The Achilles’ Curve: Greece’s Management of the Covid-19 Crisis
Greece handled the coronavirus crisis “so well, so far” according to CNN journalist Nic Robertson. The country’s strict lockdown ended on 5 May 2020, after fifty days with schools and non-essential businesses as well as many public spaces closed. As a result, Greece has been reporting an average of less than fifteen new Covid-19 cases per day since April 24. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has declared that the government is now working towards the next objective, which is being “open for business on July 1.” With twenty-three percent of its economy dependent on tourism (the country saw 27.2 million visitors in 2017), and a current contraction of around ten percent during the pandemic, Greece’s goal is clear: salvage as much of the summer tourism season as possible.
After having been portrayed in international media as the “punching bag of Europe,” during the Covid-19 pandemic, Greece has suddenly become the star student. But can it last? The country may have dodged the first bullet by avoiding an exponential spread of the coronavirus, but is now facing a second difficult challenge that could hazard the gains of the early lockdown. Imported cases from international travelers, combined with the difficulty of enforcing public health protocols on visitors and very low immunity levels in the population, could provoke a second and more dangerous wave of contagion. Staying safe while also opening up for tourist business seems to be an impossible bet, but after more than ten years of financial austerity and economic crisis the country cannot afford not to gamble.
Avoiding the Italian example
“I dare to use the word pride,” says Mitsotakis on CNN: “Greeks haven’t been proud in a long time, confidence in the state is restored.” Faced with this national success narrative, we should ask three questions: How did Greece succeed? Why did it take early and strict measures in the first place? And what does this mean for the future of the country? An accurate and complete analysis from an epidemiological or socio-economic point of view is not within my competence, nor within the scope of this article. Instead, I would like to focus here on the political and ideological aspects of crisis management in Greece and provide some reflections on the discourse that is produced by the Greek government as well as Greek and international media on the question. The explanation for Greece’s success has more to do with material and economic factors, than with what has been pictured in media as good will of Greek authorities and a general “trust in science.”
First, the economic risk that had to be taken because of lockdown could be counterbalanced by a firm commitment to “save the summer.” Greece’s leaders calculated that effective management of the virus could allow the country to qualify as a safe destination, and capitalize on this status to attract much-needed tourism. A strict lockdown in April and May would necessarily affect the economy, but the decision to implement it before the beginning of the tourist season was easier than it would have been during the summer during the peak of the tourist season. Shutting down industrial zones in Lombardy would mean paralyzing one of the most important Italian production sectors, something which explains the country’s early inaction and hesitation to take strict measures such as shutting down non-essential businesses.
Second, and most important, the government’s lockdown decision had to take into account the Achilles’ heel of any strategy of pandemic management: a weak healthcare system. The “Greek NHS,” Ethniko Systima Ygeias (ESY), ravaged by public debt reduction policies over the last decade, had only 565 ICU beds for 11 million inhabitants in February 2020. It would have been quickly overwhelmed if the coronavirus propagation curve could not be flattened. The example of Italy, which overestimated its capacity to cope with exponential spread, was enough to motivate the Mitsotakis government to start implementing strict quarantine measures as early as February. The contrast with the Italian disaster has become commonplace in Greek and international media, as well as in official statements by Greek ministries. What is less emphasized is that – in contrast to Italy, which had at its disposal 12.5 ICU beds and 8.3 ventilators per 100,000 inhabitants – Greece had no other option than a strategy of extreme prevention. “Reproducing the case of Italy” is probably an understatement of the dimensions and consequences that the epidemic would reach if not controlled before its exponential phase in Greece. In this sense, the Greek response may have had more in common with that of its less economically developed Balkan neighbors than with Italy or Spain.
Health within the rules of the market
The extreme fragility of the Greek healthcare system—partly due to austerity reforms, state funding cuts, and privatization policies operated by Mitsotakis himself while in office as Minister of Administrative Reform under the Samaras government (2013-2015)—is the most fundamental reason why early lockdown policies were inevitable in Greece. Media praise of the government’s successful management during the Covid-19 crisis helps elide the issue of the ESY’s decline. Unlike Emmanuel Macron, who admitted that France was not sufficiently prepared for the epidemic, and announced that from now on “some goods and services must be put outside the rules of the market,” Mitsotakis has not felt obliged to reaffirm healthcare as a social right as a result of the pandemic. On the contrary, the decisions and actions taken during the Covid-19 crisis seem to imply that the Greek government intends to continue implementing austerity policies in the health sector. The pandemic has not stopped the process of austerity and the injection of private interest and entrepreneurship into the healthcare sector, only slowed it down.
While Italy has intensified funding for its national health system (which already stood at nine percent of GDP), Greece has been reluctant to do the same. Of 3,748 announced health personnel recruitments, only 400 had been carried out in April. Instead, the Ministry of Public Health has preferred a policy of short-term collaborations with private doctors and emitting a broad call for volunteers to replace healthcare workers. Of the 450 new ICU beds that have been created, more than 250 belong to private clinics, which were not requisitioned, but allocated with state compensation. Collaboration with the state has become particularly profitable for the private healthcare sector during the epidemic, as the amount of the compensation paid from the state to clinics for the use of ICU beds has doubled from 800€ to 1,600€ per day. Finally, unable to renew the stock of masks, protective equipment and sanitizing products, the Ministry of Health has focused on “the effective management of the existing materials” and its reinforcement by “significant donations from large business groups and financial institutions as well as from third countries,” according to information published on the official government coronavirus website. When asked on May 6 if a maximum tariff would apply to face masks made compulsory in indoor spaces and transport under penalty of a 150€ fine, Adonis Georgiadis, the current Minister for Development and Investment, replied that “determining a maximum price would create market shortages and lead to the creation of a face mask black market […] We must allow the market to function.” In consequence, in the absence of political will for radical reforms and change of the austerity orientation, the ESY will continue to be the Achilles’ heel of Greek public health.
Between modern civic virtue and traditional care
The exception to the general financial austerity in the Covid-19 management seems to be the media, revealing the deep ties between media oligarchs and the Mitsotakis establishment. For the “Coronavirus communication and information campaign,” the head of the government press office, Stelios Petsas, announced a 20-million-euro grant to media outlets, without specified conditions. This sum is particularly astonishing given the low actual cost of the campaign. The ruling party Nea Demokratia is sealing the deal with pro-government media to create consensus, capitalizing on its pandemic management success. With the prospect of a national election in 2020 on the table, the opportunity to consolidate its popularity is especially valuable for the government. Nea Demokratia will need a second national election in order to proceed to a much desired change of the electoral system from proportional to majority-bonus, after having failed to obtain an absolute majority during the vote of a new electoral law in January 2020.
But even if national elections do not take place in the months to come, Mitsotakis and his cabinet will have successfully attempted to use the pandemic to establish the ideological domination of conservative right, crystallizing the defeat of the left agenda, and reinforcing traditional top-down power and governmentality models. The government has insisted on the idea that Greeks should take pride for the flattening of the coronavirus propagation curve, with quarantine portrayed as collective achievement, and the international media coverage of the Greek success as a restoration of national dignity, particularly in the eyes of other Europeans.
Government and media have mobilized different and often contradictory narratives during this pandemic, with two main leitmotifs: that of Greeks as modern disciplined individuals and that of Greeks as a traditional caring community. These two identities seem incompatible, especially given the fact that according to the collective imaginary representation, attachment to community is an identity element that Greeks consider as differentiating them from Western and Central Europeans who are perceived as modern, disciplined individuals. The capacity to act in organized solidarity within community, to create support structures within nuclear and extended family and the feeling of respect to the elderly are often related to traditional values, cultural intimacy, and patriarchy. All these are aspects of a representation of Greece as a southern, even oriental country with a long Ottoman past, resisting modernisation and putting community rules above law. In contrast, civic duty and discipline under state law are often associated in public discourse and the collective imaginary with modernity, European identity, and the idea of a Greece “belonging to the West.”
The state as benevolent parent
For very long these two representations functioned as opposite poles, for the right as well as the left, determining public political discourse of both sides, with the opposition culminating in national division between the Yes and No camps during the 2015 Referendum. However, Nea Demokratia appears to move past this opposition, attempting to establish a new ideological economy able to reconcile traditional sense of community and the idea of discipline under the state. The ideological key idea seems to be the notion of a paternalistic state supported by experts as the only rational agent, functioning as a benevolent parent and demanding discipline in exchange for protection.
Psychologist Arete Vergouli declared in an article largely diffused in Greek establishment media, including national paper Ta Nea:
The structure of Greek society and family is the common denominator of the compliance of the Greeks with the restrictive measures against the coronavirus …. The response of Greeks towards the measures, so far, is reasonable, if we consider that Greece is a patriarchal society, which believes in the hierarchy and respect for the ”elder”.… Greeks integrate since birth powerful family groups, the well-known soy [extended family], with very strong emotional bonds. In addition, the rate of social compliance combined with … applause for the government, for taking the necessary measures at the right moment, can be understood as an improvement of the state’s image towards the citizen, putting the state back in the role of the “benevolent parent,” as John Bowlby puts it, and can be interpreted as yet another interaction between archetypal figures and power.
Reading between the lines, we can distinguish the contour of an ideological discourse accompanying conservative and paternalist power exercise: according to Vergouli’s narrative, the most conservative and patriarchal reflexes of Greek society, associated with fear and stress, are the ones that were mobilized in the successful reaction to the coronavirus epidemic. Greeks are safer when they go down known paths and listen to the father figures “who know better.”
According to this scheme, individual responsibility cannot operate through the classic structures of legitimate interpellation of the citizen as accountable to the state; it must be mediated by discipline through fear and submission to traditional authority, as well as through an imaginary identification of the state with a patriarchal figure. This time however, the conservative power is handling an international health crisis, and must reinvent itself in order to integrate the role of experts. Hence the idea of a state that “knows better.” “The first thing that I did was to give the floor to our top epidemiologist”, explains Mitsotakis, referring to the virologist Sotiris Tsiodras who was later offered a Minister of Health chair that he declined. During the Covid-19 crisis, epidemiologists and virologists are stepping in and assuming a public and political role with daily presence in media, in order to inform the public, but also to legitimate the state discourse and action. In times of sanitary crisis, the face of the state be both that of the competent expert and the authoritarian father, as illustrated by the daily briefings of the Ministry of Health, represented by Tsiodras, and that of Public Order and Citizen Protection, represented by Vice-Minister Nikos Hardalias.
This risky negotiation between conservative identity and modern individual agency is an ideological construction that presents among others the side-effect of protecting the Greeks against left-wing populism and its dissident dreams. “People trust the state, they trust the experts.… We were the first country that experimented with populism. We actually elected the populists into power. And what did the populists tell us? Don’t listen to experts, they’ve got it all wrong, they are the elites and everything…” said Mitsotakis on CNN. Drawing its legitimacy from the role of medical experts in the Covid-19 crisis and extending it – in an almost imperceptible logical leap – to the economist technocrats of the 2011 financial crisis, the trust-the-state doctrine seals the ideological victory of Nea Dimokratia against the radical left, and paves the way to a more traditionally paternalistic, though still neoliberal model of power.
The question that arises is what form of political action could effectively contest this face of power, especially in a moment when the margin left for protest and dissent is shrinking each day under emergency regulations. In this light, the impressively-organized May 1st strikes, led by the Greek Communist Party – until recently an unpopular institution with a conservative reputation – and their important communicative effects suggest that old structures for action and organisation might make an unexpected comeback. Could this rise in traditional disciplinary power require a traditional disciplined resistance?
 On May 18, Bulgaria reported 110 deaths and 2,235 confirmed cases for a population of 7,360,000 (first case March 8th) and Serbia 230 deaths and 10,610 confirmed cases for a population of 7,186,862 (first case March 6th). With 163 deaths and 2834 confirmed cases since February 26 for a population of 10.72 million, Greece appears to be a greater success, but given Greece’s more developed healthcare system and similar rates of testing, the three countries’ responses are comparable.
 Among others, this idea has been expressed by Nikiforos Diamantouros, in his book Cultural Dualism and Political change in Post-Dictatorship Greece, and “Greek political culture in transformation: Historical origins, evolution, current trends,” in Clogg, R. (ed.) Greece in the 1980s. Interesting reflections on the link between public health and the tension between tradition and modernity in Greece can also be found in Yannis Hamilakis’s The Nation and its Ruins.
 For an analysis of this theme, see Anna Triandafyllidou’s “We belong to the West? Representations of Eastern and Western Europe in the Greek press and the positioning of the ‘We,’” in Kourvetaris, G., Roudometof, V., Koutsoukis, K. and Kourvetaris, A. (eds) The New Balkans. The idea according to which “Greeks are conservative altruists, their Others are modern individualists,” is very creatively laid out by Eliza Vellidi in her article “The invisible jacket” in Lifo magazine on the role of the Greek family and the representation of the caring parent in collective imagination during the Coronavirus epidemic in Greece.
Photo Credit: Aris Messinis (used with permission).