When I first moved to Crete, Greece I was amazed to discover that bananas grow here in abundance. It might surprise you to learn, that anything you can name can grow on Crete, the island world-famous for its friendly residents, glorious nature, and astonishing history and traditions. But Crete is run from Athens, and there’s a lot more than bananas here to remind residents of Central American republics where companies like Chiquita Brands made their fruit businesses famous. Yes, Greece has a lot in common with small republics with limited resources. Read on to find out why.
Yesterday a reporter from the Washington Post called me out of the blue to ask about Greece’s handling of the pandemic, and whether or not I thought the administration is opening up to tourists too soon. The reporter was headed to Rhodes to do a feature story about the reopening but wanted a dissenter’s view on the situation on the streets of Greece. The reporter is probably assigned to cover the Rhodes COVID experiment mentioned here. (Yes, there are experiments underway – see the Instagram below) He has already talked with Tourism Minister Theoharis and others. He also seemed curious that I am the only journalist questioning Athens’ handling of this situation. Then I woke up this morning to the lead of ab article in the New York Times that reads:‘
“New coronavirus cases are declining in countries with high vaccination rates. Then there is Europe.”
Author David Leonhardt lays out the frustrating and dangerous situation here in Europe, where disjointed leadership is fumbling with the lives of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people. The author cites other experts saying that the EU’s handling of the vaccine rollout is the worst policy foul-up in the history of the bloc. And here in Greece, government officials are chest-bumping one another over their self-induced delusion of correctness and efficiency.
The experts say Europe’s biggest problems are the swamp of bureaucracy, bean-counting price considerations taking precedence, and vaccine skepticism brought on by mixed signals and fear-mongering. Now, a year after the pandemic was announced, countries that have rolled out vaccines are pushing down the COVID-19 cases, while EU nations are seeing cases surge out of control. In Britain and other nations vaccinating at higher rates, coronavirus cases are retreating fast. Here in Greece, and elsewhere, the third wave is just killing and killing. And the government maintains its proud stance led by the tourism ministry. Greece plans to open on May 14th, with only about 6.9 % of the population fully vaccinated.
To make matters even worse, officials are running a non-stop PR campaign to reassure Greeks and foreigners who might travel, that all will be well come summer. Unfortunately, all is not going well. I have a personal case in point, that will shed light on what’s going on here in Greece. Not only has Athens seen fit to vaccinate all citizens of the country’s remotest islands first, but the systems for citizens and residents to sign up for vaccination is also a short-circuited mess. As a person at risk, with a severe heart condition, I can tell you that getting vaccinated here is an exercise in frustration, fear, anger, and ludicrousness. For about three months now, I’ve been pursuing vaccination here in Crete’s capital of Heraklion. Check this.
Residents of Greece who are not working, or are retired like I am, are not issued what’s known as an AMKA, which is a social security number. When I first looked at scheduling for this vaccine, there was not even a provision for people without this number to get protected. Then, a few weeks ago, the national campaign for vaccination revamped its system adding the capability to apply for and get a temporary AMKA. Since the system is in Greek, I asked my wife’s accountant if she would assist me in filling in the forms. The first two tries were unsuccessful, and the system sent emails saying we had made “mistakes” in filling in the forms. On the third try, and after about two weeks, I received an SMS on my phone with the temporary number. Here’s where the vaccination adventure got interesting.
The government agency suggested that I contact my pharmacist to get scheduled for the COVID-19 vaccination. So, I walked 70 meters down our street and asked my friend Nikki, who is one of the neighborhood pharmacists. On entering my new AMKA, she discovered that the system does not recognize me as eligible in this vaccination period. We both found this interesting because the AMKA’s first digits are my birthdate, August 17, 1955 (65). Nikki sent a request for someone to look at the situation, but no answer has been received (1 week). Thinking the problem might be solved if my “at-risk” status were certified, I contacted my cardiologist at the University Hospital (PAGNI) who is also a close friend.
At the end of the day, one of Greece’s best-known heart doctors had no information whatsoever as to how doctors are supposed to certify their patients as “high risk”. The new system in the e-prescriptions database was only known to the office director at the hospital, and only just recently. Once my doctor learned about the new system, he l tried to certify me as one of these high-risk patients, so that I might get the vaccine ahead of restaurant workers on the beach at Amoudara or bartenders at one of the TUI resorts (sorry, it had to be said). But the temporary AMKA only pulled up another person born in 1970. At this point, I naturally assumed this was a deceased person whose number had not been deleted from the system. (Yes, sorry again, but the mind plays tricks at a point).
Undaunted (somehow), my friends and I went back through the whole process of forms, complaints, help desk, and we even called the citizens’ service center KEP to discover the number is not in the system at all. Nikki, the pharmacist, says there’s no reply to her inquiry. Maria, the economics and accountant cannot even get through via telephone. My doctor/friend Manolis has surgery all this week, and can’t pursue the issue for now.
The Region of Crete has suggested I contact the press department of the region’s department of health. But their phone is not working. The director of citizen services for Crete Region mailed me to say I needed a temporary AMKA to get the vaccine! The head of the press office for the Region of Crete suggested I either contact the health department press office or Dr. Meletios A. Dimopoulos, who is a key advisor on the vaccine regime and a member of the Delphi Economic Forum. I’ll call him later just to make my next report complete.
For now, though, an email from Idika, the social security administration, in response to my form-fill inquiry about my temporary AMKA just came in with a question as to what my problem is? Well, my problem is a bit complicated. First, I am haunted by something the Washington Post journalist said yesterday about me being the only writer questioning whether or not Greece’s tourism reopening is going too fast?
The answer to this is simple. Very few media people are getting paid these days to report on what’s going on. News outlets like GTP, the National Herald, even Kathimerini, and other Greek media are only reposting the news they get from governments, hotels, tour operators, and so forth. My landlady, who gets her “news” via her TV, argued with me vehemently only yesterday as she is convinced that the Athens officials are vaccinating people according to age and risk.
The idea that the government moved to vaccinate remote islands before the elderly in big cities, is unthinkable to her. And it’s easy to see why. Digging into the deeper story is just too time-consuming, it’s a lot harder than paraphrasing a press release from Minister Harry Theoharis or some corporate tours company, airline, or hotel chain. My Washington Post colleague is one of the very few being sent out on assignment to discover real news. And I am anxious as to what he will find on Rhodes. Meanwhile, here in Greece, the “news” cycle has the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine being distributed by the tens of thousands starting this week. Then within hours of this announcement, the same vaccine has been halted over alleged complications like blood clots. It’s something like this in Google News:
- 21 hours ago – National Herald – “Johnson & Johnson One-Shot Vaccines to Start on Monday in Greece”
- 21 hours ago – Daily Mail – “Operation freedom: How the Greeks have launched an extraordinary mission to jab EVERY adult on 60 islands – so they can welcome Britons from May 17. And here’s where to visit…”
- Also 21 hours ago – Kathimerini – “Vaccination platform for 40-year-olds seen opening in May”
- 20 hours ago – National Herald – “Over 1.5M Greeks Have Gotten One Dose of COVID-19 Vaccine”
- 17 hours ago – National Herald – “Johnson & Johnson Delays Vaccine Rollout in Europe”
Are there any other questions about whether or not the Greeks rolling out the welcome mat to tourists right now seems ill-advised?