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Letter from Athens: Why Greece’s COVID-19 Half Measures Didn’t Work

November 7, 2020

Imagine you come to a chasm 10 feet across and have an eight-foot ladder. That's not going to work, and neither did the compromise measures aimed at trying to stop the spread of COVID-19 that Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis recently imposed. 

They didn't work because there were too many outs and loopholes designed to keep a faltering economy set to shrink 10 percent this year from collapsing if there's a second lockdown, which now seems almost inevitable. 

People, primarily the young and reckless, could go to restaurants and nightclubs and taverns, but musicians out of work since March were left with no income because the New Democracy government isn't subsidizing them, believing concerts were too dangerous. But a beauty pageant was allowed to go on. 

Night clubs where people drank and danced and mingled in very close contact had to close at midnight because apparently you can only catch the Coronavirus after that. 

Until cases started soaring toward and then past the 2,000 mark daily, people didn't have to wear masks everywhere, including outdoor gathering spots, and police were told not to try to break up parties in public squares where people went after nightclubs closed, to keep carrying on. 

Despite vigilant police checks, often more than 40,000 a day, people kept defying requirements to wear masks and stay safe social distances of at least 1.5 meters (5 feet) apart which was a swell concept outside but not enforced inside. 

In management, you have to be hard first and soft later because you can't do it the other way around and after the government relaxed the properly tough conditions of a first lockdown in March that held down the number of cases and deaths, it went too easy. 

“We have no scope for complacency,” Gkikas Magiorkinis, Assistant Professor of epidemiology at Athens University told Kathimerini, saying the spike has been driven by people not wearing masks or staying a safe social distance, largely by going to restaurants and bars now required to close for a month in hardest-hit prefectures. 

At first, government spokesman Stelios Petsas said a second nationwide lockdown was one possible step to try to slow the spread of the pandemic, now more than seven months long and growing. 

“The measures will get stricter if we do not adhere to them,” Petsas told SKAI radio after the government repeatedly said it wouldn't happen. 

Then he said there wouldn't be a lockdown, not the message of consistency needed to calm a pandemic-weary public. 

New restrictions include a midnight to 5 AM public curfew along with the mandatory use of face masks in all public areas but that's not going to work on public transportation where people are jammed into buses and metros. 

It's a hard sell because if there is a second lockdown – which scientists and doctors on the government's advisory committee have said is the only strategy that will work – there will be irreparable economic damage and loss of life and hardships that can't be calculated, with possibly thousands of restaurants and bars and taverns closed forever. 

The government during the first lockdown spent 17.5 billion euros ($20.45 billion) to subsidize workers laid off and prop up their companies which didn't have any income, but now a mandatory 40 percent cut in rent for businesses won't work because they will have to pay the 60 percent while they're closed, which will shutter many forever. 

Greece got some 32 billion euros ($37.39 billion) in loans and grants from the European Commission to deal with the fiscal damages from COVID-19 but little has been given to some sectors, such as the arts, with many performers and musicians left without any income or programs to help them. 

The new aid comes on top of nearly eight billion euros ($9.35 billion) put into the economy, especially for small-and-medium sized enterprises (SMEs) by the end of the year, including the EU funding, said the business newspaper Naftemporiki. 

It wasn't reported what the stimulus package would be spent on or if more monies would go to workers or how the funds will be directed as the government tries to avoid a second lockdown that could be devastating. 

West Attica University Professor Alkiviadis Vatopoulos, who warned the 2000-a-day mark would be hit, indicated how half measures don't work when you're dealing with a virus that doesn't care about politics or an economy. 

Especially worrying, said Vatopoulos, is that the average age of those being infected is falling fast because many young won't wear masks or stay safe social distances from each other and had taken to partying and going to clubs before they were shut down. 

He said the pandemic could get worse fast and see not just soaring numbers of cases but of deaths and people needing to be put on ventilators in hospital Intensive Care Units (ICUs) starting to be stressed, although they had been beefed up this year. 

The elderly and those with underlying or multiple conditions are still the most susceptible and the spread of the virus by the young could put them at even more risk despite more health restrictions including mandatory mask wearing. 

“As a doctor I would say to shut everything down, but I understand that it’s a tough decision,” Vatopoulos said. Not as tough as watching someone's eyes go out because you wanted to keep the economy going. 

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