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Greece Walks COVID-19 Tightrope Over Health, Luring Tourists

Greece showed the world how to lock down during the still ongoing COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic – holding down the number of cases and deaths – and now could show how to reopen for business, an analysis by two Greek heritage analysts for Fortune magazine said.

William J. Antholis and Filippos Letsas said it will mean balancing continued health protocols as the lockdown that began March 23 is being gradually lifted with convincing tourists it’s safe to come because of strict hygiene protocols that will be kept in place.

Antonis is Director and CEO of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and a nonresident fellow in the Governance Studies Program at the Brookings Institution and Letsas is a Senior Research Assistant in the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings

They argued it will be a balancing act for Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis as they joined in praise for his decision to be guided by scientists and medical experts in how to bring the lockdown.

He needs to show tourists, they said, they can visit Greece without undue worry because of measures that will require major hotels to have doctors on board and with medical teams already on islands setting up health protocols there for smaller hospitals and clinics.

But they recommended more confidence building measures even as ferry boats resumed going to islands, but only half full, and less-than-full international air flights also being allowed to land at only Athens’ international airport for now.

“Greece may want to experiment with electronic bracelets and cell phone–tracing applications. Such initiatives may be expensive and complicated, but they are achievable if established early on at points of entry,” they wrote.

“Greece has a golden opportunity to reimagine travel and set global standards for the coronavirus recovery. After showing the world how to successfully lock down, Greece can do the same with showing us how to reopen,” they said.

The government has established a highly-praised track record already, dealing with the virus far more effectively than other European Union countries which were slow to bring lockdowns, Greece’s coming before a single death, holding the toll to 173 as of May 27.

“Mitsotakis faced labors that would have scared Hercules,” they wrote after a near decade-long economic and austerity crisis nearly crippled the healthcare system which didn’t have enough Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds if the pandemic spread fast.

THE VULNERABLE OLD

With the median age of the victims being 76 it showed how even more vulnerable Greece was, the virus going after the elderly, with Greece’s population having the second highest in the European Union, behind only Italy which was decimated.

“About a third of all Greeks live in or near Athens, which is densely urban, famously social, and highly reliant on public transport. Greeks also have a track record of poor governance, public disobedience, and populist protests,” they said, this time Greeks curiously obeyed..

The government nearly doubled ICU capacity and recruited over 3,500 medical professionals and worked with philanthropies such as the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and the Onassis Foundation and got private benefactors to help.

“Greek political leaders across the spectrum had created an art form out of publicly blaming experts for difficult policy measures – from Brussels bureaucrats to local finance and tax officials. In stark contrast, Mitsotakis elevated experts,” they said, noting his pedigree educational backgrounds from Harvard and Stanford and business analyst experience.

“Greece demonstrated consistency in focus and resolve; that same strategy should guide its reopening efforts,” they said, which is happening with the government beginning gradual easing of restrictions on May 4 with more week-by-week business reopenings.

While there is evidence of widespread ignoring of requirements to keep a social distancing of at least 1.5 meters (4.92 feet) apart and the use of masks and gloves, including by supermarket workers who were hailed for staying at their jobs,

“The overall recovery looks less like flicking an on-off switch than gradually pushing up a dimmer. Moving too quickly could not only pose health risks, but also undermine Greece’s new sense of achievement,” the analysts cautioned.

Tourism is the catalyst, a sector that in 2019 saw 34 million people bringing in some 19 billion euros ($20.9 billion) in revenues but with fears the numbers could fall as much as 70 percent this year with people afraid to travel even after lockdowns end.

The industry also employs 850,000 workers with the government pumping in 17.5 billion euros ($19.25 billion) in 800-euro ($880.08) in benefits to workers laid off during the lockdown and businesses subsidized to keep them from going under.

“But tourists will only travel to Greece if they feel it’s safe. Safety must include social distancing, effective and immediate treatment of those who become sick, and contact tracing,” they said, although mobile phone apps aren’t in place to do that.

But tourism in 2020 will look far different than the joyous scenes of the past when young people danced on tabletops on Mykonos, crowds jammed the narrow cliffside streets of Santorini, and Athens’ Plaka looked like pre-virus New York City packed streets.

And Greece, they said, must be ready if COVID-19 comes back, plans the government has in place as it bolsters the health care sector in case it also returns in the autumn flu and virus season, but also set if it happens this summer.

“When people are diagnosed with the coronavirus, the response must be fast. Remote locations need to have clear plans for how to treat patients with varying degrees of illness. These should include on-call doctors for all hotels, telemedicine, and access to structures designed to exclusively treat COVID-19 cases,” they said. The signs are Greece is still ready.

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