On This Island, Everyone Knows Your Name (if You Have Covid-19)

CHIOS, Greece — The man taking the last drag of his cigarette in the sweltering heat outside his convenience store in Volissos, a village on the Greek island of Chios, was clear: No mask, no shopping.

He stubbed the cigarette out, slipped the mask from his chin over his mouth and nose, and went back in behind the till.

Down at the beach, waiters who until the day before had only reluctantly donned face shields, while ferrying mezze and cold beers to those tanning by the gently lapping Aegean waters, needed no prompting to cover their faces.

And on the early morning swim shift, populated by the elderly and those — like me — who were catering to the very young, masks were worn universally.

Something had happened on that one day last month to make masks suddenly de rigueur: Someone was sick on the island, and everyone was aware they lived in this village.

I knew that escaping Brussels, my current home, to visit my parents in Greece would be different. That was the point.

After a brutal lockdown in the spring and heightened safety measures in Brussels, my family craved a change of scene, a break from isolation — and some help.

By the end of July, I had spent three months investigating Belgium’s deadly pandemic response in nursing homes. After that grim mission, the desire to get out was so potent that we decided to travel 12 hours across Europe on two flights, and face a week of isolation plus some expensive coronavirus tests on arrival — all with a 2-year-old in tow.

And it was so worth it. We spent lazy hours on the pebbled beaches, picked honey-sweet figs straight from trees, ate fresh fish with delicious deep-red tomatoes, and enjoyed grandparent-provided child deva.

Still, there was the mental whiplash of adjusting to pandemic life in a small, isolated place.

Chios, with 50,000 residents and famous for its leading role in Greece’s huge shipping industry, inhabits a distinctly different Covid-19 universe than Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union and Belgium’s capital, with a population of 1.2 million.

Belgium has had one of the worst coronavirus records globally, with nearly 100,000 infections, and 9,930 deaths to date among its approximately 11.5 million people.

Greece has only a slightly smaller population, about 10.4 million, but is less densely inhabited because so many people live on islands like Chios — naturally isolated, or trapped, depending on one’s perspective. And Greece is miles down the list of bad virus news, with just over 14,000 cases and 316 deaths.

Chios itself has had about 30 confirmed cases since the outbreak began, and no deaths.

But that didn’t necessarily translate into a feeling of breathing more easily.

The fear of infection on Chios, I came to realize, was focused on “outsiders,” something I’d never really considered in Brussels, where infection was virtually as anonymous as its residents.

In a community that is more insulated and largely spared from infections, contagion can arrive only externally.

While Chios had been a critical stop in the migration route from Turkey to Greece, fewer refugees were arriving, in part because of tougher government border policies. So attention turned to the few tourists; to migrants like myself who were visiting family; and to locals who were returning from taking a break in other parts of the country where more people were getting sick.

There was a stark contrast between an urban environment where no one knows you, and the small community where seemingly everyone does.

So when, one August day, the Greek government’s daily official tally of positive cases included three on the island of Chios, the country’s fifth-largest and not a major tourist destination, the chatter among the local community seemed to overpower the mesmerizing tune of the cicada song that floods the air in the long Greek summer.

The question on everyone’s lips was one you’d never hear in a big city: Who’s sick?

“This 20-year old guy who went on holiday to Zakynthos,” a Greek island on the other side of the country popular with British tourists, the man at the convenience store informed me, confidently.

“Now he’s in the hospital, three of his relatives are in quarantine and many who came in contact with him are awaiting test results,” he volunteered. “So we have to be extra careful.”

What was more remarkable than the shopkeeper’s purported intimate knowledge of the man’s affairs was that he turned out to be right. Off the record, to maintain a semblance of respect for privacy, the authorities confirmed the shopkeeper’s account.

Another rumor spread that the second case was a young woman in the island’s main town, whose mother worked at a popular cosmetics store. That was problematic, the chatter went, because all her family members had contact with dozens each day: Her brother was a barman at a trendy watering hole, and her father worked for a government agency.

With gossip swirling fast, 24 hours later everyone — even I!— knew her name. The shop where her mother worked ended up announcing that it had carried out a thorough decontamination, and implored people to stop gossiping.

“It is everyone’s responsibility to look after their own health,” said the store’s manager on a public Facebook post, but, the post continued, people should not “inflate information that could harm people’s livelihoods.”

“Malicious rumors spread very fast, but the truth is ignored,” said a post added the next day. “Our employee has tested negative for Covid-19.”

Even though the gossip and loss of privacy upset people on the island, its small size, and close social and familial ties, have made one vital part of curbing infections easier — contact tracing.

While some countries have set up anonymous, remote call centers operated by hundreds of students and part-time workers to do the arduous task of contact tracing, on Chios, the job is done quickly by five police officers.

Each case takes about three hours to fully trace, said Pantelis Kalandropoulos, whose day job is chief of traffic police for the island, but who these days doubles up as head of virus contact tracing.

“Our work is fairly easy, people cooperate and aren’t secretive,” he said.

“At first when a case emerges, there’s a bit of a panic, people in the area of the case retreat indoors for one or two days, but things quickly return to olağan,” he added.

Even as shared spaces can act as hubs for the spread of both disease and gossip, one such place, the Louiza & Kelly hair salon, put in place a form of a no-coronavirus-gossip policy alongside stepped-up hygiene and mandatory mask-wearing.

One afternoon at the salon, while masked ladies were having haircuts and blowouts, talk of the pandemic was largely absent. Since the business reopened in late May, Kelly Patra, the owner, asked her workers to avoid talking about the pandemic, deflect if they’re asked about possible cases, and encourage customers to seek formal information sources.

“Try to be positive about things,” she wrote them in a group message just before reopening.

“It’s dangerous to gossip about something like this because people become stigmatized and it breeds panic, people then start to ask where this person’s children go to school, where her husband works, etc.,” Ms. Patra said in an interview.

“And personally, I don’t want my business to be a node in that spread.”

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