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Kastellorizo Europe’s First Free of COVID-19, Greece Wants Safe Islands

KASTELLORIZO — So close to the coast of Turkey it’s been a flashpoint for that country’s plans to drill for oil and gas off its shores, stepping up fears of a conflict, the tiny Greek island of Kastellorizo has become the first stop in Europe not to have any cases of COVID-19.

So picturesque it was the setting for the 1992 Academy Award-winning movie Mediterraneo, about Italian soldiers sent to an isolated Greek island during WWII and wanting to stay, it’s drawing plaudits for beating back the pandemic.

In a feature report, EuroNews said all 520 residents on the island, a symbolic spot where former Prime Minister and then-PASOK Socialist leader George Papandreou went in 2010 to announce the country’s near bankruptcy and need for a bailout.

The news site said the residents have all received both of two shots required of the vaccine from the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, the island having during a year of the pandemic recording only a single case.

Greece wants to create COVID-19-free areas to lure tourists to bolster an economy staggered by three lockdowns, still going on, with non-essential businesses closed and restaurants, bars, taverns and the vacation sector at risk.

Many travel agencies have already turned their attention to Kastellorizo and, according to Ethnos Greece, estimate a 35 percent increase on tourism to the island despite it being the epicenter of worries Greece and Turkey could clash there.

The island is arid and doesn’t have well-known beaches but is a prime spot for people who want an unspoiled place without too many tourists or the usual attractions like souvenir shops.

It has an ancient castle and a cathedral-like Blue Grotto – a sea cavern accessible only by lying flat on a boat, EuroNews noted, adding it’s so close Turkey that it still has a mosque with a minaret, and a charming harbor with traditional neoclassical mansions and beautiful backdrops, including views across the blue sea to Turkey.

TAKING A SHOT

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ New Democracy government is trying to speed a slow-moving vaccination program he said nevertheless was on scheduled although at the current rate won’t meet the needed goal of 70 percent of the population until at least November, far past the key summer tourism period.

The government wants to concentrate on islands in the Aegean and the western Ionian Sea to make them free of the Coronavirus, with media reports saying a starting date for tourism is Easter, May 2.

The newspaper Ta Nea said the COVID-19-free islands plan is being worked out, reported Keep Talking Greece, and that  320 “vaccination missions” had been carried out exclusively on islands residents with the assistance of the Greek Armed Forces in charge of the supply chain.

The first phase will be carried out on 40 small islands with fewer than 1,000 permanent residents each, such as Thymaina, which, like Kastellorizo, is in the East Aegean Sea.

The newspaper said the government wants islanders to be vaccinated before May 2, including major destinations and bigger spots such as Crete or Rhodes and Corfu to be a safe magnet for visitors.

The Secretary-General of Primary Health Care, Marios Themistokleous, said that according to the plan, by the end of April, “all the inhabitants of the islands will have been vaccinated, with the possible exception of the big islands.”

The first spots would be islands with up to 15,000 inhabitants, such as the Cyclades, including inoculating those under 64 with the current campaign – apart from politicians and the privileged who cut to the head of the line – concentrating on the elderly and those with multiple or underlying conditions.

Ta Nea said that “It is clear that greater availability of vaccines will lead to a revision of the priority criteria, most likely from May,” noting that Mitsotakis has spoken of “other factors, more political or more economic,” which could leave some people out.

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