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Greece’s COVID-19 test: Resolve, digitalization, and refugees29 May 2020

While Europe has not been doing well on the test of health management, solidarity and cooperation in the crisis, Greece is standing out with its small numbers of cases and pandemic-related deaths

Yuksel Serdar Oguz   

- The writer teaches crisis management and strategic communication classes for members of the Turkish Army, and at the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), and the Anadolu Agency News Academy. He focuses on public diplomacy, new media policies, and the management of migration.

ISTANBUL

As the coronavirus pandemic continues around the world, the period of normalization is coming to Europe in a gradual manner.

One of the regions of the world most affected by the outbreak, with more than one million 705 thousand cases diagnosed, Europe has lost almost 165 thousand people to the pandemic so far.

While Europe has not been doing well on the test of health management, solidarity and cooperation in the crisis, Greece is standing out with its small numbers of cases and pandemic-related deaths compared to many other countries, with the Athens administration gradually taking steps for normalization since the beginning of May.

The first coronavirus incident in Greece was seen on Feb. 26 in Thessaloniki, the second largest city in the country. The date of the first death is March 12.

When the Athens government declared curfews on March 27, two weeks after the first death, the number of cases was 15.

According to the figures provided by the World Health Organization (WHO), even as late as April 15, the 50th day of the epidemic in Greece, the number of cases had reached 2,192 and the number of deaths was only 102, while in Italy the number of cases was 41,035, with 3,407 deaths.

The Greek health system, which had been seriously debilitated by the 10-year economic crisis, caused the question “will Greece be the second Italy?” to be raised, since the Athens administration had cut 43% in healthcare spending during the recession, which lasted from 2009 to 2018.

However, despite its population of 11 million people, the number of cases seen so far in Greece is 2,900, and the number of those who have succumbed to the disease is around 170.

To compare, the number of cases detected in Belgium, whose population of nearly 11.5 million is slightly bigger than that of Greece, has exceeded 55 thousand and the number of deaths, as of today, is over 9,300.

Researchers and statisticians will probably note this period as one of the fewest deaths in the history of the country, since the use of motor vehicles in Greece has also sharply decreased in this period.

Regarding this success, we need to underline the decisive measures taken by the Greek government from the moment the crisis first emerged.

Athens’ response to crisis

It is of great importance to make quick decisions in crises, to implement these decisions in cooperation and coordination, while using the communication channels correctly and informing the public quickly and transparently.

The panic mood that quickly sets in during crisis periods does not take long before turning into a negative multiplier effect if it is not evaluated soundly and managed properly.

While the number of cases detected in the country was only 10 at the end of February, the government lost no time in halting all international land, sea and airline travels in line with the advice of its scientific committee and imposed a 14-day mandatory quarantine on those coming from abroad.

All kinds of education and tourism activities, concerts, festivals and religious ceremonies were suspended while restaurants, theaters and museums, which could cause the epidemic to spread in the country, were closed.

As a result of these measures, the first pandemic-related death occurred on March 12.

While many European countries closed their places of worship during this process, the Greek government took a more moderate attitude in this regard.

Although collective rituals have all been postponed to later dates, leaving churches open for individual prayers can be interpreted as being cognizant of the importance people attach to their religious feelings and seen as a motivational factor in combating the crisis.

The New Democracy government, led by Prime Minister Kryiakos Mitsotakis, who has been implementing strict measures in the regions where the cases are concentrated, has imposed curfews and been supported even by the opposition Syriza party since March 23. This decision is remarkable in that it was one of the earliest curfews in Europe.

The Ministry of Health, which has increased the intensive care bed capacity in the country by 70% in order to strengthen the health system since February, has also announced that 3,337 new healthcare personnel will be employed, and more will be recruited after that.

In order to prevent a decrease in the purchasing power of the people after the crisis, the government has announced a one-off package of 800 euros per person in the private sector, and 630 euros for freelance translators, architects and engineers.

In the second oldest population in Europe, while measures, such as pensions and unemployment allowances, paid leave for families whose children cannot go to school, have been ensured, social security and a number of tax payments have been delayed, and the creation of a subsidy package for debt interest has been delayed for a short period of time.

The government’s measures were reflected in public spending in April, at 2.6 billion euros.

This amount is more than 70 times higher than last year’s spending of around 35 million euros.

Looking at the general data, the budget deficit in the first quarter of the year was 1.138 billion euros, while this amount reached 6 billion euros in the same period of 2020.

The Greek people, who have historically resisted measures introduced top-down, still have difficulty in abiding by the smoking prohibitions introduced in the country many years ago, have continued their habit of smoking in closed spaces for a long time, largely listening to the calls.

Of course, the global panic created by the pandemic should be added to the picture, but also the famine experience of the country’s elderly population during World War II and beyond, and the increasing education levels among the younger generations thanks to the integration into the European Union.

Digital transformation and public opinion

While many public services that usually generate long queues in the country have been moved online with a digital transformation similar to that of Estonia, which realized the first cyber breakthrough of Europe, calls were made to inform the public through both traditional and digital media, urging them to stay home.

It can be said that these methods developed by the Ministry of Digital Governance for those who have to go out due to health reasons, for animal care, and for access to emergency services and medicine have facilitated the crisis management.

While the code numbers received through the 13033 SMS line regarding reasons for going out, forms that can be filled and signed online allow citizens to meet their basic needs during curfews and on the other hand enable public authorities to follow the density of the streets in real time.

As in every country, the use of digital surveillance technologies more frequently by governments in Greece is discussed with regards to privacy and individual freedoms as well as the risks in terms of personal data.

Although the collection of personal data in many areas, especially in health and education, causes controversy in terms of the purpose of use and transparency, some also view the crisis as a technological opportunity for the development of infrastructures required for cyber defense and cloud systems.

It can be said that the efforts of the Greek government to control the epidemic quickly by prioritizing public health have also won the citizens’ general approval.

According to the surveys, the rate of those who think that they have been properly informed about the coronavirus pandemic, the main symptoms of the disease, its spread and the risk groups is 87%.

It is seen that at the beginning of April, when the crisis was at its most intense and the frequency of transmission of the disease was at its peak, the Greek people supported the government’s measures and crisis management by 82%, while this rate was at the level of 75% in early May.

The “others” of the crisis: Refugees

Compared to the government’s response to the crisis and the measures it has taken to address the pandemic by protecting its citizens, the refugee policy implemented has been disappointing.

In March, the Greek administration, ignoring the humanitarian tragedy unfolding at its borders with ten thousand refugees trying to enter the country, intervened very harshly in the large group of refugees, and became the target of even the opposition Syriza Party due to the preventive measures it announced would be placed at the sea border.

One of the issues that should be emphasized is that Athens avoids moving refugees to the mainland and isolates them on the islands, and nearly 50,000 refugees in total remain vulnerable to the threat of epidemic.

Greek authorities, who placed their camps on the islands of Lesbos and Rhodes under quarantine after the first incident, especially the Ritsona refugee camp, are also criticized for the inadequate number of tests spared for the refugees.

While many human rights organizations, as well as the United Nations, have reported limited access to clean water and hygiene in the camps, Greece has not yet taken a remedial step in this regard.

With this reality in mind, it would not be too much to state that Greece, which prioritizes the security, health and economic wellbeing of its citizens, seems to regard the refugees as a group of “metoikos” (slaves), who could not participate in political and social life and did not even have the right to vote during the well-known Ancient democracy of Athens.

It remains still unclear when the government, which announced that it has stopped all asylum applications during the crisis, will open the doors of the country, and therefore of Europe, to refugees.

The fact that the European Union does not pass any legislation that will prevent violations and uphold law of asylum against governments such as Greece's, which considers refugees as non-existent, makes these countries insensitive to migration, and while putting the burden of the crisis on the shoulders of other countries, it also causes the values and human rights discourse of the Western world that it has advocated for decades to be questioned.

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