When Greece cancelled carnival celebrations in late February, many people thought the measure excessive. In the western city of Patra, which hosts Greece’s most flamboyant carnival parade, thousands defied the ban and took to the streets.
“The government has ordered an end to all municipal activities … but this is a private enterprise. No one can shut it down,” said a jubilant reporter for the local Ionian TV in front of a crew dressed up as 17th-century French courtiers. “They’re gathering here on St George’s Square, where the [Greek] revolution began in 1821, and that’s symbolic,” he said.
Greeks quickly put their revolutionary spirit aside, however, and largely heeded government advice to remain indoors. The result has been a remarkably low number of deaths – 81 by Tuesday, compared to more than 17,000 in neighbouring Italy. Even adjusted for population sizes, Italy’s fatality rate is almost 40 times greater.
Compared with other European Union members, too, Greece has fared better. Its fatalities are far lower than in Belgium (2,035) or the Netherlands (1,867), which have similar populations, but a much higher gross domestic product (GDP).
“State sensitivity, co-ordination, resolve, swiftness, seem not to be matters of economic magnitude,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis recently told a pared-down session of parliament.
“Our schools closed before we had the first fatality. Most countries followed a week or two later, after they had mourned the loss of dozens,” he said.
Starting from a weak position
George Pagoulatos, a political economist who heads the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), a think-tank, agrees that the government displayed “a very professional, managerial approach early on”, albeit largely dictated by inherent national weaknesses.
Greece had very shallow resources with which to tackle a large outbreak. A decade of austerity saw its national healthcare expenses cut by three-quarters. Its intensive care beds numbered just 560 last month, though the government has now raised that to 910, and hired more than 4,000 extra doctors and nurses. Another weakness is that at least a quarter of Greece’s population is over 60, and elderly patients have been deemed particularly at risk from coronavirus.
All this has meant that a forward line of defence was Greece’s only real defence – but it has paid off.
Greece is using only a tenth of its ICU beds, and has plenty of capacity left over.
The legacy of the economic crisis
Pagoulatos believes that austerity may also help to explain how Greeks put aside their traditionally defiant attitude towards authority.
“Maybe it has helped that Greece has been in an almost constant [state of] crisis management since 2010 … we’ve been well past the kind of complacency the economies that have been doing well might allow themselves,” he says. “A society that has undergone hardship for a prolonged period knows when personal sacrifice is necessary or inevitable.”
As the prime minister’s economics adviser, Alex Patelis was present at many of the top-level coronavirus meetings, and tells Al Jazeera that the Greek economic meltdown of the past decade did indeed play a role.
“We want to show that Greece is a serious country. We want people to say that Greece handled this well,” Patelis says. “If we succeed, it will have a multiplier effect on our reputation. Greece emerged from a 10-year economic crisis with its credibility crippled, and we want to get past being labelled as the black sheep of Europe.”
Yet Greece may now have scored two bull’s eyes in winning back its reputation. Just as carnival was being cancelled, Turkey announced it was opening its borders to refugees bound for Europe. Mitsotakis made the controversial decision to push them back. Though fraught with legal and moral controversy, the policy was effective on the ground and won plaudits from Europe’s leaders, who called Greece “our European shield”.
Handling two simultaneous crises effectively has won Mitsotakis a reputation for good management, in contrast to leaders who treated coronavirus with contempt in the early stages and whose countries are reaping exponential rates of infection weeks later.
Another recession and more austerity?
On March 10, Greece closed its schools, and within the next week all public commercial venues such as cinemas, restaurants and shops. Even its vaunted tourism industry was sacrificed as hotels and museums were shuttered.
Overnight, large chunks of the retail and service economy, normally tax generators, became major government expenses instead. The cost of subsidies and tax deferrals to businesses and 2.4 million affected workers for March and April alone runs to 5.1 billion euros ($5.56bn).