Did the Economic Crisis Help Prepare Greece for the Coronavirus?



By Andrew Tzembelicos*

Watching countries across the globe respond to the COVID-19 crisis raises the question of how every country’s preparedness for such an onslaught has differed and how each nation’s people have risen — or not — to this grave challenge.

In this regard, as painful as the decade-long financial crisis was for Greece and the Greek people, is it possible that in some way that terribly wrenching ordeal may have actually helped the country and its people be better prepared for today’s reality?

This is of course in no way intended to suggest the economic crisis was a good thing for Greece or its people.

It is to say, however, that perhaps the country is better able to face the challenges posed by COVID-19 than had it not gone through the crisis — from learning to do more with less, to handling multiple crises at the same time (the concurrent twin emergencies of a flagging economy and an influx of migrants) while dealing with the challenges of high unemployment.

This is now the reality almost all countries are facing in the Spring of 2020: navigating economic uncertainty, experiencing severe job losses, offering bailout packages, undergoing health care system shortages — and the list goes on. These are all realities Greece and its people, unfortunately, already know all too well.

With a still-fragile economy, Greece is far from being out of the woods, of course. Tourism is its top industry, and estimates are already showing this year’s numbers down between 20 and 30 percent.

Due to the economic crisis, hundreds of thousands of young Greeks elected to leave Greece and make their livelihoods elsewhere — a significant brain drain that cost the country dearly. Now, due to the country’s shortage of health care workers, the Greek government recently offered new two-year contracts to 2,000 healthcare workers to immediately return to Greece and take up work on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis.

Outside Greece, the world may have forgotten that ten years have seen four successive governments grapple with the economic issues that have been festering for years. Since August of 2018, when Greece officially began emerging from the bailout era, and more specifically since the Mitsotakis government came to power last July, the country has been steadily tracking in a new direction.

In early February, forecasts predicted the economy would grow by 2.4 percent this year. Now, due to the Coronavirus, the Greek economy is expected to shrink back by three per cent or more.

On another level, small Greek businesses — namely coffee shops and restaurants — may be better-positioned to weather the storm. Already accustomed to operating on the thinnest of margins, they quickly made home delivery of coffee orders, takeout and other goods the new normal. That also holds true for independent fish and seafood vendors, as well as meat and fresh fruit and vegetable purveyors who also deliver by motorbike.

That being said, those and other businesses which were just starting to truly find their way again following the economic crisis may once again be facing severe hardships, or even closure.

From country to country across the globe, the Coronavirus is testing the world’s collective resilience and resolve. In Greece, that resilience was tested again and again through harsh austerity for ten long years — austerity that devastated families and the country.

But in the long run it appears that, like tempering steel, it only made the Greek people stronger and more likely to pull together when the going gets tough. And perhaps, in a way, more ready to react in a positive manner when the government shut down businesses and services and told them to comply with social distancing rules.

Here’s hoping that decade of pain makes dealing with COVID-19 and all its uncertainty a little more manageable in these exceptionally difficult times.

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