Greece: Living with coronavirus

An ailing country has found sources of resilience, argues Vassilis Ntousas.

The World Today Updated 29 March 2021 Published 9 July 2020 2 minute READ

Greece was never going to be the likeliest international success story in managing COVID-19. The country had only begun to recover from an almost decade-long financial crisis. Years of austerity measures left its infrastructure underfunded and its bureaucracy under enormous strain. And yet, the stoicism that comes with having been in economic turmoil for most of the last decade was central for Greece’s success in the first critical weeks of the pandemic.

Athens was well prepared in implementing a set of lockdown measures and quick to enforce them. Thanks to long familiarity with hardship, Greek citizens generally heeded scientific advice and followed the tight restrictions. As a result, Greece has registered comparatively few infections and deaths, with 3622 confirmed cases and a death toll of 193.

Not wasting the opportunity presented by the crisis, the government also introduced several long-overdue digital reforms. The most significant was the launch of the new platform, bringing together some 500 government services, from obtaining electronic medical prescriptions to filing designs for building permits.

In the age of social distancing, these reforms made transactions with government easier and safer. For a country that has consistently been one of the worst-off amongst EU member states in terms of digital performance, updating the archaic public sector represented an overnight revolutionary step forward that had been years in the making.

These efforts to quell the outbreak may have been largely successful, but any grounds for cautious optimism they offered are on a collision course with reality. The ailing Greek economy has already sunk back into recession, and the risk of a second wave of cases makes a meaningful recovery uncertain.

The European Commission’s Summer Economic Forecast projects that the country’s GDP will contract by 9 per cent in 2020, before increasing by 6 per cent in 2021. Tourism, one of Greece’s biggest sources of revenue, is already being hit hard, due to continuing travel restrictions. A second blow to the economy is likely in the autumn, when most of the fiscal measures taken to tackle the economic impact of the pandemic wind down.

In a year that will be all about damage limitation, the gradual return to a sense of normality post-COVID-19 might actually leave a bitter taste of déjà vu; one does not need to go too far back to detect the pain and fear associated with a ravaged economy and a society in crisis.

Even though Athens moved fast to stop the spread of the virus, it remains to be seen whether the country will manage to bounce back from the pandemic shock or will instead plunge into another recession loop. The omens are predictably bad, but the answer to this question will hopefully be not as straightforward as history might suggest. After all, when attempting to re-restart its engines, the country as a whole can draw on its rich repertoire of tough experiences. Indeed, it might prove to be the key for the country’s resilience in the face of looming adversity.