Pandemic makes Greek government face hard choices

Pandemic makes Greek government face hard choices

While Turkey is preparing to once again close itself in yet another package of restrictive measures against an increasingly alarming number of COVID-19 cases, Greece has decided to do the opposite. It has decided to start easing restrictions that had effectively locked down the country since last November. Announcing the new measures, which would allow small retail shops to open, the responsible Greek minister underlined that the government decision would relieve people under “house arrest” for longer than they could stay. The announcement of the responsible minister reflected the concern of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ government that the society was getting dangerously uneasy: “Following the advice of the scientific committee, the government has decided to proceed with adjustments to the existing measures in order to have better results on every level; health, social and economic.” Note the last two.

A Greek friend of mine who regularly updates me on what is the mood in Athens has been quite uneasy lately about the general mood of the people. He noticed, for instance, that on his last birthday, an unusual number of people called him for best wishes -- people who had not contacted him for years, even from his childhood. All of them were unhappy, afraid and very frustrated due to the impact of the pandemic on their lives. They were even more frustrated and angry with the way the pandemic was being managed by the government. My friend was puzzled, wondering how it was possible that amid such conditions, all the opinion polls are showing such a consistently high rating both for the government and the prime minister.

My friend is not alone in doubting the figures that show a comforting lead for the Greek government, although after a year of contradicting policies in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a high number of fatalities and exposed an asphyxiated national health service which Mitsotakis’ liberal government would really like to trim down to basics. Intubated patients struck by the coronavirus are now being kept in ordinary wards as intensive care units are overflowing. The coronavirus-related deaths have just passed the eight thousand mark, which might not be so high compared to countries like Portugal with a similar population. But this was recorded during the last few months, representing a more serious picture because people were still under strict measures restricting movement.

During the last month, extreme frustration of seeing the situation getting worse instead of better brought the people to the streets. Prompted by opposition parties, especially the main opposition, people started gathering in squares as an open challenge to the government policies or as a show of extreme psychological fatigue of a locked-in life.

Though treatment of those “undisciplined citizens” displayed by the police did not help calm down citizens, especially in urban centers. After five months with shops, restaurants and schools closed, people saw in desperation that the numbers were increasing. From 2,500 COVID-19 cases and 30 dead in last November, Greek authorities announced yesterday 4,500 cases, 750 intubated patients (plus 150 but not in intensive care units), and over 70 dead.

However, besides human, there is also a political cost which has to be considered. So, it was at this particular moment that the Greek government decided to announce an “adjustment” of restrictions, letting small retail shops open but keeping large malls closed, allowing only a limited number of customers, allowing the schools to open later on in April and increasing the number of tests.

At the same time, in a predictable way, Prime Minister Mitsotakis announced a huge economic package of 58 reforms for the utilization of 32 billion euros provided by the European Recovery Fund, which he promised to invest in dozens of new projects to create thousands of jobs. The opposition is highly skeptical; they think that the government is looking for ways to mitigate the damage done to its image by its mishandling of the pandemic.

The Greek government is taking a risk in starting to relax the anti-COVID measures when the figures are really alarming. But on the other hand, it cannot risk a drop in its popularity at any cost. And let us not forget that April is an important month for the relations between Turkey and Greece, with the first meeting of foreign ministers of the two countries, followed perhaps by the two leaders. Mitsotakis needs to keep his popularity high in order to handle all kinds of adversities as well as any opposing domestic voices to his ongoing talks with the Turks.

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