Vulnerable hit by Latvia cash cuts

Latvia’s economic woes hit healthcare and education as spending cuts take hold.

Latvia economy
Many Latvian school teachers have lost their jobs because of spending cuts [Liz Dunningham]

The tiny Baltic country of Latvia, one of the worst hit by the global downturn, is facing severe spending cuts under conditions set by a $10.7bn bail-out by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Union.

Al Jazeera discovered that many schools and hospitals are on the front lines of these changes, potentially affecting the livelihoods of many Latvians.

Sigulda Hospital, which serves the entire region around the capital Riga and is one of the biggest in Latvia, was empty of all but three corridors.

Valdis Silke, the head doctor who had been a dissident during Soviet rule and has faithfully served an independent Latvia in the 20 years since, was clearly pained by the spending cuts.

Many doctors and nurses have been fired as a result of bail-out conditions set by the IMF and most of the hospital has now been shut down.

He showed Al Jazeera around the hospital, which had once been a bustling centre of diverse medical specialities and where patients only paid a very small, symbolic fee.

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The hospital is likely to re-open as a private institution, but it is uncertain how many Latvians would be able to afford the costs of such healthcare. 

In one room we met 80-year-old Monika Bautre, who had been admitted to hospital after experiencing severe dizziness and high blood pressure.

Adding to the worries about her still undiagnosed ailment, she was also concerned by how much treatment at the hospital would cost.

“I don’t know what will happen if I fall ill again,” she told us with tears in her eyes.

“I have no money to come back into hospital. What can I do? I will die.”

Nurse Lolita Sostre had seen many colleagues sacked, and the fate of her own job was not yet clear.

“It just happened from one day to the next, I’ve been working here for 16 years. Before this, the hospital was full of patients.”

Staff have also said that they knew of many sick people who were staying at home now, but they were reluctant to put us in touch.

Social unrest

Latvia’s economy fell hard from the highs created by enthusiastic lending in the years after it joined the EU in 2004.

Shiny and new, but with barely any shoppers, the Riga Plaza centre [Liz Dunningham]

But now money woes have spread throughout the economy, not just private business and jobs but also into the public sector, where government austerity measures are biting hard.

Many Latvians have started to become agitated as they realise how much further the economy could worsen.

On Monday, hundreds of people in the southern town of Bauska blocked a main highway connecting Latvia with neighbouring Lithuania.

Riot police were sent from the capital to disperse the protesters who, according to local media, were demonstrating against the termination of intensive care facilities at the main hospital.

It is a sign that generally tolerant and supportive attitudes toward the strict economic reforms set by the IMF may not be so prevalent away from the capital.

And those reforms are only just really taking hold – the government has committed to saving over $1bn this year and the next. That is a lot of money per capita in this country of only 2.3 million.

The cuts are also affecting the education sector; close to ten per cent of schools are closing this summer.

Devoid of life

At a school in Strazde village, a rural area about two hours drive west of Riga, we found teachers and parents drinking tea and chatting in the old school office.

The rest of the school was devoid of life – mould was growing on the floor in the basement classrooms and one room was filled with the sickly sweet scent of a long-ago wilted lily.

Children at Strazde village school, which will close as part of the cuts [Liz Dunningham]

It will not reopen in September.

Headmistress Iveta Freimane, who once attended the school as a little girl, has worked there for 18 years.

Although clearly heartbroken at the closing, she said: “I understand the situation we face in our country and it’s not in our hands to change it. This has been my home all my life. But the most important thing now is the children.”

It is such children that could well benefit from a reformed school system. Little has changed in Latvian education since the Soviet era, as testified by the Russian labels marking ragged stuffed birds we found in the classrooms.

Many educators say bigger class sizes and less schools will give children a more varied and competitive education.

But it certainly should not be only money, or the lack of it, driving the reforms.

As government revenue – from retail or wage taxes – appears likely to decrease, it will become more and more difficult to dress up drastic spending cuts as beneficial reforms.

Source: Al Jazeera