Fareed Zakaria: For the West, Italy was the canary in the coal mine of COVID. It was the first Western nation to have an out-of-control outbreak, and the whole boot ended up being locked down. But another Southern European country had a very different experience. While Italy is approaching 250,000 cases, Greece, a poorer country, has only had 3,000. How did that happen? Joining me now from Santorini is the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Let me ask you about those case numbers to begin with. How did you do it? Do you think you got lucky? What explains it? Because you really are one the very few countries in Europe – in the world, really – that have managed to have such a low incidence despite being a place that lots of travelers come to. What do you attribute your success to?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We took decisions very early. We listened to the experts, we communicated clearly, we let the doctors do the talking, we strengthened our healthcare system and we managed to convince the Greek population that they needed to practice social distancing. And they did. And I’m very, very grateful to Greeks across the country because the success that we have had is basically attributed to them. But I guess it’s not rocket science. We basically did what the experts told us we should do and we did it quickly, forcefully, and we’ve been able to open up our economy gradually over the past month. So far, we haven’t had any real outbreak. So, we feel comfortable that we’ve dodged the first bullet and that we’ve managed to contain the first wave of the outbreak.
FZ: As you open up, are you worried you’re going to see a spike in infections and what is the plan? Because I noticed on June 8, when you did announce some opening, you already had a large number, not by most standards, but for Greece; I think 97 new cases. Is it inevitable that, as you open up, there will be some relaxing of social distancing and, therefore, there will be more infections, and what do you do about it?
KM: Well, I think you’re right to point out Fareed that, as we do open up, the risk obviously increases. And you know, the big risk always is that we don’t want to be victims of our own success. People do become complacent. And we do stress that COVID is still with us. We need to stick to the basic social distancing rules, we need to wear masks, but of course, we’re helped by the fact that primarily in Greece, during the summer, we are outdoors and transmission rates outdoors are much lower. So far, as far as domestic cases are concerned, we haven’t seen any real significant uptake in terms of new cases, we only had, for example, four new cases reported across the country today. But of course, you know, our main concern is how do we handle opening up to foreign visitors and we have a very elaborate plan to do that. We will do it gradually. And our first concern will always be the safety and health of our visitors. I need to point out that, over the past month, we have tested every single individual who has flown into Greece. So, we have a pretty good database indicating positive cases for people who have travelled to Greece. Let me just give you one indicative number, over the past four days, we tested close to 4,000 people arriving at Athens airport and we had only two positive cases, both asymptomatic. So, if we keep to that ratio, I think we can start gradually opening up the country to foreign visitors.
FZ: Let me ask you about the broader macroeconomic picture. Because, obviously, because of this lockdown and the lockdown everywhere, the Greek economy is suffering its worst blow in a long time. I have seen estimates that the economy will shrink 5-7%, maybe 10%, in line with other European economies. But there is a difference this time. The Germans and the French have agreed, finally, to allow for a kind of Europe-wide financing, which should provide a lot of resources to Greece. Is this a kind of turning point for Europe from the perspective of Greece that has needed these funds so badly? Do you regard this as a real turning-point?
KM: You are right I think, it is a turning-point, that 2020 is going to be a very difficult year for all European countries, including Greece. So far, we’ve done better than most European countries. In the first three months of the year we had a recession of 0.9%, the eurozone average was 3.6%. But of course, we know that the second quarter is going to be extremely, extremely difficult. We’ve always argued that Europe needed to make a big step forward, to be very ambitious in terms of supporting the recovery post-COVID. And the proposal that has been put forward by the Commission, which as you rightly pointed out is based on the French-German proposal, is I think such an ambitious step. But I think you’re right to point out that Europe, and in particular France and Germany, the powerhouses, the two countries that were always at the foundation of the European integration project, stepped up to the plate, delivered and, should this proposal be accepted and I expect it to be accepted, it will be a true game changer. Just to give you an indication, as far as Greece is concerned, we will have additional funding for investments that will be close to 32 billion euros for the next four years. It is a lot of money and we intend to put it to good use.
FZ: Prime Minister, pleasure to have you on.
KM: Thank you. Thank you very much for it, pleasure. Pleasure was mine. Hope to see you in Santorini soon.
FZ: I will try my best.
- Published in Greece