My appointment to visit the Sotiria hospital in Athens was on Wednesday 29 April. It took a while for permission from the health ministry to come through and for the Guardian to give the green light. Repeated online meetings with editors covering security assessments, going through best practices and health protocols, checking and rechecking that we had the proper PPE, and that we knew what we were doing. This is all standard procedure before flying for one of my usual assignments in the Middle East, but not something I have ever done for an assignment at home before. Driving towards the hospital, one question kept turning in my head: how do you guard against a threat you can’t see? Founded in 1902 as a sanatorium handling tuberculosis cases in Greece, Sotiria is the biggest lung disease centre in the country. The past 10 years have been rough on both the hospital and its staff. A decade of austerity measures has left Greece with a dilapidated healthcare system, and when the first case of Covid-19 was reported in the country on 26 February, everyone braced for the worst. We had all seen the images coming out of Italy. By 23 March, restrictions on all non-essential movement throughout the country were put in place. Shortages in medical equipment and PPE were known from the beginning, forcing hospital staff to be smart on how they allocated their resources, while at the same time trying to increase the number of beds that could accommodate people infected by the virus.
“One month ago I wouldn’t have had the time to speak with you because we were full of patients … We were fighting against a virus that has no known cure and we didn’t know if we would make it through,” said Yiota Lourida, an infectious diseases consultant in one of the Covid-19 clinics of the hospital, as she introduced us to the team of doctors, physiotherapists and support personnel with whom she had spent most of the past two months. “Some of my colleagues volunteered from other hospitals and others asked for their expired contracts to be extended in order to remain at the hospital and help during these difficult times.” We follow her into the ”red zone” of the clinic while she visits patients. After a while I can’t help but notice the eyes of the medical staff, peeking behind their masks while they go about their tasks; tired but full of satisfaction. As we are leaving, I ask Yiota how she thinks Greece managed to flatten the curve. She says: “The real game is played outside the hospitals,” referring to the Greek people, who, in an effort to protect vulnerable groups and the elderly, diligently complied with social distancing and the lockdown.