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COVID: The Greek-American Community One Year Later

NEW YORK – The Greek-American community, along with so many across the country and around the world, was indelibly marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, the tremendous death toll, and the economic repercussions from March of 2020 to the present day.

The passing of so many Greek-Americans, still being recorded to this day, Greek-American doctors and nurses who were on the front lines but also those who experienced the nightmare of the serious form of the disease both personally and in their close relatives, became a part of our reality which everyone wishes to be resolved and become a thing of the past as soon as possible.

At the same time, after the expected easing of the health crisis, one of the challenges will be the most effective economic recovery possible, which, at the moment, seems very difficult: The restaurant business which was based on the waves of Greek immigrants who came to the United States decades ago and has been hit hard, the next day also remains a question that will concern many Greek-Americans who are active in the business and beyond.

In addition, as expected, important Greek community events, such as New York City’s Greek Independence Day Parade on 5th Avenue, were canceled for the second consecutive year, while most Greek Orthodox communities suffered financial losses due to the shutdown of churches last Easter and the forced cancellation of festivals which are the main source of income for many.

This year, these summer events – to some extent and with restrictive measures – are expected to return for some communities, but the Greek Diaspora will need enough time to find its footing – economically and socially – with the pandemic remaining active and the health risk not yet over.

The former president of the Hellenic Medical Society of New York, Dr. George Liakeas, well-known for his social and scientific standing in the Greek community and beyond, shocked the public with his experience of COVID-19, which, at the beginning of the pandemic, nearly cost him his life.

After two weeks in the hospital and intubated, Dr. Liakeas still has not fully recovered – physically and psychologically – from the hard battle he fought with the disease, even though his recovery brought a breath of relief for himself, his family and Greek-American community, which stood by him from the beginning.

"I can tell you that today, a year later, I feel better but not completely normal. Many times there are things that bother me and I do not tell anyone. Firstly, because I am used to it and also because I am almost ashamed of it,” he told The National Herald with his characteristic straightforwardness, emphasizing that from time to time he suffers from shortness of breath and tachycardia that have no explanation.

“I can walk a mile and breathe a little heavier than normal, without paying much attention. On the other hand, I can only walk a block and get so tired that I have to go to bed in order to recover. Doctors running a special program at Mount Sinai Hospital, which monitors cases like mine, say I'm not the only one. On the other hand, there is no clear answer as to what I should do and if I can expect these symptoms to go away. This is annoying for the patient, especially if this patient is a doctor, like me,” said Dr. Liakeas.

Even today, the Greek-American doctor admits that he underestimated the symptoms and, in fact, it was his wife who urged him to go to the hospital. He went alone, partly to relieve her of the stress, but the shortness of breath was getting worse by the hour. He was lucky in his misfortune, because, shortly before he lost consciousness, he managed to call the doctors at the hospital in order to check his constantly deteriorating condition.

"I called the doctor in a voice that did not come out. After that happened, I woke up two weeks later,” said Dr. Liakeas, who finally managed to get out alive from the Intensive Care Unit and the ventilator. He became ill in the first weeks of the pandemic, when doctors were caught off guard, while basic protection instructions, such as using a mask on a daily basis, had not yet been given.

“Among other things, I have one hand that is cold, while some parts of my limbs may be numb or hypersensitive at the same time. There are times when I get up very quickly and feel dizzy. In all, sometimes I feel guilty about not being fully recovered, especially when I know people who are older or sicker than me have recovered. I'm 49, it’s like I aged overnight. On the other hand, I think about how close I came to death and that many of my friends and acquaintances who were infected with the coronavirus did not survive, although this, fortunately, is no longer so common. Also, I will forever remember this wave of support for me and my family,” said Dr. Liakeas, who, in conclusion, invited the public to do their own research on vaccines and not to be carried away by inaccurate sources.

"To people who do not believe that there is a virus, I have to say that this is silly. To people who do not think they should wear masks to protect themselves and others, I would say this is stupid. To those who are concerned about the vaccine, I will simply say that they should address their fears by seeking answers through science,” Dr. Liakeas concluded.

Greek-American Registered Nurse Gina Sereti told TNH that she was shocked last April, referring to the unprecedented situations she and her colleagues were experiencing in a central New Jersey hospital: One nurse caring for three patients at a time, many deaths, and the additional burden of managing human pain but also very frequent intubation, in a pandemic that seemed out of control.

“Last summer, when the cases dropped, we continued to prepare for a second wave, but some people hoped that we might be done. Finally, when the first patients were brought to us in the second wave, a colleague cried. We were all afraid that we would go through the same situations as last spring, when everyone was sick and we had no space, a lot of people died and it was scary. It is something that will be etched in the memory of all of us who were on the front line. I try not to think about it and not to remember it, I try to come to terms with everything that happened,” Sereti said.

One year after the outbreak of the pandemic, cases are still present, as are deaths, however, the situation seems to be one step more controlled.

“This year we know more about the virus and we have more treatment options. Obviously we do not have what we would call the 'cure' for the disease, but now we know which medication helps and which does not. It is not like before. We are also currently vaccinated. I got the vaccine in December, so I feel that I have an additional protection network around me,” said the Greek-American nurse, adding that the approach to dealing with the most serious cases has changed.

"When a patient is put on the ventilator, unfortunately, it is always possible to experience the unpleasant situations we had last year and not have a positive outcome. But the ventilator is now the last resort for us. As a last step now, we use a special oxygen mask. If there is no improvement, then we must go to the ventilator,” explained Sereti who is adamant about the vaccine and offered her advice to the public, who may have doubts.

“I urge people to do their personal research on reliable sources and to trust science. That is how we overcame other pandemics in the past. I understand that one may be worried, but the vaccine is the only way forward. My colleagues and I were vaccinated, I know others who also are vaccinated. The number of patients is falling, the deaths are falling, that is the purpose of the vaccine. It's the only way to get back to normal,” she said.

Greek-American real estate agent Helen Mylonas-Arapis experienced the coronavirus firsthand. The virus took the life of her beloved father, retired real-estate agent Constantine Mylonas, whose condition worsened due to complications of diabetes. He was taken to the hospital, but lost the battle a few days later. Mylonas-Arapis and her mother were also stricken with the disease, but did not experience severe symptoms.

“My husband and two daughters were not infected. One of my daughters had the vaccine. My father, my mother and I got infected, each with different symptoms. Unfortunately, we lost my father. We could not even have a regular funeral, as some of us were sick with COVID,” Mylonas-Arapis, who recalls how her father's health deteriorated.

“My parents lived downstairs in our house. We had just celebrated my father's 83rd birthday in January. Initially, he had some cold symptoms, like you would expect with the common cold. He took the test and it came back positive. He went into isolation in his bedroom. My mother moved into another room, but a few days later she also tested positive, but had no symptoms. Then my husband and daughters and I went for a test. I was positive. My father had no serious problems, until it hit him in the nervous system and he started not remembering us. He was given – like my mother – Regeneron antibodies. Despite the temporary improvement, the disease affected his blood sugar and we lost him after a few days,” she said.

"I experienced it in my house. I lost my father. Even now some people think that all this is… a fairy tale and they do not want to wear a mask and protect themselves. We must not relax. The risk is real,” Mylonas-Arapis concluded.

Danger Sign for Greek-American Restaurants

Restaurants in New York City are now allowed to increase their indoor dining capacity to 50%, the highest capacity they've been allowed since the start of the pandemic, while the rest of the State, the corresponding percentage reaches 75%. Entrepreneurs have taken a deep breath, but is that enough?

The restaurant industry that was combined with the American dream for the Greek immigrant of the previous decades, was hit to such an extent that it is unknown when and how it will return. According to Nikos Bardis, from Pangregorian, the problems for Greek-Americans – and not only – in the restaurant business, are ahead.

"Right now, without having exact numbers, we know that many Greek-American restaurants, mainly diners and coffee shops, have closed, mostly in Manhattan. In total in New York, it is estimated that 7,500 restaurants have closed, so among those there must be some Greek-owned restaurants. I am afraid that we will find out more along the way, as some businessmen do not notify us and we continue looking,” Bardis told TNH.

At the same time, the experienced Pangregorian executive noted that the increase in indoor dining capacity will not bring the desired results if the psychology of the customers does not change.

"People are afraid to enter restaurants, especially in Manhattan, even if it opens at 50% capacity,” said Bardis, noting the concerns of Greek-American business owners whose landlords expect the rent to be paid despite the special pandemic conditions.

"A well-known Greek-American contacted me and told me that his landlord's lawyer had sent an out-of-court settlement and called on him to either pay all the rent he owed in 15 days or to leave. Some landlords – especially Greeks – agreed to negotiate and reduce rents. Unfortunately, some others did not even discuss it. It is a difficult period for the restaurant industry and I’m concerned about how it will return,” Bardis concluded.

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