Greece is facing its fifth and deadliest wave of the pandemic, with unprecedented numbers of people testing positive and the number of COVID-related deaths soaring.
Last Monday, the daily number of cases hit a record 7,335 — the highest since the beginning of the pandemic.
Yet unlike other European countries facing a spike in cases, Greece has a relatively high overall vaccination rate of around 63 per cent. A region-by-region comparison, however, shows wildly fluctuating rates in different parts of the country. In the north, for example, the percentage is well below 50 per cent.
Vaccination scepticism, conspiracy theories, and a disdain for authority are thought to be the main culprits.
Members of the anti-vaccine movement in Greece are exceptionally vocal and have not hesitated to take matters to the street.
In the summer, thousands protested continuously against state-supported vaccination in the capital of Athens and the second-largest city, Thessaloniki, among other places.
Police in Thessaloniki used teargas and water cannons to keep some 1,000 protesters from disrupting a speech by prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in mid-September after the government announced that failing to adhere to mandatory vaccination for all health workers by September would result in suspension from work.
The enforcement of the rule led to 6,000 suspensions, comprising about six per cent of the country’s health workers. The government offered the suspended medical professionals another opportunity to get vaccinated in September, as it became clear that the health system is in danger of buckling due to pressure from the increased number of cases.
Far-left and far-right unite against vaccination
Now the situation is even grimmer, but anti-vaxxers are not budging. The popularity of the issue has led to unexpected political bedfellows, joining the far-right and the far-left under the same banner, says Nikos Konstandaras, columnist at Kathimerini, one of Greece’s leading newspapers.
“According to a poll done a few weeks ago, there were extremists on both sides of the political spectrum and they are the most militant in their opposition to vaccination especially because this is the milieu that produces conspiracy theories,” he explained.
“The demonstrations that have taken place in Athens and Thessaloniki have brought together the political extreme right-wing, church people, Old Calendarists, crazy monks. It’s a question of identity – there is social turmoil, and we need to show our strength.”
The 10.7-million country is predominantly Orthodox Christian, with a vast majority of the citizens considering their adherence to the Greek Orthodox Church and its tenets as a key element of their identity.
The current Greek Constitution, enacted in 1975 after the end of the military dictatorship, opens with the line “In the name of the Holy and Consubstantial and Indivisible Trinity,” a clear tribute to the Orthodox Church.
The scepticism often coming from the clergy is making people hesitant, if not outright dismissive of the dangers posed by COVID-19, said Konstandaras.
Elderly Greek citizens — who tend to be the most fervent believers, say experts — are the most affected by various claims by the clergy, and the country’s authorities have struggled to vaccinate those aged 60 and above.
Konstandaras says that the church influence is strong because of its heavy public presence and its say on key matters in the country’s society.
“Greeks strongly identify with Orthodox Christianity, as polls have shown, even though very few of them regularly go to church.”
“It’s in the debates and in everyday discussions, so it’s more of a social agent than a house of faith in the role that it plays in the public eye.”
And although the church was not explicitly against vaccination, because it is “not against life and science and taking care of its faithful,” says Konstandaras, some of the clerics, especially those belonging to the more spiritual circles within the church, are to blame for the scepticism related to the pandemic.
“There have been church members on the side of science and rationality, and then there are those who are completely into the faith and spiritual aspect of things. These spiritual aspects are reinforced by small groups that are very fanatical about what they believe,” he explains.
The church should have reined them in and sent a stronger message in order to protect people's lives, he believes.
“I think there should have been a much more proactive campaign from the church, urging people to go out and get themselves vaccinated,” Konstandaras said.
Doubt as a national pastime
But according to Konstandaras, the role of the church is only one of the reasons behind the scepticism. The clergy played into what is a societal trait of doubt and reservations towards anyone except their own selves and self-judgement, he explains.
“It’s no surprise to me that there is such a lot of resistance to science and what the authorities say, and people relying instead on their own feelings and their own little networks to corroborate what they are already thinking.”
“There is a sensitivity towards people's right to govern themselves. Which seems to be at odds with the groupthink that political and religious issues often provoke.”
Ever since Greeks successfully won back their independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, the country’s history was replete with upheavals, from the 1944-1950 civil war over who will control the land after the withdrawal of Nazi Germany, to the oppressive rule of the military junta that ended in 1974.
The government-debt crisis of 2009 also left many Greeks having to fend for themselves, with the cataclysmic recession nowadays being referred to merely as “The Crisis”.
“This is a nation and a culture where doubt is sewn into everything, including the questioning of authority and science, in order to maintain the beliefs they already have,” Konstandaras concluded.
Fake vaccination certificates
In an attempt to curtail the current spike, the conservative government led by PM Mitsotakis has imposed new, stricter measures, limiting access to cafes, restaurants, banks, and certain state services for those who are unvaccinated or do not have a negative coronavirus test.
But according to a story in To Vima, one of the country’s principal outlets, Greeks have been seeking a way to circumvent the measures, mostly by purchasing fake vaccination certificates. The investigation claims that more than 100,000 citizens bribed their way to a forged pass.
The vaccine sceptics among them went even further. According to To Vima’s findings published in its Sunday edition, some have approached the doctors with a request to be jabbed with bacteriostatic water and offered up to 400 euros for the favour.
However, the doctors gave them the real vaccine instead.
The recipients of the jab they thought was fake only became suspicious once they started exhibiting side effects of proper vaccination, such as the common low-grade fever.
Now, they are in a double bind: although they can sue the doctors for malpractice, they would have to admit to committing bribery, the story claims.
To Vima journalist Vassilis Lambropoulos spoke about the findings in further detail for the Greek television network, MEGA.
“There are clear indications from the ongoing investigations by the Greek police and the national transparency authority that the extent of the virtual vaccinations, the methods and attempts at tampering either with the tests or with the virtual vaccinations is much greater than we initially believed,” he said.
Lambropoulos said that To Vima identified about 30 areas in the country where “suspicious activities in vaccination centres are occurring”.
“It has also been established by evidence — to be demonstrated in the coming days — that there are doctors or nurses who took money to give sham vaccinations to anti-vaxxers” but then administered the real vaccine in order to prevent them from having any consequences from potential COVID-19 infection, he said.
Greek police did not deny reports about the fake vaccinations but questioned whether the number of people affected reflects reality.
In a written statement to Euronews, the Greek Ministry of Health responded to the news of fake vaccination certificates and questionable vaccination practices by stating that “the system has all the necessary safety valves and such incidents are limited”.
The Greek Appellate Prosecutor’s Office chief, Maria Gane, issued a statement on Wednesday, saying that she ordered the launch of an investigation into the reports.
Prosecutors are said to be investigating doctors, medical workers, pharmacists, and "people who may have acted as mediators" in helping people acquire the fake certificates and vaccines, while also asking any citizens to come forward as witnesses.
The citizens themselves corroborated the story for Euronews.
“There is a huge incidence of people trying to bribe doctors,'' a resident of Monemvasia, a town in the region of Laconia, who asked to remain anonymous in fear of potential repercussions from COVID-sceptics.
“It’s not that popular in my region. But I’ve heard people say that there are doctors who would come to their house and take 50 euros and just issue the certificate.”
In other parts of the country like the region of Halkidiki, you can obtain the certificate for 100 euros, the source told Euronews.
Her hometown of about 20,000 people has seen a lot of COVID-scepticism, she said.
“There are a lot of people who still deny the existence of the virus. But there are also people who accept that there is a virus, but are not afraid to get sick.”
“I have a relative who says that he believes that covid exists, but is not afraid to get sick. ‘It’s nothing. It’s just a normal virus.’”
And a lot of it originates from the church, according to the Monemvasia resident.
“Religion is one of the main reasons, especially some extreme religious beliefs,” she claims.
“They say that vaccination is illegal or satanic, and a lot of people believe that it’s unconstitutional to make the vaccination mandatory.”
“The priests didn’t even want masks in the church. A priest in my town said that there would be eight doses of the vaccine, and after the eighth dose, people will grow their own tails.”
Another priest at a wedding claimed he had “an application that can track vaccine recipients via Bluetooth,” she said.
A health system bursting at the seams
Anti-vaccination movements, often backed by the radicals in the clergy, have been on the rise throughout southern and eastern Europe, and COVID-scepticism is considered by many to be one of the main reasons behind the relatively low vaccination rates in other parts of the continent as well.
Neighbouring Bulgaria and Romania are the two European Union countries with the lowest double-vaccination rates, sitting at just 22 and 34 per cent of the overall population by Thursday.
The two countries are also experiencing the highest daily death rates from COVID-19 in the Union, with the most recent wave turning out to be particularly deadly.
Meanwhile, in Greece, Health Minister Thanos Plevris issued a public statement on Thursday demanding that doctors working in private clinics volunteer their services in state-run hospitals, stating that otherwise the ministry will be forced to assign them as an order.
Plevris’ office told Euronews that if the ministry estimates the needs are not met by early next week, “a request for the services of private doctors for the National Health Services will be activated.”
In the meantime, the Monday deadline was moved to Tuesday, with the government seeking ways to further incentivise the doctors in the private sector to opt-in.
With more than 500 people requiring intubation and around-the-clock care, ICU units across the country are struggling to deal with the influx of patients.
The country’s state-run hospitals have had a total of 557 ICU beds.
In Thessaloniki, all of the 100 ICU beds were full as of Tuesday, with patients intubated outside of the unit attended to according to a waiting list.
On Thursday, a 20-year-old man who suffered severe injuries in a traffic accident in the coastal city of Volos, about 300 kilometres north of Athens, had to be intubated in the hospital driveway because there were no available beds to treat him.
'Akin to a war'
Headlines in the country have labelled the situation as akin to a “war scenario,” while bleak forecasts from experts expect the wave to continue well into December.
Yet Mitsotakis rejected the possibility of instituting a lockdown for the unvaccinated, like the one introduced in Austria on Monday.
Athanasios Tsakris, professor of microbiology at the Medical School University in Athens, explains how the distinct fifth wave the country is experiencing was directly influenced by the earlier wave in the summer -- a result of loose measures throughout the continent as people flocked to Greece, a popular tourist destination.
“This was the cause for the new severe pandemic wave we are now facing since we've already had quite a high epidemiological burden,” he said, “and on the other hand the weather has started changing during the autumn.”
“From our experience with seasonal coronaviruses, we know that the dropping temperatures in the autumn mark the beginning of the epidemic coronavirus season, usually starting from October and ending by April.”
“So if we have a high epidemiological burden in a particular area and we don’t take strict measures, then it’s quite expected to have a severe seasonal wave,” Tsakris said.
At the same time, the country’s health system is still ailing from the consequences of the 2009 debt crisis, he explains.
“The situation is getting better, but there are still quite many problems, so this has also affected the handling and prevention of severe cases that need intensive care unit hospitalisation.”
The health ministry told Euronews that the government has already increased the number of ICU beds to 1,039 by Friday.
“More than 2,000 permanent doctors were recruited, as well as more than 2,000 auxiliary doctors as well as a total of 12,000 auxiliary staff.”
There has also been a noticeable increase in the number of Greeks volunteering for the proper jab, with a record 30,000 expressing interest on last Monday.
However, it is still unclear whether this is in response to the new measures or the recent explosion of cases.
The ministry told Euronews that it has been using “all of the available tools” they have in order to convince as many Greeks to get vaccinated as possible.
“We are collaborating with the local community, local actors, local government, and other local actors.”
The church has pledged to help, too, according to the ministry.
“We are cooperating with the Church and we are vaccinating [citizens] in squares in cooperation with the priests and the local dioceses and examining all the measures that could help in this direction.”
To Tsakris, the key to slowing down the snowballing of cases — which he expects to worsen in the upcoming weeks but will hopefully decline by the end of the year — is in increasing the vaccination rates by any means possible.
“The same problem is happening throughout Europe. More or less, most countries are facing similar difficulties in finding ways to increase vaccination rates even by two or three per cent,” he explains.
“If the vaccination rate could be increased even by five or eight per cent, that would be very important. Even this small percentage could make a significant difference, particularly in the elderly population.”
Yet the biggest problem, according to Tsakris — and the reason for many seeking out a way to hack the system by purchasing fake certificates instead of going for the jab — is the failure of the authorities to explain that the vaccine is not a miracle cure that will stop COVID-19 dead in its tracks.
Not doing this from the start only made scepticism and the spread of fake news worse, he believes, and the sooner this is addressed, the better.
“We have to talk about the situation clearly and honestly. This is a necessity for the whole of Europe — people need to understand the way that this coronavirus behaves and how the vaccines work.”
“We have to connect people to credible information and tell them that the vaccine is not protecting us 100 per cent. The vaccine reduces the spread of the virus in the community, but mostly protects our lives from severe COVID-19. We have to make it clear to everybody,” Tsakris concluded.