The Coronavirus Crisis Through Two Lenses

By Andrew Tzembelicos*

Being a dual citizen of Greece and Canada offers perspective on aspects of life in two countries. Particularly in a time of crisis, it’s an opportunity to better understand a nation — everything from leadership to the psyche of its people.

Seeing this COVID-19 crisis unfold from here in Athens, I’ve been calmly reassured by the decisive steps taken by the Mitsotakis government to quickly tack accordingly in order to contain a virus which does not operate by any rules.

From making the difficult decision to shutter bars and nightclubs to, hours later, doing the same for coffee shops, restaurants and other stores, then enforcing the closure of non-essential stores and now restricting the movement of Greek citizens, the Prime Minister and his team have shown their deftness in making critical decisions and responding to fast-moving developments in real time.

They’ve also been quick to spearhead a response that seems highly coordinated, with regular text messages in Greek and English, effective government messaging on social media and the robust “Menoume Spiti” (Μενουμε σπιτι) public service campaign.

For readers outside Greece who might have a certain image of a country ravaged by ten years of crisis in mind, one observation is that even as restrictions have tightened as the pandemic has come into full force, grocery stores have consistently been well-stocked with plenty of pasta, toilet paper and disinfectant for everyone.

In direct contrast, I’ve been hearing from family and friends in Canada that toilet paper and antibacterial supplies have been in short supply for six weeks, that grocery store shelves have been empty and hoarding and price-gouging have been rampant.

Observing the response and daily interactions of Greek citizens has also been enlightening. For the most part, people here seem to be taking everything seriously but, thankfully, don’t seem panicked. When the restaurant closures were announced, I visited a grocery store before closing time; it was only slightly busier than usual.

Since then, in my limited travels, I’ve watched citizens — some with masks and others without — patiently waiting outside pharmacies and grocery stores, entering one at a time as per government decree. Inside, pharmacists and clerks have been wearing masks, liberally using hand sanitizer between transactions and wiping down hand railings.

As the crisis has accelerated, friends and family have wondered if we would be returning to Canada. For me Athens has, in recent years, become my home for half the year. With enough provisions and a balcony where I can write and get some sunshine, we feel perfectly comfortable here and didn’t want to add to the frantic chaos and risk of travelers trying to get from one place to another as borders were closing.

What also helped make the choice to remain easier was our neighborhood and community, that locals have remained calm and are encouraging one another to “Stay Safe.” To me, in its own way, this has been a source of comfort and reassurance.

I think the world needs to take a lesson from how Greece and the Greek people are responding to this crisis. Typical stereotypes might suggest there would be rioting in the streets due to the closure of coffee shops — a critical element of everyday Greek life.

However, measured calmness appears to be the order of the day for all Greek citizens. Let’s hope that remains the case as a very fluid situation continues to evolve.

*Andrew Tzembelicos is a Greek-Canadian writer, editor and communications consultant who divides his time between Athens and Vancouver.