The first covid free areas in Greece are going to become the Aegean islands by the end of April, as vaccination efforts are intensifying in tourist destinations hoping for an influx of tourists.
In one of the biggest operational challenges of modern times, authorities have pledged that at least 69 islands will be fully vaccinated by the end of April.
"We have so many small islands," said Marios Themistocleous, a health ministry official overseeing the program, quoted by British media. "Precisely because it is so difficult to accept supplies, we decided to vaccinate the entire populations in one go, in order to start accepting tourists when the permanent residents are fully vaccinated and protected."
According to the plan, which was designed with the help of the armed forces, the delivery of thousands of vaccines to remote islands will increase in the coming weeks.
Marios Themistocleous described the operation as complicated. Planes, helicopters and Coast Guard ships have assisted with the help of soldiers, civil protection officials and the police participating in different stages. "It is very difficult to transport vaccines to an island," he told the Guardian. "It requires a specific process that involves a lot of people; everyone has a special mission as soon as the boxes leave our warehouses."
At a time when urban centers across Greece are struggling to quell the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic that is now spreading across Europe, the country's vast range of islands has remained remarkably untouched by the crisis.
Almost all the inhabitants of Lipsi have been vaccinated
In Lipsi, Fotis Maggos, the mayor of the island, proudly stated that there was "only one case" of coronavirus since the outbreak of the pandemic in the country. "And that was a soldier who came back from leave when he tested positive," he said. "We look at Athens and other cities and realize how lightly it has touched us. We are in lockdown, our shops and schools are closed, but we will throw all our weight on the people who are going to come ".
Both the island and the Greek economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism, Mangos said the vaccination program - called "Freedom" - has overwhelming support.
Almost the entire adult population of 800 people living permanently in Lipsi has been vaccinated. "45% are under 18, but almost everyone else has taken the second dose and 86 people will take the second dose this weekend. I hear that tourist bookings have gone up. We are very, very satisfied ".
They are looking forward to the tourists in Patmos
On the adjacent island of Patmos, a popular destination for celebrities, religious pilgrims and the cosmopolitan elite, the prospect of "Covid free" within a few weeks has been greeted with enthusiasm.
"About 3,100 people live here in the winter, and most over the age of 60 have been vaccinated," says Eleftherios Pentes. "The list closes this Friday and almost everyone, aged 18 to 59, is registering for the vaccine. "Last November we had 25 cases and I think it was a lesson for all of us."
In these places, which often feel cut off from the rest of the world, as soon as the summer is over, the vaccination effort has also boosted morale. For those working in the tourism sector, it was welcome news, especially after last year's scary data, says Dimitris Grilis, manager of a small hotel in Patmos.
"Just the idea that we will be covid free removes a dose of uncertainty," he says excitedly. "You should be happy that you are working and both practically and psychologically this will help the staff. "Last year we had the kind of losses you usually see in a war."
Kastelorizo will be in an enviable position worldwide
Greece's "Freedom" program has not gone unnoticed even in faraway Australia. "We are very happy," says Chrysi Verevi, who under normal circumstances spends most of her time with her husband Giannis in Kastelorizo. "It is an unexpected pleasure to know that this tiny, and sometimes vulnerable island must now be in such an enviable position worldwide."