Greece isn’t finished providing historic lessons to a world in crisis

Pedro Szekely / Flickr Santorini Greece 1590104429.jpg...
Pedro Szekely / Flickr

Only a few months ago, any international story about Greece was sure to center on its grinding nine-year recession, its massive debts, and the tough austerity measures imposed on the country if it wanted to continue as part of the Eurozone. But lately, things have changed. In January, the country crept out of recession and into a slow recovery. Then in February the government … shut everything down.

While other European nations were taking reluctant steps to fight the novel coronavirus, the Greek government began a series of steps to close down gatherings, schools, and eventually businesses at a point when there were only three known cases of COVID-19 in the country. As a result, Greece is once again the odd man out when it comes to European nations—only this time it’s standing out in a very good way.

A quick scan of the WorldOMeters chart requires scrolling way down the page to find Greece. With just 2,853 cases and 168 deaths, the scale of the outbreak in Greece is almost two orders of magnitude away from the 228,000 cases in Italy to the west or the 153,000 in Turkey to the east. There are some other small nations in Europe with even fewer cases (Albania has fewer than 1,000), but Greece is a hotspot for tourism, a frequent stop for cruise ships, and has a national healthcare system that has been wounded by massive cuts required as part of that austerity program (though with universal coverage and better than four hospital beds per 1,000 people, it still beats the stuffing out of the United States).

How did a nation as dependent on tourism as Greece avoid going the way of France and Italy? The short answer is: science.

The slightly longer answer involves a scientist. Specifically, Dr. Sotiris Tsiodras. Early on, during the outbreak in China, Tsiodras brought his concerns about the possibility of a pandemic to Greek leaders. By way of reply, the government immediately formed a coronavirus task force and put the Athens-based pathologist in charge of managing the nation’s response. A clue to how that worked out might be found in this article from Le Figaro:

It’s 6 pm, a dead zone for all television … This is the time when the Greeks stop all activities or telephone conversations, to religiously follow the few minutes of press briefing. … On the screen stands a man, apparently discreet, innocuous, sporting a badge on his chic gray suit with the inscription “Stay at home”. Salt and pepper hair, round glasses and a soft voice. It’s Professor Sotirios Tsiodras, director of the Infectious Diseases Committee.

Tsiodras has become known as the “new beloved of Greeks,” who have united around not just listening to his daily broadcasts, but following his advice. 

Not only did the nation unite behind Tsiodras, but the nation’s leaders united—across regions and parties—behind the idea that the nation had to speak with one voice when it came to setting pandemic policies. Unlike the United States, where Trump abdicated all responsibility except sniping from the sidelines, and unlike other European nations where rules varied by locality and enforcement was piecemeal, Greece went all in. It didn’t just lockdown—it set national policies for those who violated social distancing rules.

Individuals caught on the street for nonessential purposes after March 23 were subject to immediate fines of 150 Euros. Repeat offenders were socked with escalating amounts. By May 1, the government had collected over €4M in fines and Greeks had learned to stay home or face the consequences.

Finally, the country learned from others, like South Korea, that practiced isolation and case tracing to reduce community spread. Of the original 2,800 cases in Greece, about 1,300 remain under close supervision. Overall, the rate of testing in Greece has been quite small—144,000 tests—putting its rate of testing far below many other nations. But the relatively small number of cases and careful followup has meant that the tests have been fairly effective in describing the size of the outbreak, as the 168 deaths indicate.

But now Greece is preparing for a challenge that may test its ability to control what happens next. Sensitive to long economic hardships and dependent on tourism for income, Greece plans to reopen to international travel. Flights from some nations will be allowed starting in mid-June, and outdoor archaeological sites around the country reopened on May 11. Social distancing rules are still in effect, but over the next month most businesses in Greece will slowly swing back to something close to “normal.”

Hopefully the government, and the Greek population, will continue to listen in to Dr. Tsiodras, and continue to monitor the situation closely. It’s easy to understand why a nation as cash-strapped as Greece would want to “open the beaches” even when they know a Great White is still circling just offshore. But it would be a shame if this good news story became a cautionary tale.

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