ATHENS – A Summer From Hell ending soon, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis – sidelined by wildfires, a resurging COVID-19 pandemic and political upheaval in his New Democracy party – will turn juggler.
The embattled Premier, taking constant sniping from the party he unseated, the now major opposition SYRIZA, twice rejiggered his Cabinet, replacing key ministers after he acknowledged lapses in responding to the fires. But it was his choice of former ultra-right winger Thanos Plevris to replace Vassilis Kikilias, a former pro basketball player with no experience in the field, to be Health Minister that was a shake-up for the Conservatives. Plevris had to apologize for remarks he made as defense lawyer in a 2009 court case against his extreme far-right father, Constantinos Plevris, who was charged with incitement to racist hatred or violence over a book called “Jews: The Whole Truth.”
The Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece quoted the health minister as having said then, commenting on a reference to the Nazi Auschwitz death camp: “What incitement is this? Is it that one is not allowed to believe and want to believe that ‘I want to exterminate someone?’” After saying he couldn’t force health care workers to be vaccinated, Mitsotakis reversed course and required them to do so – but that, too, is in limbo after Plevris, who said they wouldn’t be punished or suspended said they would if those refusing didn’t take steps to get their first shot and then a second. Mitsotakis had also named retired Army General Evangelos Apostolakis – who had served SYRIZA as Armed Forces Chief – to head a new agency overseeing disaster responses such as fires but his choice stepped down hours before being sworn in when the leftists accused him of wanting to serve his country and not the party.
The imbroglios mean Mitsotakis' keynote speech at the Thessaloniki Trade Fair this month, that is a showcase for Prime Ministers to unveil their political visions for the country – will take on more importance. It will focus on the economy, said Kathimerini, which has been battered by lockdowns over the pandemic but benefited from a return of tourists despite the fires and a record heat wave that turned Greece into a furnace. With schools reopening Sept. 13, the Education Ministry has issue confusing guidelines that there won’t be a return to remote learning and that schools would stay open even if COVID reappears in students – then said that they would be closed if that happens.
The fall weather will likely see an even bigger rebound of COVID-19 because of the especially contagious Delta Variant from India that is now the dominant strain and with anti-vaxxers spreading the virus. The government said the unvaccinated would be barred from going into retaurants, concerts, music halls, setting the stage for a Battle Royale with SYRIZA – which supports vaccinations but not mandatory shots and with hard-core elements in the party saying the shots aren't safe or effective.
If health care worker suspensions remain, that will put pressure on public hospitals that could face shortages although the government has been recruiting substitutes and saying those refusing shots will be put on leave without pay. All that could derail expectations of a 3.5 percent growth rate in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) after a horrific 2020 that saw lockdowns and non-essential businesses closed for nearly half a year, cutting into revenues.