Easter celebrations test successful containment of virus in Greece

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Amalia, a high school teacher, was eagerly awaiting Orthodox Easter this weekend to relax with her Athenian family after a difficult period of online classes during the pandemic lockdown in Greece.

Today, the 52-year-old is irritated by a last-minute tightening of Greece’s five-week lockdown as the country attempts to consolidate its success so far to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

“It is hard to accept that my 80-year-old mother should stay home alone at Easter when the rest of the family is only a few blocks away. The temptation to slip in with one of the children and bring him a lunch will be very strong, “she said.”

Greece has had one of the lowest Covid-19 infection rates in Europe, with 2,224 confirmed cases and 108 deaths, mainly by adopting a rigorous early ban. But this success could be threatened if the Greeks tired of the lockdown defy the rules of social distancing to celebrate the most important festival of the Orthodox calendar.

Normally, some 2 million people – a fifth of the Greek population – leave cities to go to their native villages or islands to celebrate the holidays with extended families, neighbors and friends. Religious ceremonies are followed by a celebration of spit-roasted lamb and traditional dances.

This year, closed churches, tighter social distancing rules, and a travel ban canceled the four-day celebration. But the measures sparked demonstrations in some churches on the evening of Good Friday.

“Easter gatherings, which include vulnerable older adults, provide ideal conditions for the spread of the virus. We cannot afford to celebrate as usual and risk overturning what we have done so far, “said Sotiris Tsiodras, infectious disease expert leading the government’s television messaging campaign against Covid-19.

Stefanos, a 30-year-old graphic designer in Athens, said his family in central Greece had sent him a slaughtered whole lamb, their usual Easter present, in defiance of the ban on spit roasting this year.

“What am I going to do with it?” Some of my friends suggest that we find a construction site somewhere and that we lift the ban, “he said. “But it’s an offense that would be hard to hide – the aroma would betray you. “

The government’s success in containing the virus has surprised many observers. Greece is still struggling to recover from a decade of austerity following the eurozone debt crisis that starved hospitals and primary healthcare facilities.

The center-right government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis called on the expertise of Greek public health academics working abroad, while technocrats in its administration were able to bypass the country’s ineffective bureaucracy to speed up testing , distribute equipment to hospitals and impose quarantine measures quickly.

So far, the majority of Greeks have voluntarily respected the lock. A public opinion poll released this week showed 80% support for the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

The number of new Covid-19 cases has halved in the past week, while fewer patients have been admitted to intensive care units, according to figures from the Department of Health.

But instead of loosening restrictions, the government this week announced new rules for the Easter weekend. In addition to the ban on family gatherings and roasting in the gardens and on apartment balconies, going out to the beach is prohibited. Religious services can only take place behind closed doors in the absence of a congregation.

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Police plan for strict enforcement this weekend, including helicopter and drone patrols over Athens and the northern city of Thessaloniki, roadblocks at intersections and fines for violating traffic restrictions.

Plainclothes police have been tasked with monitoring certain churches to prevent Orthodox priests from allowing worshipers to participate in Easter services.

Some devotees are becoming more and more provocative. This week, activists from Orthodox churches distributed leaflets in provincial towns calling on churches to open for midnight mass on Easter Saturday, the most popular service on the Orthodox calendar.

“Believers like us think it was wrong to deprive us of the celebration of Easter. We sympathize with the protesting priests and herds, “said Aspasia, a store owner in Lamia, a small town in central Greece.

And the protesters gathered Friday evening outside a closed Orthodox church in a Athens suburb, calling on the parish priest to hold a Good Friday service. Police arrested 18 people after congregation activists pounded on church doors and shouted anti-lock slogans.

In several other churches in the city, priests allowed worshipers to light candles and kiss icons in defiance of the lock rules.

Last Sunday, Bishop Nektarios of Corfu, a frank opponent of quarantine measures, invited the mayor and other islanders to join a service behind closed doors. Priests rarely face legal action, but the bishop will be tried next month for violating the lock-in rule.

“None of us should be forced to celebrate Easter in our homes. We are allowed to exercise outdoors for our physical fitness, why should we not be allowed to go to church for our spiritual health? Said the bishop.

The government remained impassive. “None of us are exempt from following the rules of this battle [against coronavirus]Said Nikos Hardalias, the head of oversight of the national foreclosure.

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