears. Fornero appeared as if she held the weight of the world on her shoulders. As she was presenting the technical fixes the country would undertake, she continued to fight back the tears; tears no doubt her fellow citizens had let run free on her behalf. It was a powerful reminder to us in Canada, that the euro crisis is about more than just finances, it is also about people.

Whether we admit it or not, we Canadians and perhaps Americans as well, have not had all that much sympathy for southern Europeans over the past few years. Yes, we have an image about their lofty retirement packages, their repeated labour strikes, their unproductive work days with the siesta and all, and let's not forget about their six weeks of annual vacation.

Let's face it, either we have had resentment or a hint of jealousy toward southern Europeans for their relaxed lifestyle. To no surprise then, many Canadians have holier-than-thou attitudes about the euro crisis. We extol that Greeks need to pay more taxes like we do and the Italians need to work more hours like we do. Essentially, the southern Europeans have had a sweet ride for this long and now it's time they wake up and realize that globalization means they cannot continue to live so stress-free.

Then, Elsa Fornero reminded me of what the euro crisis is really about: people. While we hear so much about the labour demonstrations in the streets of Athens, what we haven't heard is that suicide rates throughout the country have increased by 40 per cent compared to last year, or an additional 2,500 Greeks took their lives this year because of their economic hardships.

The Lancet journal also reported that violence, homicide and theft have doubled between 2007 and 2009, making Greek streets less safe than ever. With rampant youth unemployment, reaching nearly 50 per cent, there have been higher increases of wayward young people in the streets. Intravenous drug use is on the rise to such an extent that HIV infections have increased by 52 per cent or roughly 922 new cases of HIV infections.

If this is just the beginning of what awaits Italy, Spain, Portugal and others, we might all be ready to shed a tear too for what the euro crisis is to bring. As the European leaders meet in Brussels yet again, we Canadians might have more empathy for their citizens thanks to minister Fornero.

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