In Greece, the government prepares for a crisis that is beyond its capacity to handle

Syntagma square coronavirus COVID-19 Athens Greece mask hazmat

  • Greece goes into complete coronavirus lockdown today. All public places are closed and citizens cannot leave their houses without signing a legal form stating their purpose.
  • Even the anarchists have stopped fighting the police.
  • Greece is home to hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of whom have no access to medical care.
  • It’s a disaster waiting to happen — and the government seems to be aware it will not be able to cope.
  • Mitch Prothero, Insider’s correspondent in Athens, tells us what it’s like.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Today, Greece awoke to the most stringent coronavirus lockdown it has seen thus far, with all travel outside the home restricted, unless you are working in essential services or making quick trips to buy food or medicine. 

Greeks now require a government-issued “Certificate of Citizens’ Movement”  — which can be printed from the internet — to show police if you are caught outside your house. The document only allows outside travel for six reasons:

  1. Going to the local pharmacy or visiting your doctor …
  2. Going to an operating store supplying basic necessities (supermarket, mini market) …
  3. Going to the bank …
  4. Moving in order to assist people in need;
  5. Attending a service (e.g. funeral, wedding, christening) in accordance with the legal provisions in force, …
  6. Working out in a public place or walking your pet, individually or in groups of two, in which latter case a distance of 1.5 meters must be kept.

There is a complete ban on large gatherings. Police are enforcing the curfew with helicopters and military drones.

Greece coronavirus

The interior ministry is publicizing the ban with emergency messages on your phone, via the civil defense system. The incoming messages are more intrusive than texts. Each one makes a loud noise and takes over the entire screen of your device. “Stay home, stay safe,” they advise.

The government is convinced that the disaster will exceed its capability to manage

Greece shut down its parks, cafes, and schools on March 11.

After a decade-long financial crisis that shrunk the country’s GDP by 25% — akin to the Great Depression in the US — the local infrastructure will be badly tested by any outbreak, let alone the numbers currently seen in Spain and neighboring Italy. We have some of the lowest rates of per-capita testing outside of the United States.

The Greek government appears convinced that the disaster will exceed its capability to manage. The official numbers right now are low: Just 17 deaths and 624 cases have been declared.

But officials are acting as if the numbers are high, which suggests they’re more afraid of what is coming than what has already happened so far. The government drafted 2,000 doctors and nurses to new government contracts — far in excess of the number of current patients. It’s not clear how many ICU beds Athens has in total, but most people here estimate around 500. It won’t be enough if the lockdown fails. 

Greece was facing a number of simultaneous crises even before the arrival of COVID-19

For the last five years, Greece’s public health system has been unimaginably stretched by an ongoing influx of refugees from Syria and the war-torn Middle East. About 150,600 displaced persons now call Greece home, living in dystopian camps on the mainland and some of the islands.

The islands are already on the brink of collapse. Lesvos, for instance, hosts a refugee camp named Moria which was originally designed to temporarily house 3,000 people. Yet tens of thousands have been crammed into it, for years-long periods.

Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece

The locals are furious at the Greek government’s agreement with the EU to prevent refugees from leaving the islands after they arrive via boat from Turkey, on their long journey north.

Last month, locals took over much of their island, blocking refugee boats from docking on the island, and attacking NGO workers and journalists. Riot police were sent by ferry from Athens to bring the chaos under control. 

The Turkish government has deliberately inflamed the situation. In an effort to bully the EU into supporting Turkey in its clashes with Syria and Russia, the Turks sent tens of thousands more refugees towards the border with Greece. Greek police clashed repeatedly with refugees and Turkish border guards. Vigilante groups of local residents formed militias to hunt down any refugees who got through.

The refugee camps will be perfect breeding grounds for coronavirus

In the last couple of weeks, however, silence has descended between the islands and Athens. Did the tensions suddenly stop amid the COVID crisis? I doubt anyone has any idea because news from the islands and the camps has now become a trickle: Journalists can’t leave their homes to report in Athens, let alone Lesvos or Moria. Access to the camps, and to a large extent the islands themselves, has been halted for virtually everyone. There is a sinking sense of impending doom for the people stuck inside them — they lack basic amenities such as running or water or electricity, let alone medicine.

I spoke with a Greek doctor who has volunteered in camps around the country, including Moria. He fears the absolute worst. 

Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece

“It was a public health crisis for the residents of the camps, not just in Moria but all of them, of the highest magnitude BEFORE the arrival of COVID,” said the doctor, who asked to only be identified as Panos, for fears of being targeted by right-wing groups for treating refugees. “As this hits the broader Greek society there’s not going to be enough resources to save citizens let alone refugees. I’m not sure any of us can imagine how horrible this will be once the virus starts tearing through those communities. And as it does, there will simply not be any help.”

The brutal irony, Panos explained, is that the chances are good that the arrival on the islands of riot police and right-wing activists, including MEP’s from various anti-immigration parties around Europe, probably spread the virus.

“The crisis in February and March almost certainly moved COVID into communities that would have been much easier to protect because they’re isolated in the Aegean,” said Panos. “Now the benefit of that isolation has been largely lost and replaced with a dangerous isolation that will make it increasingly impossible to get people to proper facilities for treatment as the system begins to collapse under the weight of the cases just on the mainland.”

A series of raids by riot police

In Athens, my apartment is in the center of two neighborhoods dominated by hard left and anarchist groups who regularly engage in running street battles with the police. The activists throw bricks and the occasional Molotov cocktail, and the cops shoot tear gas and rubber bullets back.

Things have become quite grim. It’s a strongly pro-refugee and migrant area that had been housing hundreds of families without government assistance for years — until a series of raids by the widely disliked Athens riot police, known by their Greek acronym MAT, this summer and fall. Unlike regular Athens police officers, the MAT specialises in quelling unrest, often through violence of its own.

Greece Turkey Pazarkule border crossing

The anarchist squats — which had provided free housing, food and even health care to hundreds of refugees — were raided and shut, and the families inside them either made homeless or sent to closed camps around the country.

“I think the closure of the squats could lead to additional spreads of infections,” said Panos. “They were housed, organized under the anarchists, now they’re on the street hiding from the authorities or jammed into much worse camps and situations. The government couldn’t have known this was coming but I will never understand the decision to take care away from volunteers and drop it on an already stressed, apathetic state.”

Greeks have fled the city for their family villages

In the areas around my apartment — it’s nearly impossible to draw broader conclusions in this most local of crisis — the streets were mostly deserted before the Monday morning curfew was announced. Tourists stopped booking AirBnB’s in private homes. Greeks either stayed home or fled the city for the perceived safety of their ancestral villages. And with an economy more dependent on tourism — that is not going to happen in 2020 — than any other country in the EU, the post health crisis is likely to be exceeded by the unavoidable economic crisis that will follow.

I asked my local pub owner why the sudden crackdown had worked so well, in light of the Greek tendency to ignore the government. He told me it was to do with the ban on smoking in restaurants and bars. For years, cafes have ignored the ban. But now the government is enforcing it, to put some teeth into the curfew.

“It’s the fines to the bar that stopped it,” he said. “There’s not a single bar in all of Athens that could survive even a fine of 1,000 euros.”

With tears in her eyes she apologized. They’d be closed in an hour. 

This morning on my way to pick up breakfast and a coffee, I walked past his pub. It has been shuttered since the afternoon of March 11. There’s no chance of reopening before April 30. His losses probably exceeded 1000 euros that first week. It’s the same for every cafe in Europe, but the Greek government started this mess with far fewer resources than the rest of the EU. I hope he manages but we won’t know for months. 

As I walked, I watched a police helicopter circle overhead. It’s a common sight — the choppers track the battles between the anarchists and the MAT, using a small camera dome.

But there haven’t been any battles for a couple of weeks. In fact, the streets are empty. The helicopter was flying over a major road that was empty of traffic for a dozen or more blocks. The emptiness made its rotor wash sound much louder than normal.

I bought breakfast from my corner bakery. It’s owned by a husband and wife team. This morning the door was closed and I was handed my order through a window. They’d stayed open this far and I’d been making a point to grab as much takeaway as I could from my locals, trying to keep them open. But today the wife grabbed a second pastry and put it in my bag for free. With tears in her eyes she apologized. They’d be closed in an hour. 

“I’ll be here when you’re back,” I said.

Join the conversation about this story »

NOW WATCH: Extremists turned a frog meme into a hate symbol, but Hong Kong protesters revived it as an emblem of hope