Greece is managing the corona virus emergency, better than the EU average. Amidst a global pandemic with thousands of victims in neighbouring Italy and Spain, statistics show that the curve in Greece is so far flat and the number of deaths remains low (81 as of 8/4/20). The health system that has suffered significant cuts in personnel, infrastructure and equipment during the 10-years financial crisis seems to be coping. The notoriously slow and inefficient public administration is speeding up and new e-services have been put in place within weeks. The people by large are following government advice and the opposition by large offers constructive criticism and supports the government’s fight against COVID-19. No, the country has not been transformed overnight. Rather, Greece has just emerged from a crisis and seems to have build resilience and a stoicism over the inevitability of crisis. On top of it, its leadership is competent and takes the right decisions at the right time.
What we have been observing in the last few weeks is a predominance of evidence-based policy making rather than incrementalism and ‘muddling-through’. At the beginning of February, a National Experts Committee on Public Health was put into place and Professor of Pathology and Infectious Disease, S. Tsiordas became the spokesperson of the Ministry of Health for COVID-19. Since then the government is following the advice of the committee reverently. A preventive strategy to tackle the pandemia was immediately designed. It was decided to close-down schools and universities and ban large social gatherings within days and before even recording one death attributed to COVID-19. Since then measures have been scaling-up, while sometimes even stricter measures have been taken at the local level, such as closing down beaches and public spaces where a concentration of people was observed.
Equally importantly, there has been a clear and steady message coming from the government and the Prime Minister himself, that this is an emergency and that the priority is to save human lives. The economy is the next most important issue to deal with, but it has been clear that it comes second and after the key goal which is to keep the curve of the infection low. The press conference held every evening at 6pm led by Professor Tsiordas has become a must see for the average Greek household. He starts by reporting on the spread of the virus and explaining the scientific evidence, followed by N. Chardalias, Undersecretary of Civil Protection and Crisis Management who announces the new measures. A clear link between evidence and policy is made and any fake news or misinformation that has appeared in the media is tackled on the spot.
The public institutions response has been equally impressive and unexpected. The Mitsotakis’ government had announced after the elections that e-governance was a priority, but this was not the first time that a Greek government was announcing its commitment to e-governance. To the surprise of all, a new comprehensive portal (govgr) was launched on the 26th of March offering services such as on-line prescriptions and other e-services for which citizens would traditionally have to queue up and congregate in conditions which would facilitate the spread of the virus. Universities and schools started offering classes on-line within days and a number of helplines were put into place at a lightening speed. What seems to be happening is that the hugely underestimated and undervalued public sector has reflexes and under the strict guidance of decisive Ministers is delivering. The feeling of emergency and the “life or death” perception of the COVID-19 threat has brought results which could not have been achieved in normal times.
The Greek government is facing a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is that the economic crisis linked to the pandemia and the subsequent lock down will be so big that it won’t be possible to tackle it without a European solution. The economic crisis is symmetric and exogenous although member-states will experience it at different levels. At the same time this is a global crisis. The predictions are worsening every day and negotiations at the EU level are ongoing. Although important steps have been made mainly by the ECB, the Eurogroup has not managed to reach an agreement yet. The government has started taking measures in the right direction for the protection of businesses and people that have been immediately hit, but more will be needed. In brief, the government will be very shortly facing a different crisis and will need different instruments and alliances to the ones in place today for the fight against COVID-19.
The opportunity is that the Greek government, for the first time in decades has managed to gain the trust of the people and to unite them against an unknown and invisible enemy by using evidence-based policy making. Even more importantly, there is a growing and unique feeling of trust towards institutions and public services such as the Ministry of Health, educational institutions and even the police force. There is also an understanding that when a threat is that great the public and private sector need to co-operate and share the burden. There is a feeling of security and optimism among the population that this time Greece is not the weakest link in the EU chain. This could all work in the advantage of the government if it manages to win the war against COVID-19 and not only the first battles. It will need this shored up trust and confidence to then tackle the looming economic crisis.