A new kind of malaria vaccine has proved to give 100 percent protection from the disease. The sample group received 5 doses over 20 weeks, making it expensive and difficult to administer, especially for the areas of the world that suffer the most from the disease.

“This is a scientific advance rather than a practical one,” said Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbulit University, “But any vaccine that provides even a glimmer of hope opens a door, so we have to pursue it.”

The disease kills more than 660,000 people every year, most of them children and pregnant women. (via NYT)

Fresh Air interviewed journalist Sonia Shah who wrote a social history of the disease called The Fever: How Malaria Has Rules Humankind for 500,000 Years.”

image via futurity
Race and Gender: The Co-Optation of Asian American Feminism

By Sonia Shah
Z Magazine
July/August 1995

In recent years, mass media outlets have described the current state of gender relations as “post-feminist.” In this post-feminist era, they say, feminist goals have become largely irrelevant and sexism as a social and political problem has been, for the most part, solved. Via the co-optation, commercialization, and ultimately, the subversion of feminist goals, mainstream commentators have successfully re-defined gender relations as something other than they are – without widespread disbelief.

Why have American-born Asian women been so much more visible than their male counterparts in the mass media?  Sonia Shah has an answer.  By magnifying the perceived social differences between Asian American women and men, and between Asian American women and their less acculturated parents, the media can minimize the perceived significance of racism and sexism in the Asian American experience.  After all, most American viewers will tune out before they will watch programming that confronts the persistent realities of male domination and white privilege.

With the ascendancy of Elaine Chao, poster child for the “model minority,” to the Bush Cabinet, Shah’s 1995 article deserves a fresh rereading.  Glossing over continuing injustices in racial and gender power relations has been Chao’s specialty throughout her political career, and Shah’s article lays bare the rhetorical distortions we can expect from the new Labor Secretary for the next four years.

– Andrew Chin
February 5, 2001

Given the facts that patriarchy – the cultural and institutional systems that privilege men over women – still exists, and feminist activists around the country are still working to subvert patriarchy, the hailing of a “post-feminist” society is premature at best. Experience and studies show that women are poorer than men, earn less money than men, are beaten and raped by men, are harassed by men, and are demeaned and devalued by society.

Of course, there have been changes in gender power relations in recent years. But given that men still overwhelmingly control society, these power shifts between men and women, while hopeful, have hardly been significant enough to warrant the pronouncement of patriarchy’s demise.

What the “post-feminist” era refers to is not a revolution in actual gender power relations, but rather a revolution in the representation of gender power relations. In the world created by advertising, fashion, news media, and the entertainment industry – with notable exceptions – women’s power is either equal to men’s, or if unequal, unequal in a way that is acceptable (annoying at worst) to women. In this media-created world, it’s easy for single women to raise children and hold down high powered jobs; working class battered women are funny and own big houses; women of color are rich and fashionable.

The interests of media-makers necessitate this distorted, idealized imagery. These portrayals build on the issues feminists have raised: that women should be able to fulfill work and family expectations without marriage, that battered women should be empowered and supported by society; that women of color are not all maids and mammies. Yet at the same time, they gloss over the fact that these goals are massively obstructed and must be fought for. In this way, media-makers appeal to women with a feminist sensibility without provoking the rage and agitatin of feminist critiques.

This portrayal makes women consumers (of fashion, media, and entertainment) feel the way the advertisers – who pay for the production of these artifacts – want them to feel. Because manufacturers need to convince people to buy things they don’t necessarily need, they need to placate, seduce, and flatter. They must appeal to feminized women in a way that makes them want to participate in – not change – consumer society. Thus the feminist sensibility of women’s independence and control and feminist-driven issues are presented by the mainstream, while the crux of feminist struggle – that patriarchal society must be subverted – is portrayed as unnecessary. We’re shop at the mall. So, while feminist activism to subvert patriarchy continues under siege, the media portray the battle as already won.

Given this media environment, many women have concluded that patriarchy is dead and feminism is irrelevant. By calling themselves “post-feminist,” they receive media attention and commercial success. These women, with their male allies, further delegitimize feminist work. 


Asimilar trajectory lies in wait for Asian American feminism. But it’s worse. Although Asian American feminists have been organizing and supporting Asian women in the face of white and Asian patriarchy for decades, the work of defining an Asian American feminist agenda has barely begun. While opinions obviously differ, Western feminism has defined many agendas, including one of radically transforming society along non-patriarchal, non-hierarchical lines. Asian feminists also advocate the subversion of imperialism and racism, but the work of envisioning a non-patriarchal, non-imperialist, non-racist society has just begun. The commercial market catering to Asian American women may be well established before a political community of Asian American feminists is in place.

According to the U.S. Census, Asian Americans are the fastest growing demographic group in the country. Dramatizing this heightened visibility on the national stage was the LA riots, in which the major players, at least superficially, were not black and white but rather black and Asian. The stereotypical characterizations of Asian Americans, that they have strong families, make lots of money, and value education, support popular conservative theories, which will ensure their persistence despite evidence to the contrary. Also, these stereotypes highlight exactly those sectors of the community industry could most lucratively exploit.

Secondly, much Asian American activism is easily diverted to meet the needs of greater commercialization. One of the most valuable assets to industry is an in-depth description of its target audience. In attempting to break out of the confines of black/white racial distinctions, Asian American activists and scholars have meticulously described the cultural, linguistic, political, social, and religious diversity of our community, as well as our cultural similarities. Ironically, these profiles, created for the political goal of solidarity in the community and to protect diversity, serve commercial interests equally well.

This creates an environment especially threatening to Asian American women. In a racist, sexist society, Asian American women are considered more acceptable and less threatening to the mainstream than Asian men. This is one reason Asian American women are and will be particularly targeted by commercialization. Another reason is that historically women rather than men are the chief consumers and decision makers about consumption in American families, which provides an incentive for industry to market to women particularly. So far, almost all evidence indicates that Asian American women are indeed at the forefront of the commercialization of the Asian American community. In the last five years, there’s been an explosion in products geared to and about Asian American women. At least a dozen new Asian American women novelists have been published by big commercial publishers. In contrast there’s been relatively few Asian American male writers catapulted to mass market commercial success. There’s been a handful of mass market commercial movies about Asian American women. In contrast, as yet no American Hollywood-based movie has starred an Asian American male character in anything but the most stereotypical fashion. The first network television sit-com to portray an Asian American family stars an Asian American woman, not a man.

The commercial re-defining can be seen occurring around two facets of Asian American feminism: Asian American women’s identity and Asian American women’s biculturalism.


Asian American identity, as conceptualized by Asian American feminists, is a radical stance of re-inventing and restructuring both American and Asian cultures. It means more than being just Asian and more than being just American; it means understanding and bridging both cultures in a way that undermines the patriarchy and racism of both cultures. This process necessitates contesting white racism that demeans and devalues Asianness as well as Asian patriarchy that demeans and devalues women. Thus the transcendence of Asian American feminist identity is a process fraught with pain, loss, and struggle against racism and sexism, both from within the Asian community and from the mainstream white community. There is no easy path.

The commercial world has used the bicultural identity touted by Asian American feminists to create their images of Asian American women. Yet they do so in a way that subverts its underlying political meaning. In the images created by commercial media, the bicultural woman’s condition is not one that runs head up against white supremacy and patriarchy. It’s.funny. It’s tragic. It’s an edge. In this way, the essential insight of the Asian American feminism – that it necessitates struggle against American racism and Asian sexism – becomes irrelevant, while the generic sensibility of biculturalism remains superficially intact.

The Korean American woman character at the center of the TV sit-com “All American Girl,” for example, humorously insults a British professor by telling him to “go learn the language.” Her xenophobia is supposed to show how American she is, that she can level the insult most commonly thrown at people like her and her family to others. In this instance, xenophobia is characterized as something that is not particularly harmful to Asian Americans, so her comment is funny rather than pathological. In another episode, she is left alone in her bedroom with a white boyfriend, whom she ultimately rejects because she agrees with her parents’ unspoken disapproval of him. Her repression of her sexuality is supposed to show how Asian she is, that she can police her own sexuality even when her parents aren’t there doing it for her. In this instance, sexual repression is not only implicitly leveled against the Asian family, but it is characterized as something that doesn’t oppress Asian American women, which is why her action is heroic rather than tragic.

In the movie version of The Joy Luck Club, Asian American female identity is portrayed as conflicted because of patriarchal relations between Asian American women, and their Asian American husbands and their Asian mothers – not because of American racism. The transcendence of Asian American identity comes not through struggle and subversion of patriarchy and racism, but through, at least partly, its acceptance. The women all cry and whine about their mothers, but in the end, they settle down happily with their husbands. Another book of Asian American stories is promoted as describing the “range of Asian American experience” in characters that “make love, worry about the future, endure hardships. They audition for jobs as anchormen.” Here, as elsewhere, Asian American identity translates into a commercial edge. Obviously many more Asian Americans work in factories than audition for jobs as anchormen.

Co-opting Biculturalism

One of the most critical insights Asian American feminists have gained from experiencing biculturalism has been the way Western imperialism works hand in hand with Asian patriarchies. Asian feminists and others have organized around international trafficking in Asian sex workers, in which Asian patriarchal elites and Western elites work together to dehumanize Asian women. The global reality that Asian American feminists and others have named, of an imperialist West eager to capitalize on the post-colonial wreckage of Asian countries, has never been more true than today.

Media-makers have recognized, however dimly, the global consciousness of Asian Americans raised by Asian feminists and others. But instead of portraying the reality of accelerated, unregulated, international exploitation, they have presented romantic images of zany, hybrid worlds littered with detritus from both East and West – the manufactured image of the new “multicultural chic.”

Thus, they appeal to a “global consciousness” – raised by Asian feminists and others to illuminate and condemn Western patriarchal imperialism – but whitewash the underlying reality in order to be comforting and flattering. By freely borrowing from Asian cultures, these media makers re-interpret the essentially unequal, and now, less regulated relationship between the First and Third Worlds as, somehow, equal. One example of this is the fashion phenomenon of “multicultural chic,” which involves wearing kurtas with T-shirts, and hennaed hands with combat boots, as embodied in designer Jean Paul Galtier’s new collection in Vogue and on MTV. Or the pseudo-spiritual phenomenon of yuppie yoga, Buddhism, and Krishna-worship, as embodied in director Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, starring Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha. These manufactured images conjure up a multicultural “global village” appealing to Asian Americans, delegitimizing Asian feminist campaigns to subvert global exploitation.

Effects on Asian Americans

The process of commodification undermines the relevance of activist-defined issues. At the same time, it provides powerful incentives for Asian Americans to commodify themselves.As Asian American issues and images are defanged and shrink-wrapped to be sold as commodities, the financial and social incentive for Asian Americans to project images appealing to advertisers, producers, publishers, and politicians will inevitably grow. It will not be in their interest to admit diversity and adversity in the Asian American community. It will be easier and more profitable to strike a marketable pose rather than try to work together for larger goals.

A Magazine, which purports to be “inside Asian America,” openly asks Asian Americans to prepackage themselves for industry. A questionnaire asks readers questions like “What brand of beer do you usually drink?” A group of Asian American entrepreneurs have started a successful business selling T-shirts and baseball caps decorated with faux “Asian” messages and images white Americans associate with Asianness. “Have an Asian Day!” reads one such product; the entrepreneurs were proud to note that Madonna was spotted wearing the shirt. Others have started selling calendars printed with photos of mostly naked Asian men.

Given a popular movie like Little Buddha, and the outlaw fashion of Gaultier, and the intellectual chic of the Internet, it is culturally powerful to, for example, personally know a yogi, own a kurta, or have an e-mail address in Burma. Here again it is culturally powerful for Asian Americans to selectively package aspects of Asianness.

The aspects of Asianness and the Asian American community that Asian Americans choose to exploit for financial or social gain are not necessarily false aspects. However, in order to be exploitable, the aspects chosen are less likely to include those that provoke the desire for change. Certain aspects will never be marketable, given the forces of the market. So even when Asian Americans participate in commodification, they can do so only in a constrained, stunted way. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the desire to exploit the forces of commercialization will motivate Asian Americans to be selective and revisionist. While superficially they may be lauded as promoting the Asian American experience, ultimately they are limiting its parameters.

Possible Diversions

The commercial images of Asian American identity and East/West multiculturalism directly confront Asian American realities and Asian American feminist goals. To counter commercial subversion, Asian American feminists need to create their own images and media. But more than that, Asian American feminists need to articulate a vision of an anti-racist, anti-patriarchal, anti-imperialist society, in all of its detail. Only a fully articulated vision will be able to decisively denounce commercialized images, both from within and outside the community, as the transfigured, whitewashed, and partial images they are.

On a practical level, Asian American feminists must be able to exclude the profit motive from the production of images and media about Asian women. Doing this would mean not only making sure that Asian Americans are able to create their own images, but that they are able to effectively distribute and earn income from these images from non-profit-seeking producers. For that, Asian American women need their own or politically allied producers, studios, publishers, and directors.

Asian American feminists can also work to weaken the commercial viability of profit-driven images and products. This does not mean agitating to change the nature of the images, but negating their popularity by not consuming them and making it unpopular for others to consume them. Asian American feminists must also be able to create theoretical work around revisioning society along non-patriarchal and non-imperialistic lines. Asian American Studies departments have been a resource here. But if these scholars and thinkers must compete with other scholars for publishing contracts from profit-driven publishers to succeed in these departments, then their ability to challenge institutional power structures will be diminished. Feminists from outside the publish-or-perish academy must take up their pens, at the same time that students and faculty within the academy must transform their departments to reward good thinking, not quantity, publishing.

Sonia Shah is an editor/publisher in the South End Press collective and a board member of Sojourner: A Woman’s Forum.

[M]any of the first Asian women to come to the United States in the mid -1800s were disadvantaged Chinese women, who were tricked, kidnapped, or smuggled into the country to serve as the predominantly male Chinese community as prostitutes. The impression that all Asian women were prostitutes, born at that time, colored the public perception of, attitude towered, and action against all Chinese women for almost a century. Police and legislators singled out Chinese women for special restrictions and opprobriums, not so because they were prostitutes as such (since there were also many white prostitutes around playing their trade) but because – as Chinese – they allegedly brought in especially virulent strains of venereal diseases introduced opium addiction, and enticed white boys to a life of sin […] Chinese women who were not prostitutes ended up bearing the brunt of Chinese exclusion laws that passed in the late 1800s, engendered by the missionaries’ and other anti-Chinese campaigns.
—  Sonia Shah in “Slaying the Dragon Lady: Toward an Asian American feminism”

The Greek government did not consult with its health ministry when it chose sites for the camps that are now home to tens of thousands of people fleeing terror and war trapped in Greece. Nevertheless, conditions at the military-run Koutsochero refugee camp in Larisa, Greece are considered among the best of the camps around Greece. There is a tap with running cold water. There are port-a-potties, which are emptied by truck daily. There is a charging stand, where cell phones can be plugged in. There is a mobile clinic, stocked with medicines paid for by the European Union. Food rations are distributed daily.

But even here, rough conditions, neglect and uncertainty steadily diminish the health of hundreds of people seeking international protection.

The site—a fenced gravel lot dotted with tents, located off the side of a divided highway lined by fields the color of sand—is over three-hours drive from Athens in one of the hottest, driest parts of the country. Over 800 Afghans and Syrians were deposited hereby government busses months ago, with no information on why or for how long. Over a dozen are teenagers who are on their own, including 14-year-old Sayeed, who was planning to study engineering when he fled Kabul to escape recruitment by the Taliban.

Only a swath of canvas protects them from the scorching sun, the scorpions, the snakes, the mosquitoes and flies, and they must relieve themselves in chemical toilets shared with dozens of others. Those that choose not to—many, by the looks and smell of it—use the gravel slope just beyond the tents instead. Wastewater from the showers, encased in the same plastic pods as the toilets, seeps out from other the plastic doors and collects in giant puddles where mosquitoes breed.

Some have occupied themselves by capturing scorpions and snakes in jars, turning plastic debris into children’s swings, and using a sole textbook, ferried over mountains and seas, to gesture toward the education that the children here are missing. For others, a sense of abandonment and neglect settles like a dank cloud atop their memories of terror and trauma, breaking down their minds and bodies. The volunteer camp doctor has seen psychosis, drug addiction, sexual abuse, and self-mutilation. Across Greece, medical NGOs have seen a spike in suicides and acute psychiatric illness among people trapped in camps. “I can’t name one person here who isn’t losing their mind,” says a Koutsochero resident named Muhammad, a journalist who fled Kabul with his wife and four children.

Ghulam Haqyar, who left his well-paid job at an international NGO in Herat after the Taliban beheaded one of his colleagues, has been living in a scorpion-infested tent at Koutsochero for nearly three months. “Even my small girl says, ‘Daddy, Afghanistan is better than here.’”

“Nobody should have to live in a tent,” adds Sayeed. “I don’t have the same healthy body as I used to…I am not the same strong person I used to be.”

Image and caption by Sonia Shah.

For more of Sonia’s reporting, visit her project “Migration, Xenophobia, and Epidemics in Europe.”

I had a map of a bunch of places I wanted to go: the so-called disease hot spots. These are places where new pandemic-causing pathogens are most likely to emerge, because there’s a lot of invasion of wildlife habitat, or urban expansion, or intensive agriculture, or population mobility, or some combination of all of those things. Of course there are a ton of logistics involved in getting to these places, so ultimately I went wherever the logistics worked out.

I’m not one of those reporters who sees contagions as thrilling or romantic. When I went on these trips, I was fearful of getting exposed or, worse, becoming a modern-day Typhoid Mary and picking up pathogens and spreading them around myself. Some part of me expected that when I went to these disease hot spots that the local people there would feel the same way: fearful. But of course they don’t. The farmworkers who handle bird-flu-infected chickens in south China, and the children playing in New Delhi gutters where super drug-resistant pathogens roost are totally blasé about the pathogens in their midst. So what you see is boredom, joy, and all the other emotions of normal life. Not fear and terror. It’s striking. But it makes sense, when you think about it. If people felt fearful about the pathogens around them, they’d take precautions to not get exposed or spread them around. It’s exactly because they don’t that these pathogens travel far and wide.

Read the rest of Sonia Shah’s “Superbugs” here. Her latest book is Pandemic:  Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond.
Sonia Shah: 3 reasons we still haven'€™t gotten rid of malaria | Video on

We’ve known how to cure malaria since the 1600s, so why does the disease still kill hundreds of thousands every year? It'€™s more than just a problem of medicine, says journalist Sonia Shah. A look into the history of malaria reveals three big-picture challenges to its eradication.


“It’s post-apocalyptic, isn’t it?” says Dr Aaminah Verity. We are driving through a torn-open fence into a maze of abandoned ramps and unmarked roadways that surround a series of derelict concrete buildings about four miles south of Athens. A bronze statue of a man climbing a mobile staircase, representing a passenger boarding a flight, is randomly positioned in the front of one vacant building, a rare clue that this complex was once an international airport. It’s been abandoned since 2004. Dumpsters overflow onto its crumbling concrete expanse, tufts of knee-high grass springing up between the cracks.

A white sheet, spray-painted with the words “Hockey-Baseball-Refugees,” is strung along a chain-link fence, the sole indication of what now lies within: a camp where thousands of undocumented people have been stranded, many for months. Fifteen hundred live in what was once the arrivals terminal. Another 3,000 are in two former airport buildings that had been converted into stadiums to host Olympic hockey and baseball games in 2004.

The hockey stadium is a monolith surrounded by acres of concrete. The camp’s official tents, provided by the UN, are located on the field itself, accessible via a series of staircases that go up to the top of the stadium and then down through rows of blue bleachers. They are remote and provide no protection from the sun. On the day we visited, the temperature had soared above 90 degrees F. Scores of people have abandoned them, seeking shade and shelter in the former changing rooms, offices, and cement pathways that encircle the stadium, which are now ad-hoc shantytowns of make-shift shelters of blankets, sheets, and tents. Hindi film music blares and children in various states of undress wander in and out.

The lack of any evidence of official management is striking. “Generally, exit and entrance is uncontrolled,” Dr Verity says. “There is a police checkpoint, but they very rarely” check anyone. A small room behind the stands, which was probably once used for ticket sales or some kind of sports management, is now the office of the Greek government officials who are nominally the camp managers. At four thirty on a Thursday afternoon, however, there are no officials in this space, nor any signs of their presence: no desks, no papers, no computers, no printers, no posters on the walls dispensing useful information. Instead, there are just some haphazardly positioned folding tables and a bunch of kids from Afghanistan and elsewhere drawing pictures using supplies dropped off by volunteers.  

Infections easily pass from one tent to the next. One of those is scabies, a skin infection common in crowded, unhygienic conditions which is caused by a microscopic mite that burrows under the skin. To control it, victims must treat all of their clothing and bedding with chemicals, then wash all of it off and replace it with all new clothing and bedding. But no laundry facilities had ever been built in the airport buildings or the sports stadiums. All there are for the thousands trapped here are a few overflowing toilets and sinks. An inch of standing water covers the women’s bathrooms thanks to a blocked drain in the middle of the floor. One child was having a bucket bath on the side of the road.

Another is gastrointestinal diseases, suffered by three-quarters of the residents. The drinking water at the stadiums and the airport terminal is “not good,” says Dr Leo Vandenbossche, a doctor who volunteered at the camp, and the food rations that are provided have included inedible items like uncooked rice. To treat the illnesses that result, Dr Verity recommends rehydration and specific foods–neither of which are easily available at the camp. “So how do you address that?” she asks.

At least some of the women who live here have fallen into prostitution. One of Dr Verity’s patients admitted it, but whether it was voluntary or not was unclear. The medical NGOs are sufficiently alarmed that they’ve decided to provide the women here with access to emergency contraception, in case they’re raped. There’s not much more they can do to protect women from violence at the camp. Verity had tried to relocate a woman at the camp who was being abused by her husband. But with emergency shelters in Athens full, her only option was to move to a different camp in Greece, where her abuser would be free to follow her. She “decided” to stay with him instead.

The problem is that the kind of services her patients need “don’t exist for Greek people,” let alone for refugees stranded in Greece, says Verity. “If this would have been Germany, it would have been a different story,” adds her colleague Jelle Boone. “There are two crises going on together here.”

Image and caption by Sonia Shah.

For more of Sonia’s reporting, visit her project “Migration, Xenophobia, and Epidemics in Europe.”


Considering the conditions in the official military-run camps in Greece, many migrants are desperate for healthier and safer living options while they wait for borders to open or their asylum claims to be processed. There are plenty of available apartments and houses in Greece–one-third of all residential properties in the country are vacant due to ongoing economic crisis–but undocumented people are not allowed to rent them. When Ali, a young law-school graduate who fled Afghanistan with his four sisters attempted to, the neighbors called the police, who kicked them out.

He and his siblings now live in an abandoned schoolhouse in Athens, which local anarchists and activists have turned into a refugee squat for around three hundred other stranded people from Syria and Afghanistan.

But commercial buildings are ill-equipped for long-term housing. Multiple families cram into each classroom, with makeshift enclosures made of sheets and blankets for privacy. Crowded living conditions and limited sanitary facilities mean that contagious diseases easily spread.The schoolhouse is full of life–everywhere there are children running, yelling, crying–and now, chickenpox.

The faces and arms of several young children who stare at us as we pass through the hallways are covered in red lesions caused by varicella virus, the highly contagious virus that causes chickenpox. Many others are scratching. For most sufferers, chickenpox is a mild, self-limited illness. But it can be dangerous for pregnant women, unvaccinated adults, and immune compromised people. There are almost certainly pregnant women in the squat, along with at least one cancer patient. With few resources for infection control, it’s unlikely that they’ll escape exposure.  

No medical NGO nor government health worker visits squats like this one. Instead, two days a week, the anti-authoritarian activists who’ve set up the squat have enlisted an anarchist psychiatrist named Argyris and a nurse named Maria to dispense medical advice and donated drugs from an open-doored former classroom at the end of the hall on the first floor.

The clinic where Argyris and Maria consult with patients consists of little more than a few tables shoved against the wall, a row of school chairs, and a supply of medicines donated from other solidarity groups. The door is open and men, women and children freely come in and out, including those with chickenpox lesions. Some sit down on the chairs dispersed around the room, others gather around to listen to the doctor talking to the patients. Whether they are relatives and friends of the ill, or simply curious and bored, is unclear. Argyris does not object, although the constant interruptions and the neediness of the patients clearly rattle him. At one point, he yells at one of the volunteer translators, a young American woman, who leaves in tears.

A woman wearing a purple headscarf and a black trench coat sits slumped on a chair nearby. Through the translator, she explains that she is exhausted, is fasting for Ramadan, has heart palpitations and was hospitalized for two days but had to leave because her children were in the squat without her. Argyris listens for a while, but is interrupted several times to stride over to others who’ve caught his attention. She sits quietly looking morose. Finally she shows him her papers from the hospital, and the inhaler in her hand. He tells her to take it according to the prescription for five days. When a young man wanders in with a lit cigarette, he booms over his shoulder: “No smoking here! Please no smoking here!” A few minutes later, he rips his gloves off and stands a few yards from the open door of the clinic and has a smoke himself, pumping a small cloud of smoke into the clinic when he returns with it still lit. He ashes the cigarette on the floor and then flicks it out the open window.

Image and caption by Sonia Shah.

For more of Sonia’s reporting, visit her project “Migration, Xenophobia, and Epidemics in Europe.”


The Ippokrateio General Hospital of Thessaloniki, one of the largest public hospitals in Greece, is a giant, sprawling complex of buildings that date back to the early twentieth century. But thanks to European-Union-mandated austerity cuts that have slashed Greece’s health budget by half, it has the feel of a ghost hospital, abandoned by its staff and repopulated by the sick. Unlit halls and lobbies are dotted with desks and counters devoid of workers and supplies. The paint is peeling off pock-marked walls in shards the size of windows, and there is a two-foot-wide hole in the ceiling dripping brown fluid onto the floor of the darkened lobby. The stench of the toilets can be detected from a hundred feet away.

Since the austerity cuts, 20,000 Greek physicians have fled the country. Those that remain must do more with less. At the Papageorgiou Hospital in Thessaloniki, stents for vascular surgeries are scarce, six out of 14 operating rooms are shuttered, nursing staff on night shifts have been halved, and incubators in the neonatal intensive care unit haven’t been upgraded in 25 years.

Now these beleaguered hospitals must also serve the tens of thousands of undocumented Syrians, Afghans and others fleeing bombs and beheadings who are stuck in camps around Greece. Thirty percent of the patients in the camps require referrals to hospitals, the medical NGO Doctors of the World says. The government has said it will pay for migrants’ emergency care, but hospital doctors are not so sure. “The ministry [of health] says we have to offer them care,” says Papageorgiou’s Basil Tarlatzis, “but then we send the bill to the ministry, and they add it to the existing list of unpaid bills.” There is no provision for translators.

Any other medical care depends on whether an underpaid, overworked hospital clinician feels like donating their time to attend to a patient whose language they do not speak.

Image and caption by Sonia Shah.

For more of Sonia’s reporting, visit her project “Migration, Xenophobia, and Epidemics in Europe.”


In the past month, the doctors at the Koutsochero camp in Larisa, Greece have diagnosed the Afghan and Syrian refugees trapped there with methadone withdrawal, psychosis, self-mutilation, sexual abuse, epileptic fits, kidney stones, and thyroid disease. There is no medicine at the camp to treat any of these conditions. The clinicians at the camp, who are from an international NGO and are not licensed in Greece, cannot prescribe them either.

To finagle the meds his patients need, the camp’s volunteer doctor, Dr. Leo Vandenbossche from Belgium, called the local hospital doctor and the local pharmacist and took them out for dinner. Once he made friends with them, they sometimes agreed to help him acquire the medicines his patients needed. But not always. For some treatments–for example for methadone withdrawal–the local doctors demanded that refugees prove that they had applied for asylum. But after months of living in tents in this camp, none of refugees we spoke to had been able to do so.

I asked Dr Vandenbossche if he would come back after his four-week term was over. “I don’t think so,” he said. “It is hard because you want to find solutions, but they say ‘this is not how we deal with it.’… So what are we doing over here? …What is the priority?

Image and caption by Sonia Shah.

For more of Sonia’s reporting, visit her project “Migration, Xenophobia, and Epidemics in Europe.”