What Greece Can Teach Us About Fighting COVID-19

May 16, 2020
By Costa Constantinides

My friends, believe it or not, it’s May. 

We just finished celebrating Easter. Not too long ago we were with loved ones counting down, waiting for the Times Square ball to drop, holding our breath for 2020. We had plans for how this decade could be one of profound change. Fast forward to now, and we are instead forced to rethink how we should carry on. It’s a year that has made the entire global community stop and recalibrate. We’ve learned about who we are and how we react to crisis. History will remember those rose to the occasion — not those who cowered in the shadows.  

Greece has absolutely answered that call. As acclaimed historian Yuval Noah Harari recently said, Greece has given the world a plan of action and is leading by example. 

New York accounts for nearly one-third of the 70,000 souls we have lost in the United States. We are arguably the region hardest hit by COVID-19, which has infected more than 3.5 million and killed over 250,000 people worldwide. At this point, most New Yorkers directly know someone who was sick or has passed. And, we oftentimes couldn’t even say a proper goodbye. We’ve had to pray and grieve remotely. In the darkness of this hour though, the Greek-American community has had a glimmer of good news it’s been able to hold on to: Greece’s response to coronavirus has been one of the best in the world. Our ancestral homeland has had a more competent science-driven response to this pandemic than the wealthiest countries in the world. 

In Greece, there have been over 2,600 infections and 146 deaths till now. These numbers are even more astounding when we consider that Greece only has 560 intensive care unit beds and has the second-oldest population of European Union member states. So, what’s the secret of this success story? It’s actually very simple. Greece allowed health officials to lead and determine public policy. In effect, the country implemented the only known “cure” for the virus to date: social distancing. There is no medicine proven to completely cure or prevent coronavirus. The only tools we have are to stay home, practice social distancing, and good hygiene. That’s it. 

Greece recognized these salient facts and made very hard decisions early on. Carnival celebrations in late February were cancelled. Soon to follow were school and non-essential business closures. They didn’t wait for the numbers to skyrocket. These measures all kicked in before the case count was over 100. At the time, these measures may have seemed draconian to Greek citizens. It could feel like a gross overreaction. 

How could a culture that puts a premium on community and hospitality not be together? 

Time soon proved that not only were these rules necessary, however, they were just what the doctor ordered. Greece saved lives and changed history. 

Now, as the country slowly begins its reopening phases, it’s important that public health officials continue to guide policy decisions. 

That’s true now for both Greece and New York. In New York City we were able to avoid the nightmare scenario. Early projections warned we would need 140,000 hospital beds — well over the capacity we have here, especially in western Queens. Thankfully, we never reached that climatic point, but we’re not in the clear. 

The Greek-American community and all New Yorkers must remain vigilant. As Greeks, we’re familiar with Pheidippides and the 26.2-mile journey he took to give good news to his countrymen. He didn’t run at full-speed and crash midway through. No, he ran with the long term in mind and eventually reached his goal. 

We are again called upon not to run a sprint, but a marathon. I know if we carry on our historic leadership, we, too, will deliver good news at the end. 


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