Mitsotakis so far so good with pandemic, but economy lurks ahead

Mitsotakis so far so good with pandemic, but economy lurks ahead

As of next Monday, May 4, Greece will enter the second phase of the government plan to combat the COVID-19 epidemic. After a prolonged period of curfews, quarantines and heavy fines, the deputy minister of Civil Protection, Nikos Hardalias - by now a familiar face due to his daily briefings and strict style - spoke about life after Monday with some kind of normality but under new rules:

“The more strictly we follow the rules in our new steps, the more confident we will be in preparing for the next ones. The more relaxed or irresponsible some people are about them, the closer we will be to putting the brakes on and even reintroducing new restrictions. This is non-negotiable, because human life is non-negotiable, the need to preserve public health is non-negotiable, our commitment to protect the Greek society to date is non-negotiable,” Hardalias proclaimed, reassuring the Greeks that the motto “no complacency, only vigilance” still stands and in case anybody doubted what will begin on Monday, it is, he said, “the beginning of a new phase in unchartered waters” with updated protocols, new structures, new tools and a new,  national structure, a new plan adapted to new data of a new everyday life.”

Admittedly, Greece has performed quite well during the coronavirus epidemic. COVID-19 struck Greece from both directions: From the West and from the East. As early as Feb. 26, the first cases appeared in Patras port with people who had travelled from Italy -already hit badly by the epidemic- were found to carry the virus. Almost at the same time, a group of Greek pilgrims who had visited Egypt and Jerusalem, were also found positive and infected a number of people in their environment.

Three months later, the total number of cases has reached 2,576 and the number of dead 139. A significant number, 577 people, has been discharged from hospitals after treatment.  The center-right government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis having gained a comfortable majority during last year’s July elections, feels now sure that its early response towards the epidemic prevented a human disaster and by keeping everybody at home, avoided the collapse of a national health system already depleted by a 10-year-long economic crisis and disastrous policies of compulsory contraction of the country’s public institutions ordered by its creditors.

However, despite the victorious tone of the Greek government, Greece was not a unique case of success in its own geographic region.  Among the 10 states in the Balkan peninsula, Greece is placed, after Romania and Serbia in terms of number of cases and deaths although in terms of population is among the among the most populous. But in this deadly account, the general picture of the Balkans is incomparably better than that of the rest of Europe.

If there is something that we learnt so far about the attitude of the people during the coronavirus pandemic is that it is a good period for leaders to boost their popularity. In times of crises, there is a spontaneous tendency of the people to unite under their leader against an enemy - albeit an invisible one - as COVID-19.

The Greek prime minister is lucky with his communication team. So far, they have designed a policy which has worked well: He won two elections, he appeared that he defeated the Turks in the “battle in Evros river” last February, and now he appears as a winner against the virus. Already three months into this latest battle, the Mitsotakis government appears to be in control of the problem having gathered an A-team of scientists and technocrats.  He has built a profile of a leader of all the Greeks. In order to avoid any blame for possible failures, instead of projecting himself at the front seat of the battle, he allows ministers and scientists to speak to the media. They have taken over the task of communicating to the people detailed information in daily long briefings, which by now has become a staple daily dish for the “incarcerated” Greek public. Surprisingly, he managed to impose very tough restrictive measures followed by heavy fines for violators without opposition by generally unruly Greeks. In his speech last Thursday announcing the new period of relaxed measures, he did not say a word about the economic impact of the epidemic and how he is going to help the people or businesses who are bearing the brunt of lockdown.

When you try to save lives, you can be sure that no political opponent can challenge you. So, Mitsotakis managed to keep all the political parties in opposition agreeing more or less with his policy. The main opposition party of leftist Syriza, which was in power until last summer, still under the shock and introspection of its electoral defeat, had no other choice but to adopt “a responsible stance.” However, Syriza is bracing itself for a tough confrontation over Mitsotakis’ lack of economic policies to compensate for the losses incurred by citizens and small businesses.

In spite of the warning tone of Mr. Hardalias, Greeks are seeing the week starting from Monday as a half-return to normality and freedom. But the relaxation of restrictions will also make people see the tough reality of unemployment and hardship. It will be interesting to see if the Mitsotakis government will be able to manage once again to convince the people that he can manage the economic crisis as well as he did with COVID-19.

Ariana Ferentinou, Economy,