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Portrayed as one the world’s greatest success stories in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, Greece, the EU’s black sheep, flattened its curve and curbed the outbreak, against all odds. On 6 May it had recorded a total of 2,663 cases and 147 deaths. To put these numbers into perspective, Belgium, an EU member state with a comparable population, counted a total of 50,781 cases and 8,339 deaths by that day.
The measures implemented in Greece are not profoundly original. On the contrary, everyday life in Greece changed in the same manner as elsewhere in Europe. These changes, however, occurred right on time, with the strict enforcement of various restrictive measures created in response to day-to-day monitoring of the pandemic. Overall, the government showed quick reflexes and seriousness in responding to the matter. Some say that Greece got only lucky because the virus arrived in the country quite late, on 26 February. This might be true. But this is not what we should focus on. What’s important here is that Greek authorities followed experts’ advice, and demonstrated unprecedented alertness, responsiveness and seriousness on the matter, while also avoiding abuses to fundamental rights, such as the rule of law and protections for the country’s most vulnerable populations.
Measures taken and performance results
On the basis of recommendations provided by an ad-hoc scientific committee set up for the state of emergency and consisting of top epidemiologists, virologists and infectious disease experts, various preventive measures were taken to limit the spread of the disease. These measures included medical checks, the closure of certain public places, the suspension of artistic and sporting events, as well as the self-isolation of travellers coming from Wuhan, all of which were adopted before the rapid spread of the disease in Italy and the detection of the first case in Greece. One day after Greece’s first case was detected, carnival festivities scheduled for 29 February were cancelled. Furthermore, a decision was made to close all of Greece’s educational facilities on 10 March, only five days after a similar measure in Italy, when there were still only 89 confirmed cases and zero deaths associated with the coronavirus in Greece. Importantly, during the first wave of infections, each new case was meticulously traced.
Following the rapid growth of cases in Greece, which doubled within two days in early March, the government announced that retail businesses, hair and beauty salons, restaurants, cafes, bars, cinemas, theatres, gyms, museums, and other public places would be shut down as of 13 March, with the violation of this exceptional measure a criminal offence punishable with a fine of €5,000 and, in certain cases, with custodial sentences, as prescribed by Greek criminal code provisions on the prevention of the spread of infectious diseases. Hotels also closed on 19 March. At the same time, the “We stay at home” campaign, encouraging voluntary self-isolation and the avoidance of social interaction, was launched, travel to and from affected countries was restricted, and travellers from abroad were strongly advised to voluntarily self-isolate for 14 days. Remote working was encouraged and a special leave was mandated for parents of school-aged children. To support the economy, compensation was provided for employees of businesses whose operations were suspended and the rents of certain professional spaces were reduced. In addition, compulsory in-house isolation was imposed on residents of certain small communities where infected people were detected. What initially seemed to be “mission impossible”, a ban on religious gatherings and communions, also became a reality: services took place behind closed doors with solely priests present. Land borders were closed and air travel was suspended from and to several countries. Non-EU as well as UK, Italian, and Spanish citizens were not allowed to enter Greece outside of certain exceptions (such as for spouses, minor children, residents, members of government delegations, and passengers in transit).
The infamous “lockdown” was initiated on 23 March when Greece counted 629 confirmed cases and 15 deaths. The rationale behind this policy was based on the horizontal restriction of movement; movement was allowed at any time of the day but only for specific purposes and was subject to a “home exit” permit that citizens were granted by means of an official declaration or by sending a text/SMS message to the competent authority. Permitted movements were limited to essential work, getting food supplies, visiting doctors or pharmacies, attending ceremonies such as funerals or weddings, visiting children as divorced parents, assisting people in need, walking pets, and working out. Violations were punishable by a fine of €150, which doubled on the “trickier” days such as the Holy Week of Orthodox Easter and the 1st of May. Unlike limits and curfews based on different times of the day, the Greek lockdown instead focused on the purposes of movement and providing as much dispersal of citizens as possible. In response to long queues at supermarkets on the lockdown’s first day, opening hours were extended from 9am-9pm to 7am-10pm. This system, overall, worked well. The SMS service for exit permits also proved very handy. Private actors also contributed their share, as the market quickly self-regulated, with many stores launching e-shops and delivery options in no time.
Remote or suspended work, closed schools, good weather, the fear of contracting the virus in big agglomerations, and Easter customs drove a significant section of the population to travel to their holiday residences in the countryside. Responding to this trend, movements outside of citizens’ regions of residence were also banned.
The return to “normality” started with the gradual easement of the lockdown from 4 May. Most restrictions on movement have since been lifted, but travel limitations outside regions of residence still apply (islands, for instance, are still only accessible to their permanent residents). Retail stores, means of public transport, hair/beauty salons, and churches are reopening with special precautions, such as requirements for protective masks and appointments, and limitations on the number of people allowed per square meter. Classes for graduate students will also restart on 11 May. Hotels, restaurants, cafes, and malls generally open year-round will reopen on the 1st of June. Gyms, theatres and cinemas, universities, nursery and primary schools, and the borders will remain closed, air travel will be suspended, and social distancing will remain in force until further notice, perhaps until early June. The Greek government expects to “open” the country for tourism in July, according to the Greek premier. The plan for this gradual easement is not set in stone, however, and is still subject to the results of day-to-day monitoring. On 6 May, for example, the government decided to close a central plaza in a suburb of northern Athens (Aghia Paraskevi) after a big party was organised there a day before. At the same time, as there have been few new detected cases in the last days of April and beginning of May, contact tracing has been reinitiated.
Law & order
During the first month of the quarantine, the national police reported 51,777 lockdown violations and 1,134 instances of unnecessary travel outside districts of residence. 512 businesses were also found to be operating illegally. Penalties collected for these violations totalled to approximately €9.3 million. There is a twofold meaning of these relatively high numbers: on the one hand, that Greeks are not necessarily disciplined, and, on the other, that the authorities meant business! There were stringent police controls throughout the country, with police officers stationed at all major junctions in the cities, highway tolls, and pedestrian zones, checking cars as well as pedestrians. The police even deployed drones and manned helicopters, especially during the Holy Week and Easter, to keep an eye on the customary exodus to the countryside and the islands. Law enforcement officers did not even relent for the few “rebel” priests and churchgoers who defied restrictions; those who performed and attended open services were arrested and fined.
A legitimate deviation from fundamental rights: what about access to asylum?
Considering the unprecedented state of this public health emergency and COVID-19’s death rate and transmissibility, the balance clearly leans towards the protection of public health instead of towards other fundamental rights such as the right to private and family life, the freedom to manifest one’s religion and freedom of assembly.
From the early stages of measures being taken to counteract the virus, there was a great deal of discussion about religious rights. The exceptional measures coincided with two major festivals: Orthodox Easter and Muslim Ramadan. Orthodox Christianity is by far the predominant faith in Greece, with 90 percent of the population as adherents. Although the Greek Orthodox Church (eventually) backed restrictions on the attendance of services, a handful of clergy and worshipers reacted against the prohibitions, claiming their right to manifest their religion. Similarly, for the about 1 percent of Greeks who are Muslims, mostly from the Muslim minority in Western Thrace (northern Greece), and another 20,000-30,000 Muslims residing in Greece, prayers are allowed only at home.
Despite the strong reactions and debate they provoked, all restrictive measures affecting the general population fulfil the threshold of proportionality and can be legitimately justified for the protection of public health and human life.
Greece is a functioning democracy, in which disregarding the rule of law is not a common phenomenon. No police abuse has been reported despite strict enforcement measures, and the privacy and personal data of patients are duly protected. Nor were any cases of racism or discrimination noted, even when residents of Roma settlements tested positive for COVID-19. This was also the case when people in residence at the refugee camps of Ritsona and Malakasa as well as at a hotel in Kranidi hosting asylum seekers tested positive for the virus. Reassuring citizens with a rapid response, including thorough testing, sealing off respective sites, and supplying confined communities with necessary goods and medical treatment likely allayed public fears.
Even without considering popular phobias and discrimination, protecting the most vulnerable parts of the population, mainly asylum seekers living in (often) overcrowded “reception and identification centres” (RIC) is difficult. NGOs have repeatedly called on the need to decongest those camps which pose “a real threat to public health”, according to Médecins Sans Frontières. Precautionary measures, including taking temperatures, distributing information documents, and creating special health spaces inside the RICs, were introduced. Any new arrivals would self-isolate outside the RICs while movement of RIC residents outside their camps was restricted, in what is a justifiable deviation from the right to liberty. A special health insurance card is also now issued to all registered asylum-seekers, giving free access to the national healthcare system. On top of this, on 4 May, about 400 asylum seekers were relocated to mainland Greece in order to decongest camps on the isle of Lesbos. More should follow.
A big question relates to how people may effectively seek international protection. The UNHCR has warned that exceptional measures invoked to prevent the spread of COVID-19 may compromise asylum procedures. Even so, in a move criticised by the UN and humanitarian NGOs as lacking a legal basis, Greece has suspended all administrative asylum services requiring personal contact such as registrations, interviews, and appeal submissions, to name a few. Also, since the beginning of March, and not so much in relation to the spread of COVID-19 but more in order to respond to Turkey’s permitting of thousands of migrants to cross the Greek border, Greece has bolstered its border force to deter migrants from attempting to cross. This strategy continued and was further strengthened in the context of the current public health crisis, in an attempt to contain the influx of undocumented migrants. Greece has recently adopted a dogma of “aggressive surveillance” and deterrence in this regard, and, according to Greek police, only 39 migrants have crossed the sea border since the 1st of April.
“It’s the economy, stupid”
Greece, which was about to emerge from a 12-year-long financial crisis, now faces the risk of a post-COVID-19 recession. Considering the risk of recession worldwide even for solid economies, a weakened Greece faces an even bigger threat. Greece locked down relatively early, and the measures taken so far have paralysed its fragile economy, with a potential downturn of about 10 percent of GDP. The Greek government has explained that the strict and early measures it took were a conscious decision to put public health over financial concerns. But was this really the case or was it rather an effort to salvage the economy?
Greece’s economy is largely dependent on tourism, the sector representing about 25 percent of the country’s GDP and employment. In 2019, revenues from tourism were €18 billion. The Greek Chamber of Commerce has announced that already in April the loss of profit from cancelled reservations had surpassed €0.5 billion. Greece, therefore, is promoting tourism by presenting itself as “coronavirus-free”. To reinforce good results so far, the previously mentioned, ad-hoc COVID-19 scientific committee is working on creating health requirements for visitors and the tourism industry, including regular testing of hotel staff, and strict cleaning and disinfecting procedures. The government is also considering concluding bilateral agreements with other good performers such as Israel, Cyprus, Austria, and Serbia to ensure that their citizens can travel to and from Greece, or to potentially allow the entry of travellers with “immunity passports” if implemented.
As with any prosocial behaviour, one is forced to wonder about Greece’s motives in so effectively curtailing the spread of COVID-19 within its borders. Has it been to save lives or to save the economy? And is regaining the country’s prestige a prime purpose? At the end of the day who knows. Maybe it’s a mix of all the above. Regardless of the motives, what really matters is that policy taken so far, aside from some minor hitches, has been serious and fruitful, protecting human lives without disproportionately compromising fundamental rights.