The coronavirus outbreak in Greece should have been a disaster. As a popular tourist destination, Greece receives over 30 million visitors per year, representing a potentially catastrophic risk of COVID-19. Somehow, however, the country seems to have avoided the worst pandemic ever in the age of the Anthropocene. Can we speak of a Greek miracle?
Historically, pandemics have been a common health issue in Greece in the last few centuries. In ancient times, it would seem that Greece was the first Mediterranean country in Europe infected with leprosy: apparently it was brought by the Phoenicians in the middle of the second millennium from the Eastern Mediterranean. The country then received further infections during the military campaigns of Darius and Xerxes, as well as during the campaigns of Alexander the Great, the Romans to Assyria, Syria and Egypt, the Crusades, and the invasions of Turkish and Egyptian troops during the War of Independence.
The most significant example was the small island close to Crete named Spinalonga, where people with leprosy were sent to stay in quarantine. Spinalonga, a small island in the Gulf of Elounda in north-eastern Crete, was used to isolate people affected by leprosy from 1903 to 1957. In 1901, the government passed a decree for the isolation of people affected by leprosy and established Spinalonga as the location for the colony. With Greece involved in several wars and struggling financially during the early twentieth century, the inhabitants of Spinalonga lived in very poor conditions. There was inadequate supply of fresh water for drinking and washing, and the patients were not given the ability to grow their own food. Supplies were obtained through people from nearby villages, who set up a daily market on the island; however, the government allowance the Spinalonga inmates received was often insufficient to cover food and medicines. It is obvious that some small islands were the places of isolation and social distances. Greek government passed the people to these small islands for their stay in quarantine to avoid the spread of the plague in the mainland of the country.
Cholera and Spanish Flu were further recurring problems in Greece’s pandemic history, although the country managed to contain the viruses ahead of most of Europe. Cholera struck Greece in 1853-1854, brought by the French troops during the Crimean War, and again during the Balkan Wars (1912-13) when the Bulgarian troops brought it to northern Greece. Due to successive wars, medical assistance was not always available, so desperate people turned many times to religion through processions in honour of local saints, praying for their salvation from the epidemics. On 19 July 1918, a local newspaper entitled Thessalia was the first to announce the arrival of Spanish Flu in Greece, when an outbreak occurred in the city of Patras.
In the twenty-first century, the Greek government has been able to move so rapidly not despite its crippled public healthcare system, but because of it. The government quickly banned all non-essential travel overseas, with one eye on the situation in Southern Europe. The weak healthcare system meant that harsh measures had to be implemented early in order to save lives and come together again in the future; daily broadcasting about the situation inculcated a sense of civic responsibility. The lockdown measures have been greeted with widespread support for the same reasons.
From a cultural perspective, every discussion of the future always ends with wishes for good health and promises of seeing each other again. Health is of course the most important factor, and when the Greeks are united and together, the result is obvious: we fight against the “enemy” as heroes. Lockdown in Greece has revised the way we think about topics such as togetherness, family time, and the relations between people: all these are inherent to a culture in which relationships become all the stronger in the face of threats that may endanger or destroy them.
From my perspective as a PhD Candidate of Modern Greek Philology studying comparative literature, environmental and post-humanities, literary theory, and phenomenology, COVID-19 has encouraged us to deepen and reinforce our connections with others and to unite our voices against the virus. Reading and writing has become both our anchor and our destination as we drift through a perilous world; our major challenge is to live with this horizon of uncertainty, and with the eco-anxiety that it occasions. This is now the defining aspect of reading and writing about the humanities in the era of the Covidocene. We are entering a new ‘pandemic turn’ in the humanities, especially in comparative literature where we can speak about a new theoretical movement of pandemic culture / theory as a hybrid theoretical form.
The main challenge is to understand the new character of pandemics in the humanities, and how pandemics in turn form and shape our human nature. The post-humanities can deal with pandemics by addressing and highlighting the impact of the virus on our daily life (literature, economics, technology, robotics, metabolic poetics etc.). Writing, narrating or speaking about COVID-19 can help provide articulations of the phenomenon in the public sphere. Many students, teachers, and researchers have been drawn to the environmental humanities because of a desire to contribute, through academic work, to the well-being of society and of the planet. Even though we might feel that fundamental ideas about the meaning of human nature and other phenomena that pertain to civilization as a whole may not appear pertinent to the urgency of daily conversations in the news, our position within environmental studies urges us to acknowledge that we can contribute something by offering strategies and forms of communication that are crucially needed to deal with the concerns of today’s world.
To think about our role as scholars and/or public intellectuals at the current moment, in the middle of an enormous global crisis that clearly has ecological dimensions to it as well, is both ironic and fascinating. It urges us to think about possible pathways. Can we contribute any ideas arising from our research to the current debate around COVID-19? What do we have to say about the crisis – either directly or with relation to issues that are connected with it – from our perspective as experts in the environmental humanities? How and where can we communicate our ideas? What concerns may be pushed to the background now that COVID-19 dominates the headlines, but that are still relevant and happening at the same time? These are just some of the questions regarding the future of the humanities and specifically the future of literary theories and comparative literature respectively. In Greece, as in other countries, we are busy considering all these perspectives and more. The pandemic has much to teach us, if only we will listen.