Young migrants board an airplane in Athens.
Young migrants board an airplane in Athens.
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The word krisis was coined by the Greeks three millennia ago, meaning "turning point in a disease." The meaning of course has evolved and expanded since, even if our pandemic has brought the word full circle to its ancient ramifications. In Greece's more recent history, turning points have come in different forms, at rapid-fire pace over the past decade: starting with the euro turmoil and the arrival of the establishment-busting leftist Syriza party, followed by the refugee crisis and now COVID-19 that seems to bring them all simultaneously to a head.


The pandemic arrived just as some believed that Greece was finally emerging from its longstanding economic torpor, with some hoping that the 2019 election of Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the return of his business-friendly New Democracy party would further cement the country's upward economic trajectory. But the reality of the refugee crisis, so often hidden, remains and is compounded by broader economic ills: 30% of its own citizens trapped in poverty, and youth unemployment at nearly 40%.


And now, the health crisis. Though Greece has been spared the grave death tolls of other European countries, the government was quick to impose a national shutdown. But grave problems remain. As of April 20, 2020, some 35,000 migrants and asylum seekers lived in the camps on the Greek Aegean islands of Chios, Kos, Leros, Lesbos, and Samos — more than six times capacity. Human rights organizations have criticized Greek authorities for not doing enough to address the acute overcrowding and need to limit the spread of COVID-19 in camps for asylum seekers. Meanwhile, with its healthcare system in shambles after a decade of economic plague, Greece is pleading to the EU for help.


In the 21st century, there's another word with multiple meanings: "Mobility" can now refer to how we get around in our towns and in the economy. It is also what allows desperate refugees to risk their lives crossing the open sea, and lets tourists visit a Mediterranean beach for a weekend getaway. The pandemic has hit both, with reports of a near shutdown in illegal human trafficking as well as vacation travelers. Greece has again become the center of countervailing forces, a place where migrants come for shelter, tourists come for sun, and its own citizens leave for a better life elsewhere. Greece has declared that it will be ready to welcome foreign tourists by July 1. And yesterday, the country tallied its second straight day with zero COVID-19 deaths. Another turning point, perhaps. But the past two months have also taught us that the virus itself is a textbook case in modern mobility.


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