- History & Culture
How a legacy of crises inspired Greeks’ compassionate response to COVID-19
‘The only difference is the people you are feeding.’ After years of austerity, locals are shoring up an insufficient public safety net.
October 11 was a busy day at O Allos Anthropos (“The Other Person”), a community soup kitchen in the Kerameikos neighborhood of Athens, Greece. The organization had posted an open invitation on Instagram for help. So many people showed up that there wasn’t enough for everyone to do.
One group of volunteers, donning face masks and gloves, sorted clothing donations bound for Evia and Karditsa, two regions of Greece hit hard by extreme late-summer floods. Others cooked tortellini over a gas burner on the sidewalk. The food would be packed in aluminum containers and handed out to hungry people in Kerameikos, where trendy cafes abut dilapidated buildings.
The scene was typical for Athens: a quickly mobilized, person-to-person effort responding to an emergency. It’s a responsibility that O Allos Anthropos has honed since it opened in 2011, in response to the widespread increases in food insecurity and homelessness that followed the 2010 Greek debt crisis. As a condition of European Union and International Monetary Fund bailouts, austerity measures were put in place, leaving many of Greece’s residents poor or unemployed, with little in the way of a public safety net.
In that vacuum, Konstantinos Polychronopoulos, the soup kitchen’s founder, aimed to build community and trust by cooking alongside people in need—many of whom were aging retirees. In 2015, the kitchen turned its attention to another urgent case: feeding an influx of homeless asylum seekers in the city center. This year’s coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout presented the organization with yet another major crisis.
Leap-frogging from one dire situation to another, longtime volunteer Dhimitris Nora says “the only difference is the people you are feeding.”
This trifecta of emergencies has severely debilitated Greece. In the absence of sufficient response by large-scale state and non-state institutions, organizations like O Allos Anthropos have become part of a widespread, informal network of groups and individuals in Athens providing support to vulnerable communities.
For many, this grassroots infrastructure has become a crucial lifeline during the pandemic, even more so now as spikes in coronavirus cases compel the country to grind through a second lockdown that began November 7. For at least three weeks, residents are again restricting their movements, leaning on local groups to get through this new phase in the pandemic with seemingly no end in sight.
Tackling the pandemic in a weakened state
The first confirmed case of coronavirus in Greece was reported on February 26. Over the next few weeks, the population watched uneasily as case numbers slowly ticked upward and as nearby Italy struggled with its out-of-control early outbreak. Greece’s health system had taken serious hits under a decade of austerity measures, and its ability to test, trace, and care for COVID-19 patients was limited. (Lonely residents grapple with life indoors as coronavirus shuts Italy down.)
Recognizing its weaknesses, the Greek government imposed a countrywide lockdown on March 23. The move was largely preemptive: Only 624 cases had been detected across the country. (In comparison, Italy imposed its countrywide lockdown on March 9, with 9,172 confirmed cases, and Spain on March 14, with 6,251.) Alongside supermarket trips and physical exercise, one of the six approved reasons to leave home during Greece’s lockdown was to help people in need—and the needy were many.
“Everything changed in two days,” says Nora. “Everything closed. The government was feeding people, but they stopped. The church stopped feeding people. And some NGOs stopped. So it was only us.”
Material deprivation has been widespread in Greece for years. In 2019, the Hellenic Statistical Authority found that one in three Greeks out of a total population of nearly 11 million was at risk of falling into poverty or social exclusion, a high figure within the European Union. State welfare reforms put in place in recent years—including a minimum income scheme supporting households living in extreme poverty since 2017 and a new means-tested housing benefit in operation since 2019—have not proven sufficient to keep pace with Greece’s proliferating social challenges.
Just before the pandemic, the municipality of Athens (population 664,000) had been serving some 1,500 prepared meals daily to the city’s homeless from a center downtown and giving out an additional 500 weekly dry ingredient packages to people who were unemployed or in extreme poverty.
In mid-March, as coronavirus restrictions expanded, some of these services paused with little advance warning, says Tassos Smetopoulos, the founder and coordinator of Steps, an NGO that supports “street-connected people”—its term for homeless and socially excluded populations—in Athens. “In my opinion, [the pandemic] was a good excuse to stop providing any support to the most vulnerable people,” Smetopoulos says.
In its own defense, the municipality of Athens denies that its own support systems stopped during the lockdown. Rather, changes were made to the manner of support, says Grigoris Leon, head of the municipality’s department for reception and solidarity. Relatively more meals were distributed inside of shelters and reception centers than on the street, Leon says, and overall, more Athenians found themselves in need of food as NGOs closed their doors.
In response to the increase in hungry people, Steps upped its meal distribution during the lockdown. O Allos Anthropos increased its food production tenfold, from 200 to 2,000 meals per day. Others, including the advocacy group Syrian-Greek Youth Forum (SGYF), partnered to produce thousands more meals, which they distributed across the city.
From seeking asylum to giving support
Facing a dearth of institutional services, a diverse population of Athens residents filled the void. In addition to prepared and raw food distribution, individuals and groups formed neighborhood solidarity networks and made protective gear for first responders and neighbors.
A seamstress and fashion designer from Afghanistan, Shafigheh Qias was one of the many people who stepped up. In early April she received a phone call from the Ankaa Project, an NGO that normally runs skill-shares and educational courses benefitting refugees in Athens. Instead of shutting its doors, Ankaa was converting its facilities into an impromptu mask-making workshop and sought her expertise. She guided other volunteers who were learning to iron, cut, and sew donated fabrics into masks designed in accordance with an amalgamation of guidelines from other grassroots groups and European public health organizations.
Initially, the cloth face masks that Qias helped produce were distributed through Ankaa volunteers’ personal and professional networks. As Ankaa’s mask-making capacity expanded, the small NGO secured formal agreements with bigger NGOs and European embassies, which distributed their masks on a larger scale. By the end of the spring lockdown, thousands of Ankaa Project masks had made their way to hospitals, refugee camps, and individuals.
For some of Athens’s newest residents who fled to Europe from other crisis-afflicted regions, responding to the pandemic was about taking responsibility for their adoptive communities.
“I believe I really belong” in Greece, says Kareem Kabbani, a member of SGYF, who arrived in the capital city seeking asylum in early 2016. “I don’t consider myself as a refugee, passing through. We have a responsibility to nature, to the community, to ourselves.”
During the lockdown, Kabbani cooked meals each weekday to distribute in collaboration with other refugee-oriented NGOs and grassroots groups. In addition to food preparation, SGYF made 50,000 plastic face shields for the Greek health ministry, using a borrowed 3-D printer.
After Greece lifted its lockdown in the summer, SGYF members resumed planning on a cultural and political “sound festival” bringing together art from Greek and migrant communities. Called “The City Talks Back,” the three-day event originally scheduled for spring 2020 is meant to highlight the diversity of Athens through performances of music, dance, poetry, and theater, as well as visual arts. It has now been postponed to May 2021, with the hope that it can be held in person. (How art helps us make sense of COVID-19’s incomprehensible toll.)
Community in the new normal
In the wake of the pandemic, some establishments are evolving to meet new needs. Located on a corner in the tree-lined, multicultural neighborhood of Kypseli, To Mirmingi (“The Ant”) is a steki—a type of self-organized community center, where “you can socialize without needing to go to a magazi [shop] and buy,” says community member Gregory Tsardanidis. Mirmingi was started in 2013 by a group of Greek political activists invested in social solidarity as a response to the economic crisis.
Although anyone can come to Mirmingi, a core group of 30–50 neighbors tend to organize and participate in its weekly assemblies and scheduled events: food and clothing distribution, film screenings, and theater group meetings. In addition, a “solidarity school” offers after-school help, especially for Kypseli’s many immigrant children adjusting to the Greek school system. It’s also a place where neighbors can drop in at any time for a drink (Mirmingi sells beer and offers tea for free) and a chat.
“We have lost this because of COVID,” says Tsardanidis. During the first lockdown, Mirmingi closed its indoor social space, intensified its dry food distribution, and started cooking meals in collaboration with a local kitchen run by a collective of activist volunteers.
The pandemic changed the mood: Instead of people coming in to drink tea and talk while collecting their food, they received packages passed through the window of the building—“which is not polite,” Tsardanidis says. “But it was more important for them to get food than to be politically correct.”
Many of Mirmingi’s older participants have had to curb their engagement due to the pandemic. However, the crisis has “revived” the steki, Tsardanidis says, by bringing in a number of new members—mostly younger residents who responded to requests for support during lockdown.
In Kypseli and around central Athens, as established stekia and informal neighborhood activist diktia (networks) expanded their operations to respond to the pandemic, new groups also formed.
“A lot of these groups wanted to immediately dismiss the kind of narrative that just said, ‘Stay at home and wait,’” says Andreas Bloom, an NGO worker who started a Facebook group to coordinate person-to-person mutual aid efforts after the Greek schools closed on March 11. Members of Bloom’s group posted information to facilitate deliveries of food, medicine, and other basic goods to those who needed them. “That narrative implied that, first of all, we’re all living in similar conditions,” he says, “and second of all, that everything’s going to be OK. And it turned out to be that we’re not OK at all.”
Facing the second wave—and the future
As summer turned to fall, coronavirus case numbers in Greece began to creep up again—and then to take off exponentially. According to the WHO, Greece saw 4,477 confirmed coronavirus cases from the start of the pandemic to August 1. By November 1, the number of cases had risen to 39,251. (Here’s where coronavirus cases are rising and falling.)
In a bid to avoid the economic toll of a second lockdown, the government imposed a flurry of measures in September and October: restrictions on social gatherings, a universal mask mandate in indoor and outdoor public spaces, and nighttime curfews. But with cases continuing to rise and increasingly crowded intensive care units in hospitals, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced the latest three-week countrywide lockdown in early November.
Kabbani had hoped to do research into how the pandemic was affecting members of Greece’s refugee community over the long term—both in terms of social life, and its effects on the bureaucratic systems surrounding asylum claims. As the second lockdown gets underway, Kabbani says it is not yet clear what sort of immediate response SGYF might take up.
If anything can be said for certain these days, it’s that the coronavirus isn’t going away anytime soon. In mid-August, infectious disease expert and Greek government advisor Gkikas Magiorkinis announced that the country had slipped into a second wave of the pandemic. Today, this second wave is proving more damaging in Greece than the first: Over half of the country’s 1,000-plus coronavirus fatalities have occurred since October 18, according to authorities.
Yet, Athens is primed to continue its tradition of community crisis response in the face of the new lockdown. Although he thinks mutual aid networks like the Kypseli solidarity group are unlikely to become institutionalized on a national scale, Bloom nonetheless retains a guarded optimism.
“I’m hoping that people doing this together, trying to respond to this emergency, means that they also become more sensitive—that they’re going to use these experiences later on in their life, to basically make society better,” he says. “It’s a precedent, let’s put it that way.”