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US Negotiators to Visit China Next Week for New Round of Trade Talks

The White House says two senior economic officials will travel to China next week to continue negotiations aimed at resolving the two economic giants ongoing trade war.

A statement issued Tuesday says Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer will meet with Vice Premier Liu He in Beijing on April 30. The two sides will discuss such issues as intellectual property, forced technology transfer, non-tariff barriers and agriculture. 

The White House says Vice Premier Liu will lead a Chinese delegation to Washington for additional talks the following week, on May 8.

Washington and Beijing have been engaged in several rounds of talks since the start of the year to resolve a trade war that began last year when President Donald Trump imposed punitive tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese imports to compel Beijing to change its trading practices. China has retaliated with its own tariff increases on $110 billion of U.S. exports. 

The Trump administration is also pushing China to end its practice of forcing U.S. companies to transfer their technology advances to Chinese firms.

Trump and Chinese President Xi Jingping agreed to a 90-day truce in the trade war during a meeting in Buenos Aires last December 1. The U.S. president had initially imposed a deadline of March 2 for both sides to reach a deal before imposing a hike in tariffs from 10 to 25 percent, but delayed the increase just days before they were to take effect citing “substantial progress” in the negotiations.

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New Zealand, France Plan Bid to Tackle Extremism on Social Media

In the wake of the Christchurch attack, New Zealand said on Wednesday that it would work with France in an effort to stop social media from being used to promote terrorism and violent extremism.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a statement that she will co-chair a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on May 15 that will seek to have world leaders and CEOs of tech companies agree to a pledge, called the Christchurch Call, to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.

A lone gunman killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch on March 15, while livestreaming the massacre on Facebook.

Brenton Tarrant, 28, a suspected white supremacist, has been charged with 50 counts of murder for the mass shooting.

“It’s critical that technology platforms like Facebook are not perverted as a tool for terrorism, and instead become part of a global solution to countering extremism,” Ardern said in the statement.

“This meeting presents an opportunity for an act of unity between governments and the tech companies,” she added.

The meeting will be held alongside the Tech for Humanity meeting of G7 digital ministers, of which France is the chair, and France’s separate Tech for Good summit, both on 15 May, the statement said.

Ardern said at a press conference later on Wednesday that she has spoken with executives from a number of tech firms including Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Google and few other companies.

“The response I’ve received has been positive. No tech company, just like no government, would like to see violent extremism and terrorism online,” Ardern said at the media briefing, adding that she had also spoken with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg directly on the topic.

A Facebook spokesman said the company looks forward to collaborating with government, industry and safety experts on a clear framework of rules.

“We’re evaluating how we can best support this effort and who among top Facebook executives will attend,” the spokesman said in a statement sent by email.

Facebook, the world’s largest social network with 2.7 billion users, has faced criticism since the Christchurch attack that it failed to tackle extremism.

One of the main groups representing Muslims in France has said it was suing Facebook and YouTube, a unit of Alphabet’s Google, accusing them of inciting violence by allowing the streaming of the Christchurch massacre on their platforms.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said last month that the company was looking to place restrictions on who can go live on its platform based on certain criteria.

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Analysts: China Trying to Use Belt and Road Meeting to Counter US Influence

China is getting ready to welcome representatives from 150 nations, including senior leaders of 40 countries, to discuss its international infrastructure program at the second Belt and Road Forum, beginning Thursday and running through Saturday in Beijing.

Analysts say it is not merely a conference on infrastructure building, but an attempt by China to display its popularity and power as a political rallying force. This is significant in view of severe criticism by the United States, which has described the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, as China’s “vanity project.”

“It is a political show of strength. BRI has assumed the characteristics of a global public good,” said Sourabh Gupta, senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington. “In a sense, conceptually, it is about China slipping itself into American clothing which the U.S. itself has discarded. It is about mainstreaming China as a leader of the global development system.”

China has repeatedly denied it has a political purpose in trying to construct connectivity projects across the world. “The ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ is not a geopolitical tool but a platform for cooperation. We welcome all parties to take part in it,” Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a recent press conference.

The forum is expected to see an emphasis on the importance of multilateralism and its criticism of protectionism in business and world affairs. Some observers see this as a veiled attempt by Beijing to build up world opinion against the United States.

Countering US clout

Zhiqun Zhu, chair at the department of international relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, said the meeting will reflect China’s growing clout. “When the U.S. focuses on “America first” under President [Donald] Trump, China is quickly emerging as a leader in the global economy and global governance.”

Political clout comes from success in international affairs, however, and not by merely hosting political theater. Although China has achieved some success in its infrastructure program, it has faced several setbacks, with Sierra Leone, Malaysia and Myanmar canceling or scaling back previously negotiated construction deals.

“A lot of the forum will be an attempt at restoring the Belt and Road brand, which has been tarnished over the past two years,” said Jonathan Hillman, director of the Reconnecting Asia project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The U.S. has said it will not send a high-level delegation to the forum. It expressed disappointment at Italy’s recent decision to join the BRI. “Secretary Pompeo has very publicly gone to every corner of the world and denigrated China’s overseas development lending and projects-based model,” Gupta said, referring to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi said no country has a right to stop others from attending the forum. “All countries have the freedom to participate, but they don’t have the right to prevent other countries from taking part,” he said.

Zhiqun Zhu said instead of running a smear campaign, the U.S. should work with China to ensure that investments in BRI projects are more rule-based and transparent.

World opinion

Germany, France, Japan and Australia are expected to send mid-level officials. They have raised serious objections, saying they would like to see BRI become more transparent, environmentally sustainable and offer equal business opportunities to all participating countries.

“At the end of the day, Europe genuinely wants China to grow into the role of a ‘responsible stakeholder;’ but, responsible stakeholder-ship means that China needs to up its game and conform to prevailing international standards in its practices – be it trade, investment or development,” Gupta said.

India, China’s neighbor, is expected to stay away from the forum. It has said the BRI program violates the country’s sovereignty because some of its projects are located in Pakistan-controlled areas that India regards as its own. India was the only major country to stay away from the first meeting of the forum in 2017.

“India’s stand has increased international attention on some of the troubling aspects of the BRI plan,” said Ananth Krishnan, visiting fellow at Brookings India.

“India was the only country to publicly flag issues such as opacity and debt when the first Belt and Road Forum was held in 2017.”

Gupta at the Institute of China-America Studies thinks many of the objections raised against BRI will be sorted out in negotiations between China and different countries.

“A Chinese menu is on offer but it is not pre-set and it is not being force-fed to host countries,” he said. “It is for host countries, though, to impose themselves and set the minimum standards of project integrity – although China would do well to set a reasonably high bar in this regard of its own volition.”

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Treasury’s Mnuchin Fails to Meet Deadline to Hand Over Trump Tax Returns

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Tuesday failed to meet a final congressional deadline for turning over President Donald Trump’s tax returns to lawmakers, setting the stage for a possible court battle between Congress and the administration.

The outcome, which was widely expected, could prompt House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal to subpoena Trump’s tax records as the opening salvo to a legal fight that may ultimately have to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Neal set a final 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) deadline for the Internal Revenue Service and Treasury to provide six years of Trump’s individual and business tax records. But the deadline passed without the panel receiving the documents.

After the deadline lapsed, Mnuchin released a letter to Neal in which he pledged to make “a final decision” on whether to provide Trump’s tax records by May 6. It was the second time the administration has missed a House deadline for the tax returns since Neal requested them on April 3.

“Secretary Mnuchin notified me that once again, the IRS will miss the deadline for my … request. I plan to consult with counsel about my next steps,” Neal said in a statement.

In his letter, Mnuchin said he was still consulting with the Justice Department about Neal’s request, which he termed “unprecedented.”

“The department cannot act upon your request unless and until it is determined to be consistent with the law,” the Treasury secretary told Neal.

‘Not Up to the President’

Earlier on Tuesday, the White House said Trump was unlikely to hand over his tax returns. “As I understand it, the president’s pretty clear: Once he’s out of audit, he’ll think about doing it, but he’s not inclined to do so at this time,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told Fox News in an interview.

“This is not up to the president. We did not ask him,” said a Democratic committee aide, who cited a law saying the Treasury secretary “shall furnish” taxpayer data upon request from an authorized lawmaker.

Neal informed IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig earlier this month that failure to comply with the deadline would be viewed as a denial.

Legal experts said House Democrats could vote to hold Mnuchin or Rettig in contempt of Congress if they ignored a subpoena, as a pretext to suing in federal court to obtain Trump’s returns. Experts say administration officials could ultimately risk financial penalties and even jail time by defying the committee.

As Ways and Means chairman, Neal is the only lawmaker in the House of Representatives authorized to request taxpayer information under federal law. Democrats say they are confident of succeeding in any legal fight over Trump’s tax returns.

“The law is on our side. The law is clearer than crystal. They have no choice: they must abide by (it),” Representative Bill Pascrell, who has been leading the Democratic push for Trump’s tax records, said in a statement to Reuters.

Democrats want Trump’s returns as part of their investigations of possible conflicts of interest posed by his continued ownership of extensive business interests, even as he serves the public as president.

Republicans have condemned the request as a political “fishing expedition” by Democrats.

Despite the law’s clarity, Democrats have long acknowledged that the effort would likely result in a legal battle that could end up with the U.S. Supreme Court.

“If the IRS does not comply with the request, it is likely that Chairman Neal will subpoena the returns,” Representative Judy Chu, a Democratic member of the Ways and Means Committee, told Reuters.

“If they do not comply with that (subpoena), a legal battle will begin to defend the right of oversight in Congress,” she said.

Trump broke with a decades-old precedent by refusing to release his tax returns as a presidential candidate in 2016 or since being elected, saying he could not do so while his taxes were being audited.

But his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, told a House panel in February that he does not believe Trump’s taxes are under audit. Cohen said the president feared that releasing his returns could lead to an audit and IRS tax penalties.

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Twitter Shares Jump; Growth Attributed to Fight Against Abuse

Shares in Twitter Inc jumped 13 percent Tuesday after the social media company reported quarterly revenue above analyst estimates, which executives said was the result of weeding out spam and abusive posts and targeting ads better.

New ad formats, partnerships with content providers like the U.S. National Basketball Association and efforts to patrol abusive content are helping Twitter better compete for advertising dollars, executives said.

Social media companies have been under pressure over privacy concerns and political influence activity. Twitter has removed thousands of spam and suspicious accounts, which it blamed for sequential declines in monthly users in recent quarters.

Twitter executives said they saw opportunities for selling ads that earn revenue when users visit websites or download apps, citing success with major brands like Walt Disney Co. The company is looking to grow its sales team in 2019 to better serve big advertisers.

“Something where you see a blending of performance and brand is the Star Trek ad that Disney is running right now, where I click through to make sure that I’d be notified when more information was available about the next Star Wars,” Twitter Chief Financial Officer Ned Segal told analysts.

Twitter said pre-roll ads, or promotional messages that play before videos, are also growing.

The company said its monthly active users (MAU) rose 9 million to 330 million from the previous quarter, much better than Wall Street’s average estimate that it would lose 2.2 million users, according to IBES data from Refinitiv. Still, MAUs were down 6 million from a year earlier.

It was Twitter’s last quarter of disclosing MAUs.

From now on it will only provide “monetizable” daily active users (mDAUs), created to measure people exposed to advertising and exclude those who access Twitter via text messages or aggregating sites like TweetDeck.

For the first quarter, Twitter said mDAUs rose to 134 million, up 12 percent from a year ago.

Analysts were encouraged by signs the company had found ways to sustainably grow users and revenue, but said the new way of measuring users could make comparisons with rivals like Facebook Inc more difficult.

“People are not impressed with a made up metric and their reluctance to give us actual users,” said analyst Michael Pachter at Wedbush Securities. “I don’t think the stock can get out of its own way until they come clean and report the same metrics everyone else does.”

Forecast largely below Wall Street

For the first quarter, Twitter’s revenue rose 18 percent to $787 million from the year-ago quarter, topping analyst estimates of $776.1 million.

But Twitter also forecast revenue for the second quarter largely below analyst estimates, and said that it would continue to spend heavily on cleaning up Twitter as well as new ad products.

Ad sales jumped 18 percent to $679 million. In the United States, ad revenue rose by 26 percent.

Total operating expense including cost of revenue rose by 18 percent from the first quarter a year ago. The company reiterated that operating expenses would grow about 20 percent in 2019.

Twitter reported quarterly profit of $191 million, or 25 cents a share, compared with $61 million, or 8 cents per share, a year earlier. Excluding a $124.4 million tax benefit, the company earned 9 cents per share.

The results appeared to catch the attention of U.S. President Donald Trump, who called for the creation of “more, and fairer” social media companies, repeating his claim that Twitter is biased against Republicans, without presenting evidence.

“We enforce the Twitter Rules dispassionately and equally for all users, regardless of their background or political affiliation,” a Twitter representative said. “We are constantly working to improve our systems and will continue to be transparent in our efforts.”

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Oil Prices Spike as US Insists All Countries Stop Iranian Imports

Oil prices reached a six-month high Tuesday after the Trump administration announced it would no longer exempt countries from U.S. sanctions, if they continue to buy Iranian crude oil, a move aimed at imposing a complete oil embargo on Iran.

Waivers granted to eight countries, including big Iranian crude importers China, India, Japan, Turkey and South Korea, are due to expire on May 2.

RBC Capital Markets, a global investment bank, has told clients it anticipates a loss of 700,000 to 800,000 barrels of oil a day from markets as a consequence of the waivers-withdrawal.

That will tighten oil supplies as seasonal demand picks up in the Northern Hemisphere, forcing importers to seek alternative supplies, a search made more challenging with production falling off in Venezuela and Libya because of domestic unrest and conflict.

U.S. sanctions were snapped back on Iran last year when President Donald Trump withdrew from a 2015 nuclear deal, signed by his predecessor Barack Obama, in which Tehran agreed to nuclear curbs in return for sanctions relief.

The European Union has been at loggerheads with Washington over Iran and the nuclear deal, which the Trump administration fears only delays Iran from developing nuclear weapons.  

“Today I am announcing that we will no longer grant any exemptions,” Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, said Tuesday.  “We’re going to zero.  We will continue to enforce sanctions and monitor compliance.  Any nation or entity interacting with Iran should do its diligence and err on the side of caution.  The risks are simply not going to be worth the benefits,” he added.

The Trump administration gave waivers last year to avoid a price spike.

Some oil analysts are predicting the price of a barrel could rise to $80 as a result of the withdrawal of the exemptions and say the Trump administration may have to release oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, an emergency supply of up to 727 million barrels, if the administration wants to keep prices low.

“There isn’t much doubt about the trigger for the latest rally, with Trump’s decision not to extend waivers on imports of Iranian oil beyond May unsurprisingly providing further upward pressure,” according to Craig Erlam, an oil market analyst at OANDA, a U.S. currency brokerage.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have said they will in principle increase production, but are unlikely to do so before a meeting in June of the 14 members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).  Analysts say they will want to wait to see the effect of the withdrawal of exemptions before committing to make up the shortfall on the international market.

Last year, OPEC countries increased production when the Trump administration first announced the return of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Brent crude and West Texas Intermediate oil have surged in price more than 30 percent this year because of production disruptions in Venezuela, Nigeria, and Libya.

Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst of Energy Aspects, a research consultancy, says a jump in OPEC cartel production won’t necessarily keep prices in check.  “The problem we have is the quality of the crude.  Iran produces a lot of medium to heavy crudes, whereas the spare capacity in Saudi Arabia and the UAE is of lighter crudes.  The quality issue is going to become a very big problem,” she says.

One of the big questions when it comes to oil prices is whether importers decide to comply with the U.S. demand to stop buying Iranian oil.

Sen says China has made very strong statements it is within its legitimate rights to do business with Iran.  “We think Iranian exports will still be about 600,000 to 700,000 barrels per day.  And if prices rise quite substantially and compensates for the drop of 500,000 to 600,000 the revenue shortfall [for Iran] might not be that substantial,” Sen added.

Just hours after the Trump administration’s announcement that it wouldn’t renew waivers, the World Bank issued a report saying it was expecting oil prices to drop this year because of weaker global economic growth. The report, though, was drafted before the announcement and noted “the outlook for oil could be swayed by a range of policy outcomes, including whether the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and partners extend production cuts, the impact of the removal of waivers to the U.S. sanctions on Iran, and looming changes in marine fuel emissions regulations.”

In retaliation for the withdrawal of waivers, Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the only sea passage from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean and one of the world’s most strategically important maritime choke-points.  Few analysts believe Iran will follow through on its threat as it would risk a firm U.S. response and undermine Tehran’s efforts to keep Europeans wedded to the 2015 nuclear deal.

More likely is Iran will use “proxy wars” in the region, in Syria and Yemen, to retaliate, they say.

The U.S. withdrew from the nuclear deal in part because, it said, Iran was failing to act  like “a normal country.”  Trump officials laid down a dozen conditions Tehran would have to fulfill for sanctions to be lifted, including an end to all uranium enrichment, stopping its support of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s radical Shi’ite movement, and other militant groups including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Houthi rebels in Yemen.

 

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Will Smith, NASA, Fortnite Among 2019 Webby Award Winners

Actor Will Smith, NASA, Fortnite and Disney are among the 2019 Webby Award winners for internet excellence.

The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences announced the winners Tuesday.

Smith’s The Jump won a Webby for events and live stream video while Disney was chosen the WebbyMedia Company of the Year for earning the most honors across all Webby categories with 32 wins overall. Fortnite is recognized in the game category, and NASA won for best overall social presence.

Actress Issa Rae is the Webby video person of the year for using the internet to showcase breakthrough content from diverse creators. Activist Greta Thunberg scored a Webby for social movement of the year for igniting the #FridaysForFuture global movement for climate justice.

The 23rd annual Webby Awards will be presented in New York City on May 13.

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EU Wary of Fake Online Accounts as Europe Elections Approach

The European Union is praising Facebook, Google and Twitter for tackling disinformation while urging the social media giants to do more in clamping down on fake accounts.

Under an EU code of conduct, the three companies report routinely on their efforts to stop election interference. Facebook, for one, has been criticized for being a tool for foreign interference in elections.

Tuesday’s reports say Facebook, Google and Twitter are tightening advertising policy and surveillance, particularly with election-targeted ads.

But the commission urges them to share fake account data with outside experts and researchers.

Millions of people across the 28-nation bloc will vote in the May 23-26 European Parliament elections.

Polls show nationalist and populist parties could make significant gains, while mainstream parties would lose seats but retain control over the assembly.

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Greek 2018 Primary Budget Surplus Exceeds Forecasts

Greece’s budget performance in 2018 was better than expected following some revenue-boosting measures by the government.

According to the country’s statistical agency, Greece recorded a primary budget surplus, which excludes the cost of servicing the country’s vast public debt, of 4.4 percent of its annual output. That’s ahead of government projections of 4.1 percent.

 

The agency also said Tuesday that the country’s debt mountain rose to 181 percent of GDP in 2018, from 176 percent in 2017.

 

Greece’s debt dynamics have been shaken by a debt crisis that led to a deep recession and forced Athens in 2010 to seek a massive international bailout. In exchange for the loans, successive governments implemented strict austerity measures.

 

Though Greece ended its bailout era last summer, it still has to post surpluses for years to come.

 

 

 

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Crisis-hit Greeks Foot Steep Bills for Health and Education

Every month, when his respiratory medicine runs out, Dionysis Assimakopoulos heads to the most unlikely pharmacy in Athens.

Amid derelict stadiums dating from the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, the volunteer-staffed social pharmacy of Hellinikon has handed out free medicine to hundreds of poverty-stricken patients, keeping some of them out of death’s reach.

“My wife and I have been unemployed for over two years. We need about 150 euros for medicine every month,” says Assimakopoulos, a former baker.

Established at the height of the crisis in 2011, the pharmacy runs on donated medicine and disposables. Some 40,000 people have brought medicine, many from abroad, says on-duty pharmacist Dimitis Palakas.

Another patient waiting in line is Achilleas Papadopoulos, a retired tenor. His pension of 700 euros is not enough to cover the antibiotics he has come for.

During nearly a decade of cuts imposed as Greece struggled to avert national bankruptcy, public education and health were among the sectors hit the hardest as the country lost a quarter of its national output.

Amid sweeping layoffs, wage cuts and tax hikes, many could not maintain their social insurance contributions and were pushed out of state-provided health support.

“Only 11 percent of Greeks can currently afford private insurance giving full health coverage,” says Grigoris Sarafianos, head of the association of private Greek health clinics.

According to the national statistics service, Greeks paid 34.3 percent of their medical expenses out of their own pocket in 2016.

The crisis exposed “huge state shortages,” says Petros Boteas, a member of the Hellinikon health team, which serves over 500 patients every month.

“There are fewer doctors and hospital staff. Money for medicine has been cut. There is a long waiting list for doctor’s appointments…we had a cancer patient given an appointment in three months,” he told AFP.

To avoid a long wait — especially in an emergency — many are forced to seek private healthcare, regardless of the cost. There are currently over 120 private clinics in the country.

‘Go to a better school’

A similar scenario casts its shadow over education.

When Aspasia Apostolou’s son was 11 years old and finishing Greek public primary school, his class teacher did something unexpected.

“He told us our son is bright and that he should be in a better school,” reminisces Apostolou, a 44-year-old lawyer.

According to the government, public funding for education fell by about 36 percent during the crisis.

Thousands of trained staff including teachers and doctors emigrated — part of an exodus of some 350,000 people — or opted to retire.

A recent study by the London School of Economics found 75 percent of Greek crisis emigrants hold university degrees.

The OECD in a 2017 study — prepared at Greece’s request — said austerity cuts had “a major impact on the demands on the Greek education system, and on those working within it.”

It said that in 2015, there were approximately 25,000 posts vacant for teachers in primary and secondary education schools.

Apostolou now pays 5,800 euros ($6,500) a year in tuition fees at a private school where her son can be assured of a well-structured curriculum.

“At our old school, the children usually come home early. So many school hours are lost because of teacher shortages during the year,” she says.

“There is no evaluation, no reward for effort in a public school. You wallow in mediocrity.”

Between 2011 and 2014, the state cut education wages and expenses by 24 percent, the OECD study said.

While school books are provided by the state free of charge, the cuts continue to impact other essential resources including computers and petrol for heating.

It’s not uncommon for schools to be shut down for lack of heating. The last instance was in February at the Athens school complex where Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras himself was a pupil.

In public schools, much now relies on private initiative and personal goodwill, what Greeks call ‘filotimo’, says Athanassia, a veteran public school teacher.

“I’ve worked in schools where the principal or teachers or parents paid out of their own pocket for essentials…or discreetly brought food to needy families,” says Athanassia, who has worked in 20 public schools as teachers are shared out to plug staffing gaps.

“Whatever works is based on filotimo,” she adds. “If funding were better, it would be totally different.”

According to the Greek statistics agency, around 12 percent of the country is near the poverty level.

In response, Tsipras’ government in 2016 began a program giving out free school meals at hundreds of schools in poorer regions.

Similarly, the government allowed access to public hospitals to long-term jobless with Greeks without health insurance.

“It’s a step forward, but inequalities persist,” says Petros at the Elliniko clinic.

“Without health insurance, securing a public hospital appointment might take six months, even for critical examinations,” he adds.

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