100 days of coronavirus – what Greece’s approach can teach us

Remember the start of 2020 when we were all making plans, excited at the prospect of a new decade and a new year? 

It feels like a lifetime ago now, especially in Greece where people had been feeling more optimistic after a 10 year economic recession which we finally were starting to leave behind.

After several false starts, Greece at last seemed to be through the worst of it, but we know how the rest of the story goes. Rather than being the year Greece’s economy took off into blue skies and with a strong tailwind, 2020 would transform into the year the Greek economy crashed shortly after takeoff. 

In January, all we had were some mutterings of a new virus in China. As the virus spread over the holiday season with people returning home and travellers taking city breaks, parents chatted in the park. “Just a bad flu,” we said. “It’ll blow over soon.”

Then the virus came to Italy, and we watched in horror as it decimated the country’s older generation. Greeks and Italians like to say “one face, one race”, referring to the similarities between the two countries. So watching Italy be shredded by the virus was particularly distressing. If it could happen there, it could happen here. We stopped joking about this just being a bad flu. 

As carnival season rolled across Europe, Greeks continued to meet each other and gather at parties, but an unease had set in. Dressed as mermaids, superheroes and cowboys, people asked each other about the virus, how it would come here and when, and what would we do? It was an uneasy time, like having felt the earthquake and watching the shoreline to see how big and how bad the approaching tsunami would be.

On February 26, Greece recorded its first case, a 38-year-old woman from Thessaloniki  returning from Northern Italy. 

Things moved quickly from there. The first measures, the banning of carnival parades, was put in place only one day after the first case was detected.

The government had already set up a taskforce in January to tackle the issue, and it began to roll out wave after wave of measures. By mid-March, the country all but ground to a halt and everything shut.

A day before the first coronavirus-related death on March 12, schools and educational facilities were closed. Total lockdown was announced on the evening of March 22, when the toll stood at 15 deaths and 624 infections.

Source: Research paper, Modelling the SARS-CoV-2 first epidemic wave in Greece

We entered a strange kind of wakeful suspended animation, watching the world slowly go by, dodging the virus as best as we could. The weather dipped between cold and unseasonably warm. We went to parks and beaches until those went into lockdown too. We wiped down takeaway containers with antiseptic and gave our groceries baths in the kitchen sink. 

The first 100 days

As of June 4, Greece marks the 100th day of its coronavirus pandemic, and there are some things which stand out compared to other countries. 

While other countries dithered about the hit to the economy, Greece decided that economies can be rebuilt, but lives lost cannot be won back, and so the country entered an early and stringent lockdown. This is why I personally don’t accept the excuse of some other bigger and stronger economies about harsh lockdowns and the damage to their economies, economies which are pushing against all common sense to reopen their countries before they are even done with the first wave of their virus, or never shutting them down at all to begin with. If there is one country in Europe that absolutely could not take the hit to its economy, it was Greece, but it took the hit anyway. 

Going back into crisis mode was not that hard for Greeks after a decade of jumping from crisis to crisis. This latest crisis was one that wouldn’t only take out the economy, it would take out Greece’s elders, too, a price that Greek society was unwilling to pay. With grandparents in the crosshairs of the new virus, Greece pulled out all the stops. Losing your job would be unfortunate and stressful, but losing Yiayia was non-negotiable. 

Even Professor Sotiris Tsiodras, the respected epidemiologist put on the frontline of designing the Greek response, grew visibly emotional when, during one of his daily televised briefings, he talked about another scientist saying the measures were over the top for a relatively small section of society. 

“Some people say this is a lot of fuss for a few old people,” he said on March 21. “The answer I give and leave to your judgment is that the miracle of medical science in 2020 is the prolongation of the quality of survival of these people, many of whom are our mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers,” he said, struggling to stop his voice from breaking. 

It goes without saying that if death rates from the virus are indicative of the value a country places on its elders, it would be insulting to suggest that Italians love their grandparents any less. But Italy was desperately unlucky in becoming the first European case study which the rest of us learnt from. 

After Italy, there was no excuse. No one could say “We didn’t know it could get this bad.” Everyone knew. So Greece swung into action to protect its elders and its fragile healthcare system, stripped bare by a decade of austerity. 

By putting an expert in his field at the head of its response, the Greek authorities based what they did firmly on the evolving science of the coronavirus, rather than good old common sense, stiff upper lips or wishful thinking

Society stepped into line with surprisingly little complaining because Greeks were not willing to see their elders as a disposable layer of their society, which the government was very aware of. This is not a country in which the Prime Minister could even dream of taking to the airwaves and giving up on the country’s elders without a fight, as Boris Johnson did when he warned that many people would lose loved ones. 

Imagine the agony of those listening to that speech in the UK, those with grandparents and parents they loved and wanted to protect, who saw that the people elected to do that very job had given up at the starting line, who were bombarded with confused and inconsistent messages before being told to work it out for themselves. 

The next 100 days?

At the start of the pandemic, Greece’s R number stood at 2.38. It is currently 0.31. One hundred days later, people are only just starting to get back to normal life. Children are returning to school after the scientists leading the response ran the numbers and said it was safe. Offices and businesses are re-opening. 

Back on the beaches we are finally allowed to visit again, we look to the sea and hope for the best. Tsunamis don’t come in single waves. We know that. These one hundred days have felt like a year, but they have proved Greece right. Greece built a compassionate and robust response to the virus by using science, facts and a sprinkling of that magic secret ingredient – love. It has not been a perfect response, but it has been vastly better than many places. Here’s hoping the next 100 days will be as successful. 

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