Thessaloniki, Greece – When a mobile COVID vaccination unit arrived at his Greek village, Yiorgos Toumanidis showed up for his booster shot.
“I know what it’s like,” said the 71-year-old, who has had the virus. “I spent a month at home with antibiotics … That’s when we understood what’s going on, how dangerous the situation is. I didn’t hesitate. With the first opportunity, I did the vaccine.”
But not everyone in Mandalos, home to just 1,200 people, was as quick off the mark.
Maria Kourouktsidou waited for the busy summer season at the local fruit cannery, where she works, to pass.
“I was worried, of course,” the 54-year-old said. “Many people got sick at work … not everyone wore masks. Management told people to, but then they’d take them off.”
Mandalos is the beneficiary of an outreach vaccination initiative gathering momentum since late summer.
In Greece’s north, where infections run especially high, mobile units have performed dozens of sorties and delivered more than 4,500 jabs to people in far-flung communities.
They are especially targeting people above 65 years of age.
Government figures show that although this age group suffers 12.2 percent of all COVID-19 cases, it accounts for half of the hospitalisations and 83.2 percent of deaths.
Those rates have surged since early October. Infections have tripled to roughly 6,000 a day, and deaths to about 90 a day.
Amid a surge in inductions and intubations in the north, the government last month began ordering private sector pulmonologists, pathologists, general practitioners and nurses to work in public hospitals for a month to cover staffing shortfalls.
But the government’s real focus is not to increase capacity in intensive care units, where statistically 16 percent of patients survive COVID-19.
Rather, it has been to increase vaccination, because 80 percent of intubated patients are unvaccinated.
Dimitris Tsalikakis is coordinating these vaccination efforts in an area stretching from Thessaloniki to the Turkish border.
He has been co-opting mayors, priests and football teams to help bring crowds to vaccination events.
“Some people put it off for the summer because they had work in the fields. Others didn’t understand how serious this disease is. Others were confused by the different viewpoints they heard,” Tsalikakis tells Al Jazeera. “The point is, people need to understand this is serious. We see what’s going on in hospitals. We’re asking the elderly to get vaccinated because it’s key to how they weather the illness.”
Greece still lags behind the rest of Europe, with 62 percent of the total population fully vaccinated, versus a continental average of 66 percent.
One reason is lack of information.
“People who don’t want to do it are afraid, or think they know more than doctors do … They say, ‘Why are you doing it? The cells in your body will be destroyed’,” said Mandalos’s community president, Christos Avramidis. “They thought their lungs will be destroyed.”
Kourouktsidou also heard theories at the cannery.
“They heard about a microchip being put inside you that controls you,” she said.
Yiorgos Anastasiadis, 64, believes pharmaceutical companies have enlisted politicians and experts to sell a placebo.
“Don’t experts get paid? Don’t they go to whomever pays them most? And don’t they say what the people who pay them want them to say? Am I wrong?”
Sticks and carrots
The New Democracy government has tried carrots in the past with success.
Last July, it offered a 150-euro ($170) inducement to the unvaccinated aged 18-25 to get their shots. By the end of August, 308,000, almost a third of that demographic, had made use of the offer. In October, it rolled out a programme offering 15- to 17-year-olds 50MB of free data on their mobile phones.
It is now employing sticks.
On November 30, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told a cabinet meeting Greece would impose the first European fine on the unvaccinated.
Those above 60 who refuse the shot will start paying a 100 euros ($120) monthly fine beginning next month.
“It’s not a penalty. I’d say it’s a health levy, motivation for precaution, a boost to life, but also an act of justice towards the vaccinated majority,” said Mitsotakis. “We can’t have people being deprived of public health services they need because certain others have dug in their heels and refuse to do what is self-evident.”
The measure appears to have had some success. Some 60,000 seniors signed up for the vaccine within a week – as many as had signed up in all of November.
What Greece has not opted to do is to impose a lockdown on the unvaccinated, fearing effects on the economy. In 2020-21, Greece spent 41 billion euros ($46bn) in tax breaks and handouts to workers and businesses affected by COVID-19, equal to a fifth of the economy.
The unvaccinated are being punished in other ways.
They are banned from indoor restaurants, bars, theatres and gyms, and have to present a 48-hour rapid test to enter banks, government buildings and non-essential shops.
Even young people, who earned a reputation for indifference to the coronavirus, agree that the time for coercion has come.
“I think it’s mainly a question of ego. Fear of side effects comes second,” said Thanasis Tilegrafos, a mathematics student at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, speaking of his unvaccinated fellow students.
“The unvaccinated think they’re invulnerable and now there’s also a confrontation with the government. It’s no longer a question of persuasion … they think they’re special.”
His colleague Manolis Panteli, a medicine student, agreed.
“People who don’t do it say it’s about personal freedom. But there’s a very fine line between where one person’s freedom ends and another person’s freedom begins.”