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article image'Nick Hard' and the soft-spoken professor keeping Greeks virus-safe

By John HADOULIS (AFP)     Apr 5, 2020 in World

A hard-hitting ex-mayor with a penchant for upper body selfies and a soft-spoken health professor are the duo behind Greece's drive to keep the coronavirus cases to manageable numbers.

Deputy minister for civil protection Nikos Hardalias and infectious diseases specialist Sotiris Tsiodras oversee Greece's daily briefing on the virus, mixing life-saving advice with stern warnings.

The country of 11 million has so far registered 73 deaths and 1,735 cases, far below other European countries.

In some respects, the two men are polar opposites.

Tsiodras has been known to visibly fight back tears as he reads the daily death toll and urges Greeks to protect elderly loved ones.

"Every life won, every death avoided gives us strength to carry on," he said Saturday, his voice cracking.

A poll last week gave the disease expert an 89-percent approval rating.

Hardalias comes across as the bad cop in the unlikely partnership, repeatedly hammering home a message of unbending discipline to quarantine.

"Difficult weeks lie ahead... If we relax our efforts, the virus will destroy us," Hardalias said in Saturday's nationally televised briefing, as he announced a three-week extension to Greece's lockdown on non-essential movement.

There would be "zero tolerance" for anyone trying to get around the restrictions, he warned.

In past news conferences he has poured scorn on some of the excuses offered by those caught out, such as claims of broken plumbing at summer homes.

- 'No excuses, no exceptions' -

"We should all stop with the excuses," he said.

In another news conference, he took time to rebuke a group of Greeks who complained about having to spend two weeks in quarantine at a four-star hotel at state expense after being flown back from Spain.

"This is almost a joke," he said. "The Greek people paid to repatriate them ... accommodate them ... and guard them," he said.

"Exceptions will not be made for anyone."

Tattooed Hardalias, 51, enjoys posting bare-chested pictures of himself on the beach on his Instagram page -- which runs under the handle NickHardGr.

The Kent University graduate and father of two is married to a fitness trainer.

The bookish Sydney-born, Harvard-educated Tsiodras, 54, is a father of seven who enjoys church psalm singing in his spare time.

Hardalias had served as mayor of the Athens district of Vyronas for 11 years.

But in July, he was thrust into the firing line by newly elected Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis as head of civil protection.

Very soon he was put to the test, tackling wildfires, an Athens earthquake and a fierce storm that killed seven people in northern Greece.

He was promoted to deputy minister by Mitsotakis on March 16, just as the restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus began to be rolled out.

- 'Chill out, Hardalias' -

Ahead of the Orthodox Easter on April 19, the suspension of church services for the public and a ban on travelling to the countryside and islands have rankled with many Greeks.

Many Greeks are unhappy that the lockdown will interfere with the Orthodox Easter celebrations
Many Greeks are unhappy that the lockdown will interfere with the Orthodox Easter celebrations
Sakis MITROLIDIS, AFP

On Sunday, police said they had arrested a man after a crowd of 100 gathered at a church in western Athens, chanting slogans against the lockdown.

"Chill out Nikos Hardalias... people are being patient, but don't wag your finger in their faces," Ta Nea daily wrote earlier this week, likening the crisis official to US action star Chuck Norris after he called out pensioners queueing too closely at cash machines.

Hardalias also drew fire last week for presiding over an emergency meeting at a quarantined northeastern Greek town without taking the appropriate spacing precautions.

He retaliated with his customary bluntness.

"I've had enough with this whining... we are working very fast and very hard to produce results," he said.

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