Melissa Silver has been on Lesvos volunteering with refugees since September last year. Here she speaks about the situation on the Greek island during the corona pandemic and and on March 19 she told how it compared to Lewis…
With a population of just over ten million, Greece has had, according to coronatracker.com, 418 confirmed cases of corona and 6 deaths. Scotland with its population of just over five million, has had 266 confirmed cases and six deaths.
The first case in Greece was recorded on February 26. By March 10, the government had announced the closure of all schools and community centres; March 14 brought with it the closure of all pubs, clubs, cafes restaurants, except for takeaway, and no more than five people are allowed to be in line at once. All stores have been shut since Wednesday, save for pharmacies, fuel stations and grocery stores. From Sunday, the government is due to announce, all flights to and from Greece will cease for the time-being.
Everything here on Lesvos has gone from quiet to a whole new level of silent in the past couple of days; the streets are dead. As volunteers here to help with the humanitarian crisis, we’ve been forced to stop too. With only one confirmed corona case on Lesvos – which was confirmed more than a week ago, and there have been no confirmed cases since – I am actually surprised at the way in which the locals of Lesvos seem to be obeying the rules. Perhaps the proximity to Italy – in both geography and culture – has made Greece sit up and listen as Italy cries out for the rest of the world to act before it’s too late.
At the supermarket – my main source of entertainment at the moment – you are handed a number upon entry, in order for them to limit the number of shoppers inside at one time. At the till, when there’s someone in front of you paying, you have to stand a good two metres away, at the start of the aisle – and if you accidentally don’t, you will be shouted at in Greek (I learnt that the hard way).
You cannot find antibacterial hand gel for love nor money but other than that, there has been no obvious panic-buying, the shelves are still full. Lesvos is a minimum of five hours by boat from the Greek mainland (more like twelve to Athens) but so far no one has freaked out that we might be left with no food. I don’t know why it’s so different in the UK but I’ve been saddened to read about the situation back home – it’s already stressful without individuals creating a stress that needn’t be there.
A fellow volunteer here said something to me around five days ago (and as we all know, five days is a heck of a long time at the moment) which really resonated with me. Acknowledging that we are here to help people, she said: we need to accept that at some point soon, it might be that the only way we can help people will be by doing nothing but staying inside to protect them. And that isn’t just relevant here on Lesvos – we can all stay home, watch Netflix or catch up on our ironing, and feel smug knowing that we are heroes.
Disclaimer: I’m not an expert, I’m just obsessive, but here are a few things I’ve learnt from some reading that I’ve had more than enough time to do…
Do not just ‘take it on the chin’
If a large number of people get seriously ill at once, our health service (any health service) will not be able to cope. This virus exists, I guess it always will, and we will likely get it at some point just like the regular flu, but the point is that we must not all get it at once – that’s what this ‘flattening the curve’ jargon is all about. Most of the people who have died from corona have been elderly or suffering from a previous condition, but still young, healthy people are being hospitalised. And even if only the elderly ended up hospitalised with corona, that would still mean our health service would be overwhelmed, meaning that people could start dying from things they would normally be able to get treatment for simply because the hospitals won’t have the capacity to deal with all this. Don’t panic, just follow the advice that’s been thrown at you by the bucket-load (here’s some more). Even if you’re showing no symptoms, you could be carrying it and passing it on to someone else – who will pass it onto someone else, who will pass... you get the idea.
Because any of us could have it and not realise it or transfer it to someone with our bodies even if we don’t catch it ourselves, this is why we have to hide away in our homes for a wee bit. Be a hero: stay home, drink tea, take naps, read that book that’s been sitting by your bed for months, watch endless re-runs of your favourite shows, live your best lazy life. Or if you don’t want to be lazy, do some yoga or workout videos. Lots of people still have to go to work, but in the times that you don’t have to be anywhere, just enjoy, guys. It’s also okay to go for walks, of course, get some air, but just avoid contact with people when possible.
Wash your hands
Shock, horror! Let’s gloss over the fact that people are acting like they didn’t know hand-washing was important (it always has been). Anti-bacterial hand gel (with at least 60% alcohol) is great for if you’re out and about and have no access to soap and water, but soap and water is preferable as it breaks down the virus, destroying it. Everyone says wash for 20 seconds, I don’t know why 20, but it seems worth the time-investment. Remember that this isn’t bacteria that we’re dealing with so it doesn’t matter if it’s anti-bacterial soap, any old soap will do. Just wash – regularly!
Keep your house clean
When we come in from being outside, we normally don’t think about what we’re bringing in with us. Maybe we take off our shoes, maybe we don’t, but that’s about it. Corona has been shown to survive on a multitude of materials for days, so even if you keep your hands clean, it could enter your house on one of your possessions. Leave your outdoor jacket and bag at the door, wash your hands as soon as you can (be mindful of what you touch between entering and washing – I also go back and clean any light switches/door knobs but it’s hard to know where to draw the line…), clean your phone. Phones are gross anyway: think about how many times you’ve taken your phone to the toilet – well, we all do that – and all the things you’ve touched before you’ve held your phone. Yuck. Give it a wipe. I also clean any packaging of items I’ve bought – how many times have you picked up a packet in the supermarket, read it, then decided ‘nah’ – well, we all do that.
Don’t hug, kiss, or shake hands
This is a challenge, I know. But my friends and I have developed some fun foot greetings to replace our usual hugs, and an elbow bump entertains everyone who tries to shake your hand (I think, although it seems very British, handshaking is actually more common here, especially amongst young people, so maybe this won’t be a challenge for you). The thing is you can’t control what everyone else does – I have a friend here who continues to shake everyone’s hands and not often wash his own – and it’s not worth the risk of touching someone who could have just been in contact with the virus. The advice is to keep a two-metre distance. I say we just follow that – it’s not forever.
You know this. Even if you did it this afternoon, you know that you shouldn’t and needn’t. Nothing has suggested that supermarkets will suddenly stop functioning – even in Italy with their 30,000+ cases, they can still buy food, and as borders are closing to stop people going on wee corona holidays, they aren’t stopping the import and export of goods, so put the toilet roll down. (Do you know that billions of people in the world don’t actually use toilet roll? It’s not a necessity at all. What a strange thing to hoard.)
Remember it’s not forever
I was due to move into a house where one of the residents was adamant that she would keep having multiple visitors every day because she ‘needs people around her’. I empathise with that, but we’re talking about short-term measures so that we don’t have to be affected long-term. I moved to a different apartment with one friend, and we love a party but we’re not having visitors – sorry! Let’s be lonely and bored for a few weeks so that soon we can go back to normal life. We’re all in this together – we really are, it’s the scariest and most beautiful thing about all of this – and we’ll get through it together.