The need for local place leadership in times of crisis: Part 2

Corfu, Greece

by Dr Heather Skinner

Last week I wrote a relatively damning piece praising the initiatives to help stem the spread of COVID-19 that had been taken by the central Greek government, and castigating the lack of leadership evident at a local level across the three Municipalities responsible for the Ionian island of Corfu. There have been a number of developments since then that have highlighted not only how local leadership is vital at times of crisis to gather support from the local population for any crisis response measures, but also that grassroots initiatives must be developed in a coordinated manner.

20th March 2002

My last blog post on “The need for local place leadership in times of crisis” appeared on the IPM website and a range of social media on Corfu. This received comments from local Corfiots such as: “The local council’s response has been pitiful. There still seems to be a sense that this will all blow over pretty soon (if only)”.

That day the South Corfu Mayor released a statement informing local citizens that two social support services will start from Monday 23rd, operating from the two largest villages in the Municipality, offering help for vulnerable and housebound citizens with shopping for essential supplies, picking up prescription medication from pharmacies, and delivering any necessary legal documentation required by citizens who cannot leave their homes.

The Mayor for Central Corfu and Diapontia Islands also issued a statement encouraging short-term letting owners such as those providing Airbnb style accommodation to comply with the lockdown measures for the sake of everyone on the island, and not to sacrifice public health and flout the law for short-term individual profits.

Ferry travel to Corfu will now be restricted to only the island’s permanent residents, and the national bus service will offer a very restricted service until further notice. As new measures are introduced at a national level to close the majority of all-year round hotels across Greece, only one hotel will remain open on Corfu.

22nd March 2020

A small group of undoubtedly well-meaning ex-pats had set up an initiative that was shared widely across social media to aim to help those in need across the island. The group was asking for volunteers to go and find people who needed help with shopping for essentials, and pharmacy visits etc. There was absolutely no mention of checking locally with the Corfiot population in the villages what coordinated efforts were already being made through the Municipality. The group lasted only a day or two until this morning the Civil Protection Agency has had to step in and remind them that during lockdown a group of uncoordinated helpful ex-pat volunteers running willy-nilly around the island might cause more problems than it solved, especially if total lockdown was to be implemented as had been already suggested in the local news media. While I am certainly in no way uncritical of the local Municipalities when I feel they are not doing enough or are misdirecting any effort they do make across a range of local place management issues, I find that this attitude of many ex-patriates who obviously do not integrate into the local community, to assume nothing is being done about problem A, B, or C, and that they must step in to save the day, is a little discourteous at best, and a little Imperialist at worst. I am a firm believer in the need for grassroots initiatives to solve many problems places face, but such initiatives, especially on an island where well over 10% of the population are ex-patriate immigrants, must involve everyone, and where initiated by the ex-pats themselves, must be coordinated with any local indigenous efforts. Here local leadership could help, by ensuring communications in at least one foreign language, and by engaging the ex-patriate community in local developments. If all communications are made only in Greek, and only through the local municipal meetings, then the wider community will not even know what is going on.

23rd March 2020

Whilst we already had many crisis response measures in place by the time I wrote my last piece, total lockdown was implemented across Greece at 06:00 on Monday 23rd March. The announcement was made by the Prime Minister in his address to the nation at 18:00 the previous evening, not giving citizens much time to prepare for what was to come.

The North Corfu Mayor almost immediately released a message of support “We’re here for you”, reminding and reassuring citizens that the Municipal Council and community presidents “we’ll take care of  you” and encouraging all citizen to stay at home, keeping in touch with their family and friends, but leaving the crisis response to the officials responsible, to comply with the lockdown and all appropriate health and safety measures, and to trust the experts. A range of telephone numbers of the local civil protection, health, and emergency services were also circulated.

This total lockdown is designed to restrict as much as possible any movement outside of the home, and authorisation to go out can be made by SMS or with a hardcopy form[1]. It really is quite simple once you get the hang of it. However, on Sunday night and all through Monday 23rd and Tuesday 24th the local social media groups were full of posts asking for more clarity about the situation. There is still some confusion evidenced though, as some people on the island have been stopped by the police saying only one person may be allowed in a car at any one time, whereas the new regulations allow two, and some police on the island are not accepting the handwritten version of the form. We therefore still need more local leadership to ensure a full coordination of effort across the island. It is a shame it didn’t happen from Day 1 of total lockdown. However, the situation will calm down as people get more used to it, and as the police actually get clarity themselves about what the new restrictions mean and how to implement them.

24th March

The country’s main airline Aegean announces it will suspend all inbound and outbound international flights between 30th March and 30th April, and will run only a limited domestic service.

Corfu has a huge problem with stray animals. Many are cared for by local business owners and employees, and now while these are closed during lockdown, it was heartening to hear that the Central Corfu and Diapontia Islands Municipality is providing extra food and care for these strays, with the responsible department creating extra feeding spots for them and ensuring the feeding spots are kept well supplied, and ensuring these efforts are being coordinated with the local animal welfare volunteers.

I must claim coincidence rather than cause for the recent mobilisation of effort from the local authorities and cannot assume that the extent to which my post had been shared widely across the island had any effect. However, it is good to see the new measures and messages of support now coming from the Mayors during this time of uncertainty. Despite a number of violations of the lockdown[2], Corfu’s resident population is all pulling together and complying with the very stringent lockdown measures in the hope this will keep COVID-19 away from the island, and we need to see this evidence of local leadership at this time. At the time of writing there are still no recorded cases of the virus on the island. Citizens seem to be happy to comply with these even more stringent measures if it means the situation will stay that way.

[1] The exception to lockdown measures being for employees who need to physically go to work, and for other individuals to visit the doctor, pharmacy, bank (if it is not possible to undertake the transaction online), to visit family members in need of care, to visit the supermarkets for essential supplies (with a limit to one visit per day, and only if a delivery service is not available), for exercise as long as no more than two people go together, and to walk the dog. Anyone leaving the home must either send a text message to a free number giving the numerical code of the activity they will be undertaking, their name, and their address, this triggers an automated text to be received confirming your authorisation to leave the home that can then be shown if you are stopped by the police. If anyone cannot do that by text there is another option to either fill in a printed form that can be downloaded from a central government website, and if anyone cannot do that then the information on the form may be handwritten. This form must then be carried with you every time you leave the home along with a passport or ID card.

[2] On Tuesday 24th there were 142 recorded violations of the lockdown measures in Corfu. The next day 60 fines were issued for lockdown violations. However anecdotal evidence would seem to suggest that a lot of these may have been caused by confusion amongst citizens of the appropriate methods of obtaining authorisation to leave the home rather than any deliberate attempts at moving around or congregating with others.