Just emerging from a sustained economic depression that severely impacted its public health system, Greece has managed the coronavirus surprisingly well so far. Its current tally of COVID-19 cases (2,192) and deaths (102) is far below those of its European counterparts on a per capita basis. Indeed, Italy with approximately six times the population, has had more than 200 times as many reported fatal outcomes. Some experts are hailing the Greek pandemic response as a model for other countries.
Greece’s success to date is likely due to its early social distancing mandates. In late February and early March, before most other countries took action, the government canceled major events and closed schools and nonessential businesses. Greece officials felt compelled by various social factors to act swiftly and decisively. Roughly a quarter of the population are over the age of 65 and therefore vulnerable to COVID-19. And, at the start of the crisis, the country had only 500 intensive care beds for nearly 11 million people. Additionally Greece is home to around 150,000 displaced refugees, many of whom are crammed into crowded, unsanitary camps. The Greeks are hoping that their early success continues and translates into a rapid economic recovery.
The Greek government has been innovative in its response to the pandemic. In short order, it doubled the health system’s intensive care capacity. To reduce public interactions it created a program that allows citizens to order medical prescriptions via their cell phones. It also made many official documents available online so that people no longer have to travel to government offices. And, in anticipation of an unprecedented contraction in its massively important tourism industry, the country partnered with Google to launch the #GreeceFromHome initiative. It includes a website and YouTube channel filled with virtual tours, performances, tutorials, and other digital experiences that feature many of the most popular Greek stars and public figures.
Notes on the the Greek debt crisis
2010 marked the beginning of the Greek sovereign debt crisis. Due to ripple effects of the worldwide Great Recession, the government found itself unable to finance its significant debts to Eurozone countries. Facing a far-reaching economic catastrophe, the International Monetary Fund orchestrated an initial $110 billion bailout. However, the deal required Greece to adopt harsh austerity measures in order to reign in its massive government deficit.
The consequence was a national economic contraction that experts argue was more dire that the American experience during the Great Depression. Unemployment shot up to 25%. Many thousands of businesses went bankrupt and hundreds of thousands of well-educated Greeks emigrated. At its nadir, the poverty rate reached 44%.
Greece exited the international bailout programs in 2018. The Financial Times states that, at that time, the country was “in far better shape than anybody could have expected three or four years before.” In the past two years, it has experienced modest growth, but the economy is still only a shadow of that which existed prior to the debt crisis.