By Takis Pappas, Political scientist, the University of Helsinki, Finland*
When the covid-19 pandemic broke out in Europe, no government had any experience of how to face it and each tried to weather the storm in its own ways. Some governments fared better, some less so.
By and large, there are three major factors that have determined, and still do, how governments cope with the virus.
These are, first, the resoluteness and efficiency of their leadership; second, the capacity of states and public health systems in particular to deal with such an extraordinary health crisis situation; and, third, the cooperation of national publics in following emergency rules.
At a more specific level, as shown by an even cursory comparison of the Spanish and Greek experiences with the pandemic, it seems that a well-integrated and liberal government performs significantly better than one which is disunited and, moreover, diluted with populists. Let’s have a closer look at the two cases.
At the time of this writing (5 April 2020), Spain has close to 130,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus victims and about 12,000 deaths. At the same time, Greece has about 1,700 confirmed cases and 68 deaths.
So, the question is: Why these two Mediterranean countries, whose people are equally sun-loving, bar-hopping, and intensely social, and which should have drawn the same lessons from Italy’s preceding experience, have had such different fates during the early phase of the coronavirus crisis? The answer is simple, almost mundane: Different governments!
The little comparison table below shows the reaction of Italy, Spain, and Greece to the coronavirus outbreak. It reveals three things.
First of all, Italy, the first country in Europe to be hit by the virus with catastrophic results, offered valuable lessons that shouldn’t be missed by other governments.
Secondly, Spain’s government failed to learn and, in fact, performed even worse than Italy.
And, finally, among these countries, Greece is by far the best performer in confronting the pandemic, at least so far.
It certainly helped, of course, that Greece has a centralized state administration system which, unlike in Spain or Italy, facilitates the fast implementation at regional and local levels of decisions taken at top state level. But this explains only part of the different reactions to the pandemic in Spain and Greece. Let’s have a closer look beginning with the case of Italy, which served as a backdrop against which the Spanish and Greek governments made their decisions.
Italy, indeed, offered early valuable lessons to any government that was willing to learn. Coronavirus was confirmed there on 31 January, when a traveling Chinese couple, originally from Wuhan, China, tested positive in Rome. In the next three weeks, more cases of infection were confirmed in the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto and, on 22 February, the first death from the coronavirus was reported.
From there on, the number of deaths in Italy went into an upward spiral. By 5 March, as the number of the deceased had reached one hundred, the government shut down all schools and universities nationwide.
On 8 March, with confirmed cases approaching 6,000, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte extended the quarantine lockout to all of Lombardy and other northern provinces, which, at the time, was the most radical measure to combat the virus taken anywhere outside China. On 10 March, the government expanded the quarantine to all of Italy and ordered Italians to stay at home.
From the first confirmed case, it took the Italian government 38 days (and 16 days since the first death) before it imposed a first nationwide lockdown. It was, unfortunately, too late. A few days later, on 19 March, Italy became the country with the highest number of confirmed deaths in the world.
Clearly, then, the chief lesson from Italy was that governments elsewhere would need to react early and take most aggressive measures in order to check the pandemic. But the reactions of the governments in Spain and Greece couldn’t differ more than they actually did. And that had very different consequences in each of these two countries.
Spain, first, was reluctant to learn from Italy. “We are going to have only a handful of cases,” asserted on 9 February Dr. Fernando Simón, an epidemiologist serving as the head of medical emergencies in Madrid. Even as the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus continued to increase, the Spanish government still resisted to take mitigating steps so as to combat the virus spread; in fact, it initially defended the decision to let mass gatherings go on.
On 8 March, about 120,000 people were allowed to march through the center of Madrid to celebrate the international Women’s Day and some 60,000 soccer fans filled one of the city’s stadiums. During that same weekend, 9,000 supporters of Vox, an upcoming right-wing party, gathered inside a former bullring.
By Friday, 13 March , Spain already had the second highest number of coronavirus infections of any European country after Italy, now facing the fastest spreading contagion on the continent and an already overwhelmed health care system. Two ministers of Sánchez’s cabinet, including Irene Montero, the partner of Deputy Premier Pablo Iglesias and one who had participated in the women’s march, tested positive. Another prominent victim of the virus was Santiago Abascal, the leader of Vox.
It was only then, on 13 March, one full month after the first death from the virus was reported (13 February) and with the tally of deaths at 189, that the government decided to close all schools and declare a state of emergency across the country. Why all this was let to happen?
For one thing, it didn’t help that Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez leads a leftist minority government that only formed with difficulty after the inconclusive elections in November 2019.
In the aftermath of that contest, Sánchez, leader of the center-left PSOE, and Pablo Iglesias, leader of left populist Unidas Podemos, formed an alliance which subsequently produced Spain’s first coalition government since its transition to democracy. The new government, consisting of the prime minister, four deputy prime ministers and 22 ministers, formed on 13 January 2020.
Nor did it help that Podemos as a populist party has thrived on political polarization, often militated against the legality of Spain’s institutions for allegedly failing to serve the people’s interests, and typically opposes technocracy and the expert knowledge stemming from it. All that played at the level of micro-politics with disastrous consequences.
Friday, 13 March, was a critical moment. Sánchez announced his intention to enact emergency measures and decree a state of alarm across all the country on the following day. But things went awfully wrong.
The coalition government’s Council of Ministers, which was meant to include only ministers considered essential for responding to the crisis, was marred by intense infighting . Pablo Iglesias, who was supposed to be in quarantine after his partner had tested positive for the virus, appeared unexpectedly to the Council objecting the concentration of powers under the ministries of interior, defense, transport, and health, all headed by PSOE politicians, and demanding that his party be given prominent roles in the national emergency situation.
He also insisted that the government takes social measures for helping poor families, such as paying rents and mortgages. According to El País , the minister of finance rejected the proposal for the high cost it involved amid a developing economic crisis.
The Council of Ministers meeting lasted eight hours and ended with acrimony on both sides with dire consequences for the country. It first of all delayed the implementation of lockdown and other emergency measures, and also led to cancelling a teleconference planned for the same day between Sánchez and the leaders of Spain’s regional governments.
Even worse, since all that happened on a sunny Saturday, several people from Madrid and other big cities left for the regions, bringing the virus with them. One such case was José María Aznar, Spain’s former conservative prime minister, who moved to his holiday villa in the rich resort of Marbella, fueling public anger against him and the government alike.
Meantime, as the death toll keeps rising, Spain’s fissured coalition government utterly failed to rally the opposition parties on its side for creating a unified front against the pandemic. Pablo Casado, the leader of the center-right People’s Party, accused prime minister Sánchez for spreading lies and misinformation, while ultra-right Vox called for Sánchez’s resignation and replacement by a government of national unity.
To make things even worse, most of the regional governments, especially in separatist Catalonia, miss no chance to show their displeasure with the incompetence of, and health crisis mismanagement by, the central state administration.
How different from Spain was the reaction to the coronavirus pandemic in the other Mediterranean country, Greece!
For starters, the effect of the virus in Greece was a particularly big setback since the country was just coming out of years of recession and recent projections for its economic future were quite optimistic.
But Greece’s government was quick to learn from Italy and Spain, and act decisively and swiftly, despite having to simultaneously face additional difficulties.
In February, Turkey ignited a refugee crisis by opening its border with Greece to Europe and aiding thousands of displaced persons to cross it. Greece responded by strengthening the border with soldiers and armed police, soliciting the support of her EU partners, and by refusing to accept asylum applications for a period of one month. The situation at the border remained tense during most of March, which diverted part of the Greek government’s attention to that crucial front.
Another problem was the cramped living conditions in refugee camps in both Greece’s islands and the mainland. And yet, the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak was nearly outstanding as it determined to reduce the spread of the virus within the country and flatten the curve as early as possible in the hope that the long-term effects on both the society and the economy could be minimized. Here’s what happened in Greece, in brief.
The first case in Greece of a person to test positive – a woman who had recently traveled to Milan – was reported on 26 February and, on the following day, two more cases were confirmed.
That same day, Greece’s minister of health cancelled all planned carnival events throughout the country and the government banned all educational trips abroad.
Only thirteen days later, on 10 March, with the number of confirmed cases totaling 89 and no deaths, the government closed all daycare centers, schools, and universities nationwide.
On 11 March, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in a nationally televised address, urged the public to follow the instructions of doctors and other experts, and admonished the Church to refrain from delivering the “holy communion” and instead cooperate with the state authorities in enforcing the public health regulations.
On 12 March, the first death from coronavirus was reported in Greece. In the few days to follow, the government shut down theaters, cinemas, restaurants, bars, shopping centers, playgrounds, museums, courthouses, parks, recreational areas, marinas, organized beaches and ski resorts; it only excluded supermarkets, pharmacies and food outlets.
Eventually, the government suspended all religious services, including the Sunday masses of the Greek Orthodox church, and also announced the closure of most hotels in the country and subjected all Greek citizens returning from abroad to mandatory 14-day quarantine.
During March, the Geek prime minister gave five nationally televised addresses (on 11, 17, 19, 22 and 25 March), every time explaining to the Greek people the development of the situation and asking them to comply to the new rules.
The government’s infectious disease spokesman, epidemiologist Sotiris Tsiodras, goes on TV every afternoon to both brief journalists and offer advise to the citizens. As of Greece’s significant opposition parties, they all showed an admirable sense of social responsibility, political moderation, and even readiness to support the government in its difficult decisions during crisis.
The major moral from the different stories of pandemic prevention in Spain and Greece is that governments matter a lot.
More specifically, they need to set aside their political compulsion and listen to experts and other technocrats; they must act early and swiftly; and they should be efficient in making working trade-offs with the society at large, various economic interest groups, and, perhaps more importantly, the political opposition.
So far, Spain’s government has unfortunately failed in all these areas with enormous cost for the Spanish society. And the Greek government gets all credit due for its success in preventing the wild spread of the virus and minimizing the suffering Greek society would otherwise have to endure.
*Takis Pappas is a trained political scientist with a PhD from Yale University and leading world expert on populism, democracy, and political leadership. The above article was published in his blog https://pappaspopulism.com/. The original article titled The politics of pandemic prevention in Spain and Greece is republished here courtesy of the author.