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Tables Turned: Greece Curbed COVID-19 While EU Frittered

ATHENS – Mocked and ridiculed and pressured by the European Union during a near decade-long economic crisis as a problem child, Greece showed the way how to deal with the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic while the bloc’s leaders sat on their hands.

While Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis brought a swift lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus and began implementing plans to deal with the economic aftermath even as the new crisis derailed recovery hopes, EU leaders couldn’t decide what to do, with critics accusing them of dithering during a storm. 

The EU's Ambassador to the United States, Stavros Lambrinidis, told American PBC radio that the bloc was slow in reacting to COVID-19 even as deaths skyrocketed in Italy, which screamed for help it didn't get, leaving political leaders there to mull whether they too – as did the United Kingdom – leave.

He said the EU then came together with solidarity although by that time polls showed a 20 percent drop in trust in a system which relies on unanimity and often takes weeks or months and multiple meetings to reach a consensus.

The EU eventually agreed to a package of 3.4 trillion euros ($3.7 billion) to deal with COVID-19, long after other countries were already reacting and the Centre for European Reform called the initial response “haphazard.”

“ Greece has been seen as one of the European Union’s most troubled members, weighed down by a financial crisis, corruption and political instability. But in the coronavirus pandemic, the country has emerged as a welcome surprise: its outbreak appears to be far more limited than what was expected,” said The New York Times in a feature.

That joined a big bandwagon of praise for Greece from a number of other media outlets, analysts, historians and former critics who thought the Greek state dysfunctional and Greeks rebellious and unwilling to make reforms. 

But surprise, surprise, indeed.

While Greeks widely stayed at home during a lockdown – although there were more than 40,000 violations bringing fines of 150 euros ($163.17) for being out without a permissible reason – the closing of non-essential businesses worked to cut down the cases and deaths.

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With the second highest population in the EU after Italy, where the death toll spiraled, and with only 592 Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds in a county with a population of nearly 11 million and a health care system nearly in ruins after brutal budget cuts under austerity, the scene was set for a horror show in Greece.

But it didn’t happen, thanks largely to Mitsotakis stepping out of the limelight and letting scientists and doctors lead the way with advice and as the government had already put in place a contingency plan to set aside hospitals for COVID-19 patients and ready to commandeer private clinics if needed.

The number of ICU beds was nearly doubled, thanks to help from benefactors and the Diaspora, and thousands of doctors and nurses were recruited for public hospitals that saw an exodus of professionals during the economic crisis, fleeing to other countries.

“Greece has defied the odds,”  Kevin Featherstone, Director of the Hellenic Observatory at the London School of Economics told The Times.

The paper noted that because only  69,833 people were tested that it’s not really known how widespread the virus is but the death rate was among the lowest in countries hardest hit and led Mitsotakis to say there would be a gradual easing of the lockdown beginning May 4 after it was put in place on March 23, before a single death. 

That required people who wanted to go out of their homes for missions such as going to supermarkets, doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, repair shops, opticians, to walk a pet, take exercise or to essential businesses allowed open to have written permission in the form of a document downloaded from the Internet, on their cellphones, or written out.

That will be eased now too but health officials said they will be carefully monitoring society to see if cases spike again and with people advised to keep social distancing of at least 1.5 feet (4.92 feet) apart, even on on public transportation and when restaurants reopen, although for some time only outside tables will be allowed.

“We acted preemptively,” Minister of State Giorgos Gerapetritis told the newspaper. “We consciously preferred to make a significant financial sacrifice rather than sacrifice human life,” he said.

“The mobilization was very fast,” Anastasia Kotanidou, Associate Professor at the Critical Care Department of the University of Athens and the President of the Greek Intensive Care Society told the paper. Without it, she said, the health care system would not have been able to handle the outbreak.

Featherstone said that the government had “followed the science” by making Dr. Sotiris Tsiodras the lead on policy, and giving Deputy Minister for Civil Protection Nicholas Hardalias, the power to oversee the country’s response to the outbreak helped ensure things ran smoothly.

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“Neither of these actions are typical of Greek governments when faced with challenges,” he said. They seemed to reflect the business background of Mitsotakis, a former financial analyst and graduate of Harvard and Stanford, he added.

Pavlos Eleftheriadis, a retired stage director at the national theater in Northern Greece, said he was pleasantly surprised by the government’s response to the outbreak.

“I felt pride that there is a state,” said Eleftheriadis, who is from Thessaloniki. “There are politicians who listen to the scientists.”

There's been criticism too though, especially when COVID-19 was found in two refugee and migrant camps although – for whatever reason – it didn’t spread in camps on five Aegean islands holding more than 38,000 in overcrowded facilities with poor hygiene.

While Mitsotakis and his team are riding the crest of approval, Fani Kountouri, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Political Communication at Panteion University in Athens, said that could be swept away if the virus resurges after the lockdown ends or how the financial impact is managed, especially with tourism nearly wiped out.

Costas Thimioudis, a 50-year-old taxi driver in Thessaloniki, said he was no fan of the Greek government but approved of its actions. “The government took measures earlier than the rest of Europe,” he told the paper.

“Some Europeans did not hold us in high esteem,” said Costas Hatzopoulos, 54, an agronomist who is also in Thessaloniki. He added: “We’ve proved them wrong.”

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