Why Greece’s ‘Lives Matter’ approach has more traction

Why Greece’s ‘Lives Matter’ approach has more traction

As Greece takes its first baby steps towards re-opening its economy and welcoming a new stream of summer tourists, the mantra of “lives matter” is clearly guiding its public policy, observes Dr. Constantine Passaris of the University of New Brunswick. It is defining a new normal, grounded in scientific evidence, that has the health and well-being of its local population, as well as of its visitors as its paramount objective. From whipping child to comeback kid, Greece has demonstrated its propensity to rebound when the chips are down.

Greece became the whipping child of Europe in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008. As the contagion effect of the financial crisis reached the Greek shores, it devastated its national economy. In the subsequent years, the world’s attention was focused on Greece as its economy was on its death bed. Indeed, international headlines started to appear in 2010 that focused on the imminent collapse of the Greek economy, widespread business bankruptcies, soaring unemployment, mounting public debt and attempts to force Greece out of the European Monetary Union with its singular Euro currency.

Fast forward to 2020 and the international headlines tell a very different story. Greece, a country of about 11 million people, is now being raised on a pedestal and held up as a role model for its success at effectively containing the COVID-19 global pandemic.  By all accounts, it has regained its stature and self-respect among the community of European nations. With about 160 deaths from this deadly virus, it has recorded one of the lowest casualties on the European continent.

This feat is even more remarkable when we consider Greece’s geographical vulnerability. This is an age when national borders are no match for globalization. Indeed, the global pandemic has overpowered and outsmarted the false sense of security that was perceived to rest behind a country’s borders.

The modern border is porous and surmountable. It is not an effective deterrent for any undesirable external political, social, biological or economic consequences. In effect, the old days when borders served as a deterrent from entry from any kind of foreign intrusion are behind us. Today’s borders are purely symbolic and simply serve as a geographic marker.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 global pandemic Greece was confronted with a very precarious geographical situation. Greece is nestled between Italy and Turkey, two countries that developed an extremely high infection rate from the coronavirus. Greece is also the destination of choice for entry to the European Union (EU) of thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Asia.

In consequence, Greece would have been exposed to significant adverse consequences from a potential wave of coronavirus infections that would have devastated its population, overwhelmed its national health care system and inflicted significant economic pain to its slowly recovering national economy.

An early and strict national lockdown in Greece inspired by the devastating developments in this country’s western neighbour, Italy and the rapid spread of the coronavirus infections among its eastern neighbour, Turkey prevented this virulent virus from infiltrating and ransacking the health and wellbeing of the Greek population.

In my opinion, the Greek response to the advent of the COVID-19 global pandemic on its shores was guided by five interloping forces. First, Greece acted quickly and decisively. Second, the Greek response was focused, proactive and pre-emptive. Third, Greece implemented extreme preventive measures despite knowing they would be unpopular with the public. Fourth, it enforced these preventive measures diligently and forcefully. Fifth, it strengthened its national health care system and ensured an adequate inventory of medical supplies and equipment.

More precisely, Greece immediately closed its schools, universities, cafes, restaurants, hotels, libraries, museums and banned large gatherings. Hefty fines were levied on people and businesses that did not comply with the new rules.

These measures were put in place even before the first death attributed to COVID-19 was recorded.   Furthermore, Greece implemented a strict “stay home” containment policy and imposed a comprehensive national lockdown. Everyone in the country was confined to their home and were required to notify the government each time they left their homes; even for walking their dog.

Furthermore, Greece closed its borders to all non-EU nationals and EU nationals were strongly advised to remain in voluntary quarantine for 14 days.  It suspended all flights to and from the country, banned road travel with neighbouring countries, suspended sea routes and no cruise ships or private pleasure craft were permitted to dock at Greek ports.

Medical experts agree that Greece’s decision to quickly enforce social distancing measures and strengthen its ailing health care system helped curb the coronavirus pandemic. This meant an immediate increase in its intensive care beds by more than 70% and the hiring of more than 3,000 additional hospital staff and doctors. This was an extraordinary feat given the attrition to the health care budget which exceeded 60% during the years of the Greek economic crisis.

It is, therefore, no surprise that Greece is touted as a role model for handling this devastating biological tsunami.  It made a deliberate decision despite its precarious economy that human lives mattered. They erred on the side of caution and preferred to incur a significant financial sacrifice rather than sacrifice human life.

I believe that an overarching driver of the success of the Greek pandemic playbook was the paramount focus on saving human lives. In executing this objective Greece recognized that politicians should take a back seat to the medical experts and epidemiologists.

Decisions regarding the appropriate Greek response to this unfolding pandemic were made by science and the medical experts. They relied on scientific evidence which informed public policy. In order to avoid political grandstanding, a national experts committee on public health was established and the Greek Ministry of Health appointed an Australian born Greek professor of pathology and infectious disease at the University of Athens as its COVID-19 spokesperson.

As Greece takes its first baby steps towards re-opening its economy and welcoming a new stream of summer tourists, the mantra of “lives matter” is clearly guiding its public policy. It is defining a new normal that is grounded in scientific evidence and has as its destination that the health and well-being of its local population, as well as the visitors to this country, is a paramount objective.

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