Greece’s international reputation was damaged during the European debt crisis that dominated the first half of the last decade. The country was widely seen as irresponsible, corrupt and inefficient; in fact, something of a hopeless case.
But the latest crisis to hit Europe and the world, COVID-19, has cast the Mediterranean country in a rather different light. Although Greece, along with most of its European partners, has seen a recent sharp increase in the number of infections, it fought the pandemic much more effectively than most other countries in the European Union. With fewer than 10,000 cases and 254 deaths (at the time of writing) out of a population of 11 million, Greece’s overall performance in curbing the spread of the disease has been impressive.
To find out the reasons for this relative success and whether it could improve the country’s economic situation, Marketplace revisited some of the Greek citizens who we met during the debt crisis.
“I think we enjoyed the confinement”
Among them, none had been a more scathing critic of Greek national character than actor and writer Yannis Sarakatsanis. At the height of his country’s financial woes, he co-produced a satirical show in Athens that ridiculed what he portrayed as Greek recklessness and indiscipline, a penchant for tax evasion and an unwillingness to face the consequences. tax.
And yet today even the sharp-eyed Mr. Sarakatsanis seems to have softened his point of view. In its handling of the pandemic, he said, Greece’s self-esteem has been restored somewhat.
“It is true that we felt proud,” he said. “We felt competent as a country for once in our lifetimes, and all of that boosted our confidence.”
However, the satirist Sarakatsanis does not stand up to a search of his compatriots.
“I think we enjoyed the lockdown because we didn’t go to work,” he said. “Because we have to rest, spend time with family and friends, watch movies and stuff like that. “
Early action and compliance
But he can’t deny Greece’s comparatively better performance in dealing with coronaviruses than many of its European partners, including its top financial critic Germany. Athens was proportionately five times more effective at limiting death rates than Berlin, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Why? The answer is simple, according to another of the characters met during the debt crisis, Christos Mavrou, commercial director of the department stores.
“The Greek government took action very early on compared to other countries,” he said. Carnivals and other large gatherings were banned as early as February before a single Greek death from the virus, and, Mavrou said, citizens eagerly complied with the lockdown and other restrictions because they found the government warning that the healthcare system might not cope with all too credible.
“They knew that the health system is very weak in Greece,” he said. “They knew they would have a hard time if they had to go to the hospital.”
Greece’s public healthcare system has been ravaged by years of austerity imposed by the International Monetary Fund and bailout conditions from the European Union.
Another reason citizens comply with government measures, Mavrou said, was very strict enforcement.
“You know, the Greeks are very poor,” he said. “And they don’t want to pay the fines!
With the second oldest population in Europe after Italy, Greece could so easily have become a COVID-19 disaster zone. Another reason why this has not been the case so far is cultural, said Athens-based psychiatrist Dimitris Papadimitriadis.
“You see, Greece is still a country where family matters a lot. Many generations stay under one roof, so the young are very protective of the old, ”he said. “They don’t want to put their grandparents in danger.
But Papadimitriadis, a public health expert, fears Greece is resting on its laurels, has let its guard against the virus slip a bit, which could explain the surge in infections in August.
“I think we were a bit relaxed after the initial success. We allowed tourists to enter the country without too much testing, just random testing, and that helped create the second peak, ”he said.
Few Greeks, however, will say that tourists should have been excluded from Greece altogether.
“We depend on tourism,” insisted Efi Panoutsakapoulou, bank employee. “We had to open the borders. It may have destroyed what we have achieved, but we cannot do without tourism. We make a living from tourism.
Tourism represents almost 20% of Greece’s gross domestic product and also provides a large part of the Panoutsakapoulou family’s income: Efi’s husband, Evan, is a pleasure yacht skipper. Thanks to the pandemic, their employment has been very uneven this year, and it has already left a big hole in their household budget. But Efi is not complaining. Today she feels nothing like the shame and stress she felt during the debt crisis, when Greece was an outcast in Europe.
“Now I know everyone has the same problem, it’s not stressful for me. We’re all in the same boat, she said.
For the first time in a decade, Panoutsakapoulou said she felt optimistic about Greece’s future.
And the publisher of books Costas Papadopoulos too.
When Marketplace first polled the patron of Dioptra editions in 2015 – when the economy was on the verge of total collapse – Papadopoulos was almost desperate, stunned and humbled by the chaos his country was sinking into at the time.
His mood is very different today.
“We can now look at ourselves in the mirror. Before, we couldn’t, ”he said.
While he accepts that tough times are ahead this fall and winter, he is more confident than ever that Greece will come out of it. He was comforted that the center-right government – in power for a year now – had taken such decisive action at the start of the pandemic, and its confidence in Greece and its institutions was restored.
“I think we trust the state a lot more than before. And I hope we won’t be very disappointed in the near future. But I have faith in Greece. There is a lot of potential here. I feel optimistic, yes, ”he said.
This optimism could be put to the test in the months to come. The IMF predicted that the Greek economy decrease by 10% this year, a larger annual decline than that observed during the debt crisis.