Developments in Greece from the coronavirus epidemic are so far encouraging. If we remain disciplined, heed the government’s instructions and resist the urge to flout restrictions at Easter, we may be able to slowly start getting some of our freedoms back. This pandemic has given everyone pause, and we will come out of it all the wiser.
The first lesson we have learned is that not only does populism come at a heavy cost (like with Brexit or the 2015-19 SYRIZA government in Greece), it can also result in death on a massive scale. Politicians like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson who have become accustomed to ruling with brazen lies, devastating populism and aggressive demagoguery, have turned out to be, quite literally, criminals. Their refusal to face scientific facts and their incompetent failure to display any semblance of gravitas and foresight in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak have already resulted in thousands of deaths that could have been avoided if they had adopted strict social distancing measures much earlier on, as Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis did in Greece. They should both, normally, retire from politics and be stripped of their political rights once the crisis ends.
The second takeaway is that the only way to handle such an unprecedented explosion in infections – apart from relying on the heroism of the country’s doctors and nurses – is a strong national health system. The public sector may be justifiably accused of foot-dragging, squandering money and unionist practices, but it is more than obvious that only a strong state mechanism can have the infrastructure, resources and experts to form a shield against such massive threats. Just as the Great Depression and World War II set the foundations for the welfare state, so the coronavirus pandemic will force governments to commit sufficient resources to their country’s health systems, particularly in light of the second wave of the virus expected in the fall.
This is a great opportunity for Greece to implement serious investments in Greek hospitals so that we no longer have the fewest intensive care unit beds per 1,000 residents in Europe. Greece’s growing reputation for the way that it is dealing with the crisis could serve as a magnet for Greek doctors abroad and restore trust in the public health system, as several wealthier European countries with a similar or even smaller population are counting many more casualties (including Belgium, Sweden, Austria, Denmark and Portugal).
The third lesson is of an economic nature. The blow to tourism, which is expected to cost Greece several billion euros in lost revenues, is a sign that we need to look for alternative strategies to drive growth. After all, other sectors like technology, education and culture could also expand and flourish in Greece. It has a high-speed data transfer network and top-flight human capital with one of the highest ratios of university graduates in Europe, most of whom speak at least one foreign language. Greece could easily become a technology hub, attracting major investments without having to offer too many incentives. It also has its ancient history, an allure for archaeology students around the globe seeking to learn about the Greek civilization at the source and to take part in technologically driven projects run by institutions like the National Technical University of Athens and the University of Crete.
Last but not least, let’s hope that the pandemic compels us to put the environment higher up on the agenda, and to curb human greed and the defilement of nature from constant expansion which lead to such outbreaks.
Let us hope that the tens of thousands of people who will lose their lives by the time this is over will not be a sacrifice that is forgotten as soon as the cure or vaccination are found.