ATHENS - Greek police have reinforced security around a community of Roma in central Greece as government health officials prepare to enter the settlement today to remove 35 people infected with the coronavirus.
The infections mark a sharp uptick in Greece's almost spotless record of COVID cases. Even so, members of the Roma community at the settlement of Nea Smyrni are resisting a lockdown order, staging violent protests in response to what they call racial targeting.
Dumpsters were set ablaze and a local journalist was brutally beaten, hit with stones and pummeled in the face. Health officials were chased away and residents refused to heed a 14-day lockdown order on the settlement of 3,000, among the biggest in the country. No arrests were made for fear of inflaming the worst COVID-related protests to grip Greece since the outbreak of the pandemic.
However, the deputy minister for civil protection and crisis management in the Ministry of Citizen Protection, Nikos Hardalias, said health officials will return again today to remove the infected patients. He is calling for cooperation.
"Stopping the spread of this virus will only benefit local communities, so cooperation is imperative," he said.
Hardalias refused to elaborate, but authorities have boosted patrols around the settlement to enforce the quarantine.
This is not the first time Nea Smyrni has been struck by the coronavirus, nor is it the first 14-day lockdown authorities have decreed for it. Locals, now though, are defying the order, saying it is more racially than health-motivated.
Emerging from the crowd of protesters, one person held a batch of medical tests in his hand to explain why.
He said several residents had undergone COVID antibody testing at local private laboratories, and all of them showed they were immune to the virus.
Health officials here are dismissing the results. They say such blood screening exams are not reliable enough. They say testing can go wrong in several places and that only detailed screenings at state hospitals should be trusted. Whether the Roma in Nea Smyrni are convinced remains to be seen.
With one of Europe’s lowest infection rates, Greek authorities are not taking any chances.
Police say they will remain on standby, ready to intervene and, this time, make arrests if new violence erupts and the infected Roma are prevented from being taken to a local hospital for treatment and observation.