Easter Will Test Greece's COVID-19 Lockdown

Αssociated Press

A policeman wearing a face mask to protect from coronavirus stops a car at a roadblock in Elesfina toll stations, west of Athens, Friday, April 10. 2020. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

More people have been killed in the name of God than for any other reason, and now they're dying for it too.

While there are multiple reasons why the COVID-19 coronavirus has rampaged around the world like the near-plague it is, Greeks who went to Jerusalem, super-devout revivalists in France who held a prayer meeting, and ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York City – all of whom thought God would save them – found out he didn't because many got the virus and spread it.

Before Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis moved faster than most countries to impose a lockdown the Greek Church insisted Holy Communion was safe.

Drinking from a spoon in the same chalice used by scores, if not hundreds of people, was like putting COVID-19 into Kool-Aid and passing it around, as Mitsotakis even got the Church to realize it and close for services, personal prayer, and Sunday liturgy.

But Religious Affairs Minister Niki Kerameus told state-run broadcaster ERT that, “we will examine, shortly before Holy Week, whether the conditions allow us to proceed with services behind closed doors,” which means parishioners still couldn’t go inside.

“We are open to discussion with all of the religious communities and, of course, with Archbishop Ieronymos,” she added, although his arm had to be twisted to make him understand COVID-19 and Communion didn’t mix, and with the lockdown extended now at least until April 27, almost surely longer than that.

It wasn’t said how keeping churches closed in some more remote areas would be enforced as many Greeks, especially the elderly, flock to them for the Good Friday through Easter period that is also the biggest time for family gatherings, also banned.

This will be a key test of science vs. religion and science had better win or otherwise more people are going to die after celebrating Resurrection. Mitsotakis has the backing of some 90 percent of Greeks in bringing the lockdown so he'd better stick to it and keep them at home during Easter.

The government's COVID-19 spokesman and point man, infectious diseases expert Sotirios Tsiodras, has been a calm and reassuring presence during the crisis as Mitsotakis wisely ceded the floor.

Greece's lockdown, while still flouted openly by thousands, is still working effectively to hold down deaths and the spread of the disease, but there are signs of cabin fever setting in with people anxious to get out of their homes.

"The Greeks themselves are hardly law-abiding folk. They always find an excuse to flout rules, defy headlines and put the general good second to their own," The Times of London said in a story indicating that it took COVID-19 to rein in their rebellious streak and mostly comply.

When the weather gets better, the sun is shining, people locked into a self-imposed house arrest are going to want to get out in greater numbers. That's now allowed only for going to the supermarket, pharmacy, bank, doctor, hospital, and other essential businesses.

It requires a form you can download, a text message to your phone from the government but also just writing out on a piece of paper where you are going and what time it is. But if you're stopped and show it and allowed to go on, who's going to check to make sure you went where you said?

The biggest challenge will be keeping people in their homes as the April 19 Easter and the run-up to the Holy Day arrives because that's when Greeks traditionally flee the cities for their islands and villages.

The government has cautioned that won't be allowed and as Mitsotakis said he's pressing “individual responsibility,” and with reports people on highways may be asked to show at tollgates a tax form or other document showing their residence.

If you don't live in your village or island the plan would be to turn you around on the highway but a better way would be to set up roadblocks at the beginning of the major highways leading out of the cities and show the documents there.

It's going to take more than pressing people to be socially responsible even to save their own lives because enough Greeks have shown they're willing to take the risk. While Churches were locked down, the government kept open the open air markets known as Laiki, imposing restrictions that food and produce stalls be 5 meters (16-feet) apart.

But TV coverage showed people there jammed up trying to pick out fruit and vegetables and not abiding the recommended social distancing of 1.5 meters (5 feet) and when the weather gets better those will be more crowded too.

Hellenic Police data showed 17,358 violations in the first 12 days after the lockdown began on March 23, with fines of 150 euros ($162) on individuals, bringing in 2.6 million euros ($2.8 million,)

Some 330 businesses that stayed open were whacked with fines of 5,000 euros ($5402) for each incident, bringing in 1.6 million euros ($1.7 million) bringing the total take to 4.25 million euros ($4.6 million.)

Government officials said most of the fine money will go toward boosting the public healthcare system decimated with budget cuts during a nearly decade-long economic and austerity crisis.

What's better than fines, however, is compliance from Greeks who want out on Easter, otherwise they're going to meet God sooner than they wanted.