There was an eerie feeling around college towards the end of Hilary. Nothing had changed yet: pubs and nightclubs were still open and the geography department was confident that the overseas field trip in the first week of Trinity would go ahead. Yet rumours were trickling in that we wouldn’t return next term.
With this backdrop, on the Saturday of 8th week, I was in Gloucester Green, talking to the owner of one of the Greek food stands about how different it was in Greece. With 190 cases at the time, Greece had announced the closure of all restaurants and shopping malls. As for Gloucester Green, they had heard no news of any changes.
That evening, my flight to Greece was full of Greek people, returning home like me, many wearing respirator masks. Clearly, they were taking it more seriously than those at Oxford. A few of those I spoke to were horrified that the British government was taking the idea of herd immunity seriously at the time.
Within a day of returning, non-essential shops were ordered shut, and within a week, there was a full lockdown. ID and a ‘exit approval form’ was required to leave the house or an SMS had to be sent to the authorities with one’s address and reason for exit, which had to be either essential or for exercise.
Remarkably, the lockdown was very effective. A cursory look at the Athens traffic would show that in Greece, the law is not always followed or enforced, but this was not the case for the lockdown, which was enforced proactively by the police who conducted regular checks, with a 150 euro fine for violation. With shops, schools and offices shut, Athens was a changed city. City squares and commercial districts were empty, pavements which would have been filled with tables from cafes remained bare, and the Acropolis looked over an Athens devoid of tourists. In residential areas, helped by the fact that exercise could be taken with up to one member outside of the household provided social distancing was maintained, life returned to the streets. In the evening, the streets were filled with families and pairs of socially-distanced friends of all ages on walks, armed with takeaway coffees. Novice cyclists clumsily manoeuvred their way around them, while the rare car had to contend with moving at a snail’s pace, as the streets were reclaimed by the pedestrians.
On 14th April, around the time the UK was at its peak in terms of COVID-19 cases, Greece recorded 25 new infections, with its response receiving international attention soon after. Subsequently, with the number of daily new infections exceeding 30 on only three days in the last two weeks of April, the lockdown was eased on 4th May, with restrictions of movement lifted and shops reopened. At that stage, Greece had recorded a total of 2,632 cases and 146 deaths, figures which were topped on a daily basis in the UK.
Yet in a country which has often lacked political leadership, many Greeks would have been excused for thinking that Greece would trace a path more similar to Italy. However, the response led by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, was in stark contrast to many other European nations. Acutely aware that Greece’s capacity of 650 ICU beds would be overwhelmed if the disease were allowed to spread, his response was swift, effective, transparent and proportionate. There was no beating about the bush – the lockdown came less than 24 hours after a warm weekend which saw many flock to the beach with everything else closed. Although at times, it felt as if the laws were changing by the day, changes were clearly communicated through daily televised coronavirus briefings.
As Greece emerged from lockdown, fears of a rise in cases were dispelled. Throughout May, daily new cases exceeded 21 only once, with half of the days in single figures. On 25th May, restaurants and cafes reopened, albeit with reduced capacity, as Greece geared up for normality, and more importantly, for the tourist season which the Greek economy is heavily reliant upon.
So what led to Gkikas Magiorkinis, a professor of infectious disease at Athens University, declaring that Greece had “formally” entered the second wave of COVID-19 on 10th August, and the country recording 254 new infections four days later? From mid-March, Greece had strict entry requirements, with all arrivals tested and having to quarantine for 14 days. Without the fear of imported cases, Greece had been able to safely reopen the economy, and to resume social life. Greeks were enjoying meals and drinks out with family and friends without social distancing. By July many people I spoke to had become used to a new normal: with masks but without a tangible threat of Covid-19.
From the end of July, Greece saw a steady rise in cases, primarily in the two largest cities of Athens and Thessaloniki, but also on many islands which had previously been COVID-free. Initially, this could be attributed to the loosening of border restrictions in July to allow tourists in, but most transmissions are now domestic. Complacent may not be the right word, but many Greeks had become used to the largely Covid-free society of June and July, when socialising had returned to the pre-pandemic normal. As many travelled to the islands and to ancestral villages for the summer, the Greek government was, and continues to be, reluctant to implement social-distancing measures.
To combat the recent increase in the infection rate, localised measures have been implemented, for example, requiring bars to close by midnight and a ban on gatherings of more than nine people. Whether these will have an impact is yet to be seen. Crucially, there don’t appear to be any regulations mandating social distancing between members of different households. It remains to be seen whether Greece has squandered its early success in dealing with the pandemic. There is the suspicion that Greece is simply holding out until the end of the tourist season, when stricter measures would be implemented. But with cases rising throughout Europe, Greece faces an uncertain future. Having not had a first wave in the manner of other western and southern European nations, it may be in for a reckoning.
As I prepare to return to Britain, I hope otherwise.