The fighter jets are streaking over the Acropolis and the empty streets of a city under 24/7 house arrest. It was 199 years today that Greece liberated itself from the yoke of the dreaded Turks. The usual rites of remembrance, the parades and all the militaristic bombast, had to be called off this year, for obvious reasons. A nationwide lockdown went into effect across Greece on Monday. In his Independence Day message to the nation this morning, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said:
“Ο εχθρός τώρα είναι η πανδημία και απέναντί της θα παρελάσουν η ισχύς και η ενότητά μας” αναφέρει ο πρωθυπουργός και σημειώνει ότι “μόνο οι ενωμένοι λαοί μπορούν να ξεπερνούν τις δυσκολίες.”
Roughly translated: “The enemy today is the pandemic, and against it we’ll parade our strength and unity.” (Italics mine. I like what he did there.) “Only a united populace can overcome the hardships.”
Sprawled out on a yoga mat, stretching the aching muscles of a cooped-up, almost-middle-aged body that hasn’t left the house for roughly 70 hours, I question the wisdom of spending taxpayers’ money on scrambling F-16s instead of bolstering a health care system devastated by a decade’s worth of essentially non-stop crisis. My girlfriend, as is often the case when my Americanness outweighs my Greekness, objects. “From the beginning, we said we have to do this together, as Greeks,” she says. “Reminding people what we’ve been through as a country keeps our spirits up.”
Now is not the time, I realize, to get into a squabble over the difference between raising the spirits of the nation and doing the same through the overt display of high-grade military hardware. My birth nation, after all, has been known to flaunt its terrifying defense budget for the sake of half-time pageantry (patriotic displays which, as far back as 2015, had already amounted to more than $10 million in marketing deals between the Dept. of Defense and the five major American sports leagues).
In truth, I’ve felt much prouder of my adopted homeland’s response to the coronavirus pandemic so far than of my actual homeland’s. For the past two weeks, since the government began tightening the screws of our nationwide response—more of which I’ll write about in the days ahead—Greeks have largely seemed to take each new measure with a level-headedness that, if we’re being honest, as the son of a Greek immigrant, I’d never entirely associated with Greeks. The Darwinian savagery on display in Costco check-out lines across America? I’ve heard few reports of Greek hoarders panic-buying their way through quarantine, and my anecdotal, eyeball reporting around Exarcheia and Kypseli has shown me nothing but orderly queues of patient, no-doubt terrified shoppers trying to fill their shopping carts, share some gallows humor with the check-out lady, and then haul ass back to the apartments their germophobic πεθερά has already been pathologically disinfecting since the Ottomans left town.
This is, I’m sure, partly the narrow view of the world I’m glimpsing through the keyhole of our Kypseli stronghold. Whatever plucky resolve I’ve seen firsthand these past few weeks has been offset by the lacerating criticism of the government’s response to the pandemic I’ve seen on Twitter. Emergency alerts have been periodically sent to the nation’s cell phones accompanied by piercing, high-decibel shrieks. The €800 billion bailout package to keep the economy afloat has been vague on exactly who can expect government checks, or when.
The messaging could be clearer. When the lockdown was introduced on Monday, Greeks were told that we could leave our houses for essential errands—grocery shopping, doctor’s visits, brief daily exercise close to home—but needed to carry a permit that could be obtained by PDF on a government website or by SMS. Soon after the announcement, the website crashed. We haven’t tried to brave the SMS system yet. This morning, me and my girlfriend argued over how to send the text. What if you want to go for a walk AND do shopping. Do you need to send two separate texts? Would the police slap a €150 fine on someone who left the house for exercise and came back with grocery bags? She decided to bake a loaf of banana bread instead. The smell from the oven still fills the house, hours later.
I’m as scared as anyone. Through Tuesday the 24th, Greece had 743 confirmed cases of coronavirus, up 51 from the previous day. For most of the past week, the number has climbed slowly, steadily—around 40-50 new cases a day—but not the exponential explosion a lot of countries have seen nearly a full month after the first case was recorded. The Greek growth curve doesn’t look anywhere as terrifying as it does in much of Europe, never mind the U.S.
But do those numbers really tell us anything? Like half the world and all of Twitter, I’ve become an armchair epidemiologist, a stay-at-home statistician. Through Tuesday, Greece had conducted just 9,071 tests, or roughly 71 per million population: fewer than Armenia or Croatia, Lithuania or Finland. (Or, instead of plucking Baltic and Balkan countries out of a hat: fewer than most nations were doing at the same point in the virus’s trajectory.) Was telling the whole country to “μένουμε σπίτι” partly an acknowledgment that there’s no way our crippled health care system can stay afloat amid even a modest outbreak? A health official conceded last week that there were more likely 12,000 cases or more in the country. Trying to figure out how many ICU beds Greece has at its disposal sent me into a very dark place.
Meanwhile, priests in the northern Peloponnese town of Aigio drove through the streets in a farmer’s pick-up truck, sprinkling holy water to protect the inhabitants from coronavirus. The police reported 766 violations across the country in the 36 hours after the lockdown was introduced, including a man with a permit to go to the supermarket who was stopped in his car with three other passengers, 40 miles away.
At 11 o’clock military choppers fly low over the rooftops of Athens. The family across the πεζόδρομο has unfurled a crisp new flag on the balcony to celebrate Independence Day. All across the city, church bells ring. My girlfriend, misty-eyed, holds her quaking Maltese to her chest, telling me how proud she is of the country, of the fact that she’s still standing. For many Greeks, I imagine, the pandemic is being folded into a larger national narrative, another test of their—of our, I try to convince myself—resilience. The crisis took a terrible toll on this country, and we might still have to pay a price for that in the weeks and months ahead.
As the choppers buzz overhead, the neighbors are coming out onto their balconies. Across the way a father holds his two young boys, their tiny fingers clutching the trellis. We wave and then wag Smally’s little paw, until they giggle and wave back. The man on the neighboring balcony—gruff, unshaven, pot-bellied—leans over the railing to shout something down to the street. To the extent that we have a nemesis in the neighborhood, it’s this untidy brute, who spends summer nights shouting into his cell phone on the balcony, backlit by the garish fluorescent light from his kitchen. He’s chosen this first week of official lockdown to carry out his loudest home repairs; earlier in the morning, he’d dragged his unfortunate wife up to the roof to help him unfurl a dirty tarp over the tattered awning on their balcony. It wasn’t hard to picture him spending his allotment of daily exercise minutes rounding up migrants on the street.
And that may still be the case, when all this is through. But he’s shouting “Χρόνια πολλά” to someone on the street, and then he shouts it at us, and we shout it back at him and at the father with the two small boys. “Χρόνια πολλά,” everyone is shouting to everyone else as the church bells clang. “Χρόνια πολλά. Χρόνια πολλά. Χρόνια πολλά.”