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Corona: why the second wave hits Greece so hard


Greece survived the first corona wave comparatively well. But now the country has a record number of infections and deaths. What went wrong?

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Disinfection of a market square in Thessaloniki


In the Papanikolaou hospital about 13 kilometers northeast in a green suburb of Thessaloniki, there is a lot of activity.

Ambulances keep bringing in new patients, they are greeted at the entrance by health workers with face masks.

A hearse is parked directly in front of the entrance to the intensive care unit.

The hospital is on standby on that day: Since there is no comprehensive first aid in Greece, the hospital often serves as a point of contact.

"This is the worst crisis I have experienced in all of my twenty years of service in this hospital," says doctor Militsa Bitzani.

The specialist in lung diseases, intensive care medicine and infectious diseases heads the intensive care unit.

Your department only accepts ventilated patients.

“It's a constant struggle.

Unparalleled for the country, our people, our doctors. "

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Militsa Bitzani, pulmonologist and head of an intensive care unit in Thessaloniki


“Every morning we have a meeting to evaluate the situation.

Whenever a bed becomes free, we notify the control center.

And it is re-assigned immediately, ”says Bitzani.

Like the hospitals, the city's cemeteries are almost fully occupied.

"From the beginning of the pandemic to the second lockdown, we had two to three funerals of corona dead per week," says Kosta Baboulas, undertaker in Thessaloniki.

"It's more like five to six a day now."

Second wave reveals weaknesses

Many were surprised at how successful Greece got through the corona pandemic in the spring.

A country with a comparatively old population and a public health system that had been weakened by the decades-long financial crisis had somehow made it - the virus seemed under control and the health system had not collapsed.

“Greece, of all places, which was still considered a failed state during the euro crisis, is now doing exemplary things in the fight against the coronavirus,” commented ZEIT.

"We have shown ourselves from our best side," said Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis at the time.

"And that ... makes us proud."

The success of the Greeks in handling the first wave was mainly due to two points: First, the government implemented a shutdown very early in March, at which point just 17 people had died of Covid-19.

Second, the Greeks strictly adhered to the quarantine.

But when the second wave came in October, it hit the country much harder.

In November, Greece already had over 1000 corona deaths, last weekend alone it was a three-digit number.

The country's intensive care units are 86 percent full.

The second wave now exposes the weaknesses of a health system that has suffered from wage cuts, hiring freezes and the brain drain of around 20,000 doctors since the financial crisis.

The crisis also challenges the political system

To mitigate the wave and relieve the system, the government ordered a nationwide three-week lockdown in early November, imposed a curfew and took over the management of private clinics.

She tries with speed to build new intensive care units and to increase the staff in the health sector.

Athens could soon decide to extend the measures into December.

Much is at stake because the crisis is also shaking the political system.

The opposition is directed against the government under Prime Minister Mitsotakis, who had previously met with cross-party support with his course.

Opposition leader Alexis Tsipras is now accusing him of having a complacent siesta in the summer and of taking the necessary measures too slowly.

He criticizes the government for arbitrarily opening the country to tourists.

At the same time, they have not strengthened the public health system with sufficient staff and neglected basic medical care.

And then there is the economy: Unemployment will most likely rise, while the Greek gross domestic product (GDP) will shrink by double digits this year, returning to 2002 levels.

Greece's debt will also reach almost 209 percent of GDP - and thus even higher than at the time of the financial crisis, when the country asked for financial rescue internationally.

What went wrong

The national search for answers is currently focused on the port city of Thessaloniki, the country's second largest city.

It is best known for its 23 centuries-old history, its incomparable cuisine, its lively cultural scene, its young population and its carefree way of life.

However, the city is currently making the headlines for less pleasant reasons: as the epicenter of the second corona wave.

Some experts fear that Thessaloniki could become the Greek version of Italy's Bergamo if developments are not curbed quickly.

With a million inhabitants, Thessaloniki is about a quarter the size of Athens.

However, as for the number of infections and deaths, it exceeds the capital's numbers.

Of the total of 2152 new infections reported on Wednesday in Greece, 633 were found in Thessaloniki and 383 in Attica.

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Otherwise full of life: the deserted promenade of Thessaloniki

Photo: Alexandros Avramidis

So why Thessaloniki?

Many explanations refer to the supposed advantages of the city: its 100,000 students and its relaxed approach to life, its importance as a regional business and tourism center.

And a feeling of complacency, which is particularly evident in numerous illegal parties and the open disregard of the rules for wearing masks.

This complacency is not limited to Thessaloniki, however: during the summer, the mood in both the government and the population relaxed.

After the holiday season, many Greeks had little appetite for a new round of strict rules.

Full markets - and full hospitals

Even after the situation got out of hand and the second lockdown was imposed, that dangerous attitude persisted.

Recently, sellers were selling fruit, vegetables and fish at a street market in Thessaloniki in the afternoon.

Their customers came in streams, including many elderly people.

It was impossible to keep your distance, face masks were often worn carelessly.

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A market in Thessaloniki: only with some do the masks fit correctly


The handling of the strict curfew after 9 p.m., which was first imposed in Thessaloniki and now nationwide, is also questionable: it is observed in the city centers, but quite differently in the suburbs.

In a public park in the densely populated suburb of Kalamaria, for example, dozens of people meet every night.

Young and old break the curfew, celebrate improvised parties with huge amounts of alcohol.

Delivery services keep bringing pizzas and souvláki to this.

When the police showed up recently, the crowd quickly dispersed.

Few of those present were fined.

And the next evening the park was full again.

Church risk factor

Another area that is now being examined more closely is the Orthodox Church.

Both the government and the Church itself were too slow to become aware of the risks of the virus.

For a long time they neglected to force the closing of the churches or to warn against a transmission during communion.

Strict measures have only now been taken: the churches remain closed.

The head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Ieronymos II, was hospitalized with Covid 19.

The crisis is also hitting the rest of the clergy hard.

On November 21, one of the highest feast days on the Orthodox calendar, the Church of St. Chrysostom in Thessaloniki's city center was largely empty.

With the doors closed, a priest and two choristers held the liturgy - two other clergymen were on sick leave.

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Liturgy without a congregation on one of the highest Orthodox holidays


The church's 42-year-old pastor, Father Athanasios, realizes that crowded churches are just as vulnerable to the spread of the virus as any other place.

"We do not live isolated from the rest of the world, we are just as affected as everyone else." But he draws a line: "The infection is not transmitted through the sacrament of communion."

Icon: The mirror

Source: spiegel

All news articles on 2020-11-27

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