Michael Nevradakis, Ph.D. | 7 Dec 2021
Greece, which has imposed some of the strictest measures anywhere in the world in response to COVID, is set to impose mandatory vaccination for all citizens over the age of 60 and to levy a monthly fine on senior citizens who refuse the vaccine.
It was a crisp Saturday night in November. Outside the historic Rex theater in central Athens, Greece, a line formed of people waiting to see a theatrical performance of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”
Everything appeared normal until one took a closer look. Everyone in the queue was waiting to have their COVID “Green Pass” scanned in order to enter the theater, as access to such spaces in Greece is restricted to the vaccinated — and those who have recovered from COVID in the past three months.
What would Orwell have thought?
Now, Greece, a country which has imposed some of the strictest measures anywhere in the world in response to COVID, is set to impose mandatory vaccination for all citizens over the age of 60 and to levy a monthly fine on senior citizens who refuse the vaccine.
The new policy proposes a monthly fine of €100 ($113) for seniors who don’t comply by Jan. 15, 2022.
These measures were passed last week by the Greek parliament. According to the prime minister, the revenue from fines will be used to “enhance” the national health system, although many of the same politicians who support the mandate have a track record of imposing severe cuts to Greece’s health system.
With this measure, Greece became only the second European country to impose mandatory vaccination for sections of the general population, imposed by fines. Austria was the first, with fines set to be imposed beginning in February.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the decision “tortured” him but that it showed support for the most vulnerable, even if it might momentarily “displease them.”
As of this writing, 64% of Greece’s population has been fully vaccinated — under current rules, that is, which consider those who have received two doses of the Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca vaccines, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, as ‘fully’ vaccinated.
The European Union (EU) recently proposed changing the definition of “fully vaccinated” to refer to those who received a booster dose.
As stated by Akis Skertsos, minister of state responsible for the coordination of government policies, this new policy, and the rest of the government’s strict measures, are intended to act as an indirect means of obliging citizens to get vaccinated.
The government further justified the mandate by releasing data indicating 490,000 individuals in Greece over the age of 60 have not been vaccinated.
The amendment passed parliament not just with the votes of the ruling center-right New Democracy party, which alone would have been enough to secure a majority. The “democratic socialist” Movement of Change (KINAL) party, which is the successor to the PASOK party which long governed Greece, also voted in favor of mandatory vaccinations for those over 60.
Greece also reduced the interval before an individual can receive a COVID booster shot to three months.
Natural immunity, in turn, will now be recognized for only three months, down from six months previously.
While the government justifies such measures as a necessary means of protecting public health, the measures are being implemented by politicians with an extensive track record of decimating Greece’s public health infrastructure, as well as far-right ties.
EU member states increasingly imposing vaccine mandates
Recently, Austria paved the way for mandatory vaccinations, requiring its entire population to get vaccinated by February or face hefty fines or the threat of imprisonment.
Germany followed suit, announcing a policy and timeline similar to Austria’s.
Several other European countries imposed vaccination on specific professions, including healthcare workers, police officers and teachers.
Germany imposed a “lockdown of the unvaccinated,” restricting their access to businesses and public spaces.
Now, the EU may be setting the stage for mandatory vaccination throughout the 27-nation bloc, signaling the green light for more governments that may be eager to impose mandatory vaccinations in their nations.
On Dec. 1, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, stated it is time to “potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the European Union” and to have a “discussion” about this possibility.
She further stated:
“If you’re asking me what my personal position is? Two or three years ago, I would never have thought to witness what we see right now, that we have this horrible pandemic, we have the vaccines, the life saving vaccines, but they are not being used adequately everywhere.
“And thus, these costs, of course, an enormous, or this is an enormous health cost coming along.
“If you look at the numbers we have now 77% of the adults in the European Union vaccinated or if you take the whole population, it’s 66%. And this means 1/3 of the European population is not vaccinated. These are 150 million people. This is a lot.”
Von der Leyen made these remarks in response to a question posed by a reporter from the Greek state-owned Athens News Agency-Macedonia Press Agency.
That same day, the Greek government announced its vaccine mandate for those over 60.
Notably, Greece was the first European country to propose the implementation of a vaccine passport, a proposal eventually adopted as the EU’s “Green Pass,” while Greece was also the first EU member state to adopt a digital “COVID passport.”
More recently, Greece was the first EU member state to push the EU to add booster shots to the vaccine passport regime.
Reactions to the mandate in Greece
The Greek prime minister’s announcement of the mandate led to a storm of responses on social media, including Twitter. Many of these tweets expressed their opposition to this measure.
For instance, one such tweet stated:
“So, even though I am fully vaccinated, the measure of fining the non-vaccinated 100 euro is inexcusable. Who is going to be convinced to get vaccinated when they are being blackmailed? A response from the non-vaccinated is being provoked by the bums.”
Another tweet read:
“A 100 euro per month fine for the non-vaccinated over 60… even us who are vaccinated have begun to become ashamed of you.” [referring to the prime minister]
In still another tweet:
“My father suffered a stroke the day he received his second dose (coincidence?). His right arm is disabled and he pays 50 euro a week out of a pocket for physical therapy. Koulis [a popular nickname for the prime minister] can stick the 100 euros up his behind. I regret voting for him.”
Other tweets drew comparisons to the Greek military junta of 1967-1974 — called the measure the death of democracy in Greece — to the meager pensions many seniors receive and the cuts made by the current government to those pensions.
On the other hand, mainstream media newscasts and “man-on-the-street” interviews created a perception of broader acceptance of this new mandate.
As of this writing, there have been few visible protests of any kind in Greece against these new measures, other than small weekly gatherings of healthcare workers placed on unpaid leave.
Generally, protests against measures related to COVID in Greece have been limited and small in scale, paling in comparison to large protests seen in countries such as Italy, Germany, The Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom. This despite a lingering stereotype that Greece is a country where people take to the streets regularly to protest.
Characteristic of public response in Greece, Greece’s restaurant sector was asked to implement the COVID passport regime barring entry to the unvaccinated in indoor spaces, and only allowing those with a recent negative rapid test result to sit in outdoor spaces.
The sector’s trade organization recently organized a nationwide 24-hour strike, not to oppose restrictions on the non-vaccinated, but to request more financial support from the state and to request that only unvaccinated patrons found to be violating these measures be fined, and not the businesses themselves.
The restaurant industry has judiciously enforced the vaccine pass mandate thus far, as has the retail sector, in a country which is frequently stereotyped as not being “law-abiding.”
The Greek government itself remarked on the tepid opposition to COVID-related restrictions. In February, then-health minister Vasilis Kikilias said “there are huge problems in other countries with the opposition to the measures … this is not happening in Greece.”
Such remarks were recently mirrored by Mitsotakis in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, where he observed that response to such restrictions has been muted in comparison to other EU member states.
The new vaccine mandate for seniors, and the threat of its further expansion, may however be mobilizing members of the public to a greater extent than what has been observed to date.
Following the announcement of the new measures, the government claimed there was a seven-fold increase in the number of new vaccination appointments and that 25,000 new appointments were scheduled by individuals aged 60 and over.
Yet on the government’s official vaccination-tracking website, no increase in the daily rate of vaccinations has been observed as of this writing.
On this same website, the number of total vaccinations, number of first doses and number of second doses, which in the early stages of the vaccination program did add up, no longer appear to do so.
Is mandatory vaccination legal and constitutional?
Greece’s new mandate launched an immediate debate regarding the legality and the constitutionality, or lack thereof, of the new policy.
Kostas Chrysogonos, a professor of constitutional law at Greece’s Aristotle University and a former member of the European Parliament, said the measure is unconstitutional on the basis of violating one’s bodily integrity and, also, violating the principle of equal treatment, as the €100 fine will place a greater burden on poorer individuals as compared to wealthier ones.
Another constitutional law scholar, Giorgos Kasimatis, also referred to the principle of bodily integrity, stating the law cannot force individuals to accept a medical procedure.
Xenofon Kontiadis, a professor of public law and social insurance at Greece’s Panteion University, stated that while he is generally supportive of measures against those who are not vaccinated, levying a financial penalty against such individuals contravenes the constitution.
Giorgos Sotirelis, a professor of constitutional law at the National and Kapodistrian University, adopted a similar position, stating that the measure is not analogous to the threat and that other, milder, policies could instead have been implemented.
Such a position by a major media outlet in Greece is rare, as there has been broad media support for the government’s COVID measures.
The publisher of newsbomb.gr, Dimitris Giannakopoulos, is the president and CEO of VIANEX, a Greek pharmaceutical company. He made waves during the summer of 2021 when he made public references against the Great Reset supported by the World Economic Forum (WEF).
Other constitutionalists, however, said the country’s mandate is compatible with the Greek constitution. These perspectives received wider coverage in the mainstream media than those opposing the measure.
For example, Antonis Manitakis, a law professor at the University of Nicosia in Cyprus, stated in a recent interview that Greece’s vaccine mandate for those over 60 is constitutional, as it does not violate those individuals’ liberties and is a measure which “saves dozens of lives per day.”
Other scholars called into question the compatibility of Greece’s mandatory vaccination program, which began with the imposition of mandates on healthcare workers and paramedics in July 2021.
For instance, Spyridoula Katsoni of the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict, and a Ph.D. candidate at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, suggested Greece’s mandatory vaccination policies may contravene a variety of articles of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The mandatory vaccination of Greece’s healthcare workers was nevertheless found to be constitutional by the Council of State, Greece’s highest administrative court.
Panagiotis Pikramenos, former president of the Council of State and currently the country’s deputy prime minister, justified the €100 monthly fine for the non-vaccinated, stating recently, “I’d rather save one human life, rather than say that I was democratic.”
Read my lips: no new mandates … until the next one?
Since the launch of the COVID vaccination program in December 2020, the Greek government took great pains to convince the public that vaccination will not be mandatory.
In late 2020, for instance, just as vaccinations were getting underway in Greece, Skertsos stated that mandatory vaccinations will not be imposed.
More recently, in a public discussion with Steven Erlanger, the New York Times’ chief diplomatic correspondent for Europe, Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis explicitly stated that “[w]e will not impose further vaccination requirements.”
Mitsotakis repeated similar statements just 12 days before imposing the mandate for people 60 and over.
Now there is already talk of expanding the mandate to those over the age of 50.
Such statements, in the form of proposals, have come from members of the Greek government’s COVID advisory committee, and from constitutional law scholar Evangelos Venizelos, a one-time deputy prime minister, who also proposed further measures, including the expansion of financial penalties.
Minister of State Giorgos Gerapetritis also stated, on Thursday, that expansion of mandatory vaccination to further groups remains “on the table.”
The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) also got into the act, plastering Athens with posters demanding the government impose new measures, including on public transport, which remains one of the few public spaces where there are no restrictions for the unvaccinated.
Similarly, SYRIZA, the left-wing party that previously governed Greece and which is now the main opposition party, recently questioned why mandatory vaccination has not been expanded to police officers.
Pulmonologist Nikos Tzanakis, a member of the government’s COVID advisory committee, openly proposed vaccines be mandated for everyone 18 and over. He suggested it be enforced in stages, starting with those over 50, then over 40, then all others, in order to limit opposition.
Nevertheless, Mitsotakis, speaking at the Reuters NEXT Virtual Global Conference on the same day that the vaccine mandates for seniors were announced, stated there are no more plans to expand the mandatory vaccination regime.
But with similar pronouncements having been made in the past, and contradictory proposals now being openly expressed, is this claim believable?
Democracy and human rights under threat?While the threat to individual rights and individual choice from any type of mandatory vaccination regime is overt, the undercurrents behind these restrictions, including the power structures and the actors involved, raise significant questions about the very fabric of democratic governance and human rights.
To this end, Greece is a notable case study. According to the Oxford University COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, Greece has imposed the strictest set of COVID measures in Europe and third strictest worldwide. It has led the way in the imposition of digital COVID passports and it is among the first countries in Europe to issue vaccine mandates, which may be further extended.
Supporting this web of decision-making is an interrelated web of factors, ranging from politicians, businesspeople and journalists, to economic austerity that had a destructive effect on public health long before COVID materialized.
What binds all of the above factors together is the end result: It is ordinary citizens who have to face such restrictive measures, day after day, and who are being baited with a “carrot-and-stick” approach, where freedom is promised via vaccination, restrictions are then imposed or re-imposed and sharp social cleavages are fostered by treating the non-vaccinated as the bogeyman.
When not enough people respond to the government’s promises of “freedom,” mandates, which were previously said to be off the table, are imposed.
Such measures, however, are being enacted in the name of protecting public health.
In the case of Greece though, the same politicians now purporting to be protecting public health, oversaw and implemented austerity measures which decimated the country’s public health infrastructure just a few years prior — and some have long been associated with the far right.
For instance, Health Minister Thanos Plevris was formerly a member of parliament with the far-right LAOS party, and has been observed in the past participating in protests alongside members of the far-right Golden Dawn party.
Current infrastructure and development minister Adonis Georgiadis also was previously affiliated with the LAOS party.
Georgiadis served as Greece’s health minister in 2013-2014. This was a period where particularly harsh austerity measures were imposed, with sharp cuts made to public health, leading to the shutdown of hospitals and shortages of basic supplies such as bandages and heating oil. Such phenomena have continued under the present government.
In turn, Georgiadis’ former campaign manager, Matina Pagoni, is a member of The National Committee for the Protection of Public Health against COVID-19, the government’s COVID advisory committee.
This committee received legal immunity wherein its members “shall not be liable, prosecuted or held accountable for the opinions they have expressed or the votes they have cast in the performance of their duties.”
These same politicians are using what can be described as “nudge tactics” to “encourage” vaccinations, a practice author Laura Dodsworth characterized as “the tyranny of ‘behavioral science.’”
Greece is a country famous worldwide for its beauty, history, cuisine and tourist attractions. It is a country that likes to roll out the red carpet for its visitors and to put on a glowing image for foreigners, akin to that of a Potemkin village.
It can be said though that Greece’s COVID response is demonstrative of a darker side of Greece few foreigners get to see or experience.
Michael Nevradakis, Ph.D., is an independent journalist and researcher based in Athens, Greece.