What the Greeks have taught us

Iconic Greece – Source: Hans Reniers

Remember the early part of the year when we first became aware of the spread of the virus? We watched as it went from China on to cruise ships then off to Italy and Spain, and around the world. I used to check the virus’ progress on https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/ –  there’s a table showing total cases and deaths by country and then per million of population. Of course, you look at your own country first and there was a certain inevitability about the UK’s remorseless climb up the table to where it is now: behind only Andorra, Spain and Belgium amongst European countries in deaths per million of population.

There are lots of valid arguments against these types of comparisons. How are deaths recorded? What about relative population density – are people stuck in cramped housing where transmission is hard to control? Is there is an international hub airport to ease the introduction of the virus? Excess deaths over the average of the last five years eliminates many of these differences, but even then, you are left with a feeling that countries might be massaging their recorded number of deaths so they don’t look too bad.

What you can do without worrying about the finer details is pick up indications of how well countries have handled the pandemic. Of course, you look at those countries you know best, and in the spring I scanned the table each morning with a sense of dread: how was Greece doing? And each day it was a relief to discover that Greece was doing quite well; its deaths were very low and even now are under 400. That’s not a daily or weekly number; it’s the total deaths over the whole time since we first saw those grainy tv pictures from Wuhan of people in face masks. Let this sink in: Greece has had less than 1% of the number of Covid-19 deaths we’ve suffered in the UK.

This isn’t Germany or South Korea, bywords for efficiency and effectiveness. It’s Greece, the country that nearly imploded in the years after the financial crash of 2008. Greece needed billions of euros bailout then and it came at a heavy price.  Surely Greece didn’t have the health system to cope with what 2020 was throwing at it?

Strict monetary and fiscal rules were imposed as a condition of the bailout with the inevitable accompanying austerity. The impact on the health system was severe. Greece suffered a 50 percent reduction in its health budget, 40 percent reduction in hospital spending, closing of neighbourhood and municipal clinics and laying off of public health workers. Pensions were cut significantly, limiting the amount of money available for healthcare spending among elderly citizens; slashed pension entitlements to professionals (including physicians) and a lack of public investment led to a brain-drain that further hit Greece’s public health system.

So, Greece wasn’t in the greatest position to cope with a global virus for which there is no known vaccine. And yet they have coped better than most and there are lessons for us all in what they did.

How did Greece do it?

Firstly, Greece really did follow the science and not the politics and spin that has been the hallmark of the UK government in the last six months.  Early on, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis appointed Dr Sotiris Tsiodras as the head of the Health Ministry’s committee of experts on contagious diseases. Dr Tsiodra, described by the New York Times as one of the “Heroes of the Coronavirus Era”,  asked for strict lockdown measures as soon as the first cases were reported in Italy, and he got them, including a proper curfew – none of the feeble references to “great personal freedoms” we’ve seen here.

Secondly, Greece acted fast. In March 2020 the UK continued to hold mass gatherings of people to watch horse races in Cheltenham,  football in Liverpool and a Stereophonics concert in Cardiff. The previous month, Greece began cancelling large gatherings, including carnival celebrations on 20 February, at a time when the country had only three identified coronavirus cases.

This speed of actions was best demonstrated in the closure of Greek borders. From 18 March 2020, Greece closed its borders to non-EU nationals, while Aegean Airways suspending all flights abroad from 26 March. By way of contrast, people were still coming into the UK right up to May – my brother returned from Singapore that month and went through Heathrow unchecked.

Thirdly, Greece enforced penalties for non-compliance with lockdown rules in a consistent way. €150 fines were given to individuals who did not follow lockdown measures imposed on 23 March, with millions of euros of fines collected. Quite different in the UK, where the infamous eye test trip to Barnard Castle in the middle of April was regarded by the police as possibly “a minor breach of the regulations”.

Fourthly, Greece’s leaders have worked together with consistent and clear messaging. The country’s government has been transparent throughout in communicating plans and procedures, increasing the public’s trust. In contrast, fragmented decision making has produced a confusion of rules and differences in each of the home nations – often what Nicola Sturgeon says will apply in Scotland is followed a few days later by something similar being announced in the rest of the UK. 

And in Britain?

Whatever is said, the British public just don’t trust the government not to make another U-turn once the flaws in a half-baked policy are pointed out. Even worse the government doesn’t even know the detail in its own ever-changing regulations. We’re over half a year into this and still Boris Johnson has to apologise and claim he “misspoke” when asked to clarify details of new tighter coronavirus restrictions in north-east England.

Genuinely following the science, acting fast, being tough, consistent, clear and unified – all these attributes have contributed to Greece’s low death rate. Boris Johnson often makes a great show of his classical Greek education; what a shame he hasn’t learnt from the modern Greeks too – that might have saved some lives.

Guy Maughfling lives in Cheltenham