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(Mis-)Managing the spread of COVID-19 in Cyprus, and other blog Entries - George Iordanou (2020-21)

The following four entries commenting on the covid-19 pandemic response in the Republic of Cyprus were originally published on iordanou.org, the personal blog of George Iordanou. They were written between 06/12/2020 and 02/03/2021, just before, during, and right after the second lockdown.


Failing to manage the second wave of the pandemic in Cyprus

2020-12-06

The government of the Republic of Cyprus failed to manage the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic on multiple levels. Firstly, they failed to adopt timely measures based on the advice of scientists; rather, action was taken after the situation started to get out of hand, with public policy being dictated by private interests at the expense of public health. Secondly, even after they started issuing vague authoritarian decrees, which one after the other were revised shortly upon their announcement – half baked reactions as they were – the authorities have since failed to enforce them.

They lost the respect of the people, evident by the blatant disregard of their irrational decrees. I fear that we see out future in Greece, whose covid measures we have been copying since day one. Do those in power not go out to see what’s going on? Do they not care? Do they really think that Christmas spending and consumption is worth the lives that will inevitably be lost in the coming weeks?

I don’t know what is the situation in other districts. In Nicosia, everywhere is packed, no distances are maintained, and people generally don’t follow the protocols, and are definitely not wearing their masks correctly. It’s as if there’s no pandemic; except that cafes and restaurants close at 7pm and there’s a curfew at 9pm. Absolutely ineffective measures given that people still aggregate en masse in close spaces such as malls, churches, and in restaurants and cafes.

In the meantime, the infections are rising, and I fear that the national healthcare system is fast reaching its capacity.


(Mis-)Managing the spread of COVID-19 in Cyprus

2020-12-09

Let’s sum up the situation with COVID-19 in Cyprus. I wrote a few days ago that the authorities have managed poorly the second wave of the pandemic. In today’s article, I will go into a bit more detail on what I think are the main issues, in light also of the new measures introduced today.

Vague and Irrational

The problem pre-dates the second wave and can be traced back to the initial measures, namely the fact that government planning was not based on an analysis of the situation in Cyprus, including the fact that we have a small population contained in a naturally secluded space – an island. Rather than planning based on local realities, the government’s policy was limited to copying, sometimes verbatim, the measures adopted in nearby Greece, usually with a few days of delay. This was bound to backfire.

The measures taken have sometimes been both vague and irrational. Vague because there was ambivalence in the decrees issued by the competent Ministries, which relied on the police exercising a level of judgement uncharacteristic for advanced democratic states. Irrational, because, in trying to balance public health concerns with financial concerns, the latter always took precedence, resulting in policies that were ambivalent leading to increased infections. Central to all this was the government’s failure to realize the link between these two crucial components – public health and the economy.

A case in hand for the irrationality of some of the measures is the fact that people cannot mingle in open spaces such as parks, while at the same time it was, until today, perfectly acceptable to see shops full of customers, packed cafes with tables right next to each other, and people aggregating inside churches waiting to lick the same spoon as part of the ritual of the Christian Orthodox Holy Communion, all with the blessings of the authorities and the police. The most notable failure is seen at schools. Even though the authorities had months to prepare for remote education, seeing as schools were one of the primary spaces where the virus was transmitted, they failed both to modify the national curriculum and to equip students with the necessary IT equipment. Instead, children are, to this day, required to physically attend classes. When the infections in school environments inevitably rose, the rules issued as regards who should go into quarantine were as loose as possible. Rather than putting the whole class into quarantine, only 4-5 kids sitting around the one who got infected were allowed to self-isolate. The rest were informed that they would get unjustifiable absences. Not to mention the public sector, where the state as the biggest employer in the country, has failed to upgrade its infrastructure to enable remote work, with public servants being forced to attend sometimes crowded and poorly ventilated offices even when they could fulfill their duties remotely.

Three main issues

One can easily identify the three main interrelated issues that contributed to the situation that we are facing today, whereby people blatantly ignore the government’s decrees, resulting in the rise of infections.

The first, is that the decrees themselves are not an outcome of a process of transparent deliberations between the government and affected parties; something that, contrary to what critics claim, can happen quickly through remote means. As a result, there is a prevailing sense of injustice in the society, stemming from the lack of democratic legitimacy from the authoritarian nature in which the measures are decided. Part of this problem is the fact that the members of the scientific team advising the President are all too eager to give contradictory interviews in what seems like an attempt for self-promotion, as well as the fact that irrational exceptions are being issued further to the lobbying of various pressure groups (most recently, for example, the exception for hunters). There is also a clear disconnect and a gap in public knowledge as regards the measures that are decided based on health considerations and those decided on financial grounds, as well as the triggers for the activation of escalating measures. The lack of transparency and clear trigger mechanisms leads to an unpredictability that exacerbates a sense of subservience; the sense that citizens are subjects rather than owners of their own destiny.

The second, is that decrees were issued without a corresponding ability and political will on behalf of the state to monitor and guarantee their implementation across the board. The cafes mentioned above are indicative of the situation. It only takes a stroll in downtown Nicosia to witness the utter failure of the decrees, as well as the ability of the police to implement them. Not to mention the selective application of the fines – politicians and priests caught on camera violating the decrees are routinely left off the hook, while migrants and other laypeople are on the receiving end of the €300 fine. This widens the sense of injustice and lack of rule-of-law, which was already prevalent across the society prior to the pandemic and was exacerbated with the recent scandals. This creates a toxic relationship between the authorities and the citizens, a relation of subservience whereby the latter try to escape and cheat the former. The sense of solidarity necessary for combating collective challenges, such as the pandemic, has been eroded, which led to what we are witnessing today – erratic decrees, lack of transparency, inequality in their application, and corresponding disregard by the people to what may have otherwise been commonsensical advice for halting the spread of the virus.

The third, is that the authorities, have failed to take timely action. The problem started with the misguided belief, retrospectively evidently false, that, with having lux travel restrictions, the tourist season would be salvaged. Not only did this not materialize but rather led to an initial spread of the virus in the community. During the second wave, the authorities were also reluctant to take timely action. When they imposed a partial lockdown for Limassol and Paphos, the two districts with the highest rate of infection, it was both late and ill advised in its implementation, resulting in hundreds of people being forced to aggregate outside testing facilities in order to be able to make a living. Simultaneously, the authorities failed to adequately address the increase in other districts. It seems to me that the timeline was dictated not by an epidemiological analysis but rather from the holiday calendar. State official have repeatedly mentioned that their objective was to keep the market open for Christmas, with the plan being to issue restrictions the weeks prior to the holiday season and subsequently relax them to enable people to purchase their gifts and contribute to the economy. Alas, due to the reasons mentioned above – misguided measures, lack of implementation, loss of trust – the desired result was not attainable, with the authorities now facing a very difficult situation as the holiday season is approaching.

Today’s additional restrictions

Which brings us to today. The authorities announced in the morning that the operation of shopping malls, restaurants/cafes/bars, churches, lyceums, collages and universities, will be suspended, effective from Friday, December 11th, and up until the end of the year. The failure of the government’s respsonse could not have been more evident – they are now forced to do exactly what they wanted to avoid, namely to close down integral parts of the market during the time that people would have otherwise started spending money for their Christmas gifts. I suppose that as we are approaching the 25th, they may relax the measures a bit to allow the market to function, fearing the financial consequences. But once more, they were late and are forced to take the nuclear option, for they have not managed to build a relationship of trust with the people.

I am very worried with what is to come. I worry that there will be delays in the delivery of the vaccine, seeing how they managed to run out of the regular flu vaccines, and that, in the meantime, the capacity of the national healthcare system will be exhausted. My hopes are all placed on the vaccine and in the ability of the healthcare workers to continue being the heroes that they have proved to be; otherwise my faith is exhausted.


Lockdown blues

2021-01-22

This lockdown does not compare to the ones that preceded it. The age of innocence is gone. For one, we are less scared of the situation, though it is invariably worse. This is the hubris of the surviving human spirit – the belief that we won’t be dealt with the bad card, or, conversely, the belief that, somehow, a bad situation will turn out ok, much like the death row inmate who eats his last meal expecting a stay of his execution. I may have taken the analogy too far, but the fact remains: humans have a seemingly unwarranted optimism that generates immense perseverance.

Most of us are hanging on, but the energy and the optimism, as well as the sense of collectivism that defined the first lockdown, are now long gone. Everyone is in bad spirits, moody, about to burst. We have put our lives on hold and we wait for this to pass in order to resume the experience of living. For this is not living. It’s a pause, whereby we are simultaneously drenched in fear and clinching on hope; like the fighter who was left behind after a lost battle, laying among the dead hoping to go unnoticed and resume a version of his previous life.

Will our new lives resemble the ones we left behind over a year ago? History shows that people keep going on. A third of the world’s population was infected with the Spanish flu but people then went on with their lives; they buried their dead, licked their wounds, and started hugging, hoping, living. But they did so in a vastly different world.

What will our world look like? I don’t know if we will cherish what we are now denied such as spending time with our loved ones, boozing out with friends, the laughs of children playing together in the park, or whether we will absorb the poison that we now receive as medicine, namely distancing, being suspicious of everyone in our proximity, and the isolation and retreat to the private sphere, away from anything collective.

Whatever the case, one thing is certain. Many people will be worse off than they are today and renewed efforts are already needed to practically demonstrate allegiance and offer support to those who are or shall become less well off than us, as well as those who are or will emerge marginalised in this new world that is upon us. For survival is maximised when there is cooperation. Collective action is as important as competition; in our case, the fittest are the many striving towards a common goal.


The easing of COVID-19 restrictions in Cyprus

2021-03-02

The COVID-19 infections in Cyprus reached unprecedented levels towards the end of 2020. The authorities were late to react, which made the partial measures they subsequently taken ineffective (or not as effective as desired), necessitating a lockdown. The number of daily infections and hospitalizations fell – an outcome of the lockdown and the immunization of those over 70 years old. This promoted the government to rightly consider easing some of the restrictions. The plan was to do it gradually, in stages, with about two weeks stabilization period. So far so good. Alas, they failed – and keep on failing – on two principal areas:

  1. monitoring/enforcing the measures they themselves impose and
  2. adopting a data-driven approach regarding the easing of the restrictions.

Let me explain. It is fairly straightforward to ensure that citizens properly isolate and distance during lockdown. The opportunities for disseminating the virus are considerably lower given that most public spaces and businesses are closed and thus inaccessible. The inability of the authorities to ensure adherence to the measures for the containment of the virus was not critical during lockdown. It is, however, most important during the easing of the restrictions.

Businesses not adhering to the most basic of distancing guidance, schools without investment in infrastructure to ensure adequate ventilation and distancing, overcrowded shops, overcrowded churches, illegal operation of bars, hell I’ve even heard of a rave party. The authorities are simply unable to ensure adherence to the decrees issued by the Minister of Health. And I’m not simply talking about the police. There are oversight responsibilities under each of the relevant Ministries.

Which brings us to the second point – a data driven approach. I am one to support evidence-based policy making. In absolutely quantifiable problems such as the coronavirus pandemic, this is as relevant as ever. We can measure the problem and the effectiveness of the response. The authorities have not been transparent on the grounds for their decisions, both in relation to the toughening as well as the relaxation of the measures. What metrics are used? What is the threshold? Nothing. Meetings behind closed doors, leaks in the media and then pompous announcements. Even today, they elaborated a plan on the gradual easing of the restrictions, which they did not share with the public. Us, the public, have to resort to the hearsay of the members of the scientific advisory team who go from one TV station to the next expressing opinions. This is undignified for us.

Meanwhile, they took little to no measures to improve the necessary infrastructure that would enable adequate distancing and ventilation, or any action to increase the monitoring capacities of the relevant government departments. They hope for the best, resolute in implementing their plan. The plan, however, is not doing brilliantly – to be expected given the aforementioned shortcomings in oversight and infrastructural investment. As relaxations progress, infections rise. The desirable stabilization of the epidemiological picture is not achieved. Rather than prolonging the relaxation phases and refining the plan based on evidence from the evolving situation, the authorities appear determined to go ahead, which will possibly lead to yet another costly lockdown around the Easter period. Central in all this, is the skewed perspective of the authorities that the large numbers of rapid tests are the key to the restarting of the economy. The tests are not enough in themselves, not as long as the conditions for the dissemination of the virus remain intact.

Let me give a couple of examples of the blatant mismanagement, which are evident to any rational person. The government declared much of the public sector as essential services, with civil servants forced to be physically present in their offices, at risk of conducting and disseminating the virus, even if their tasks are non-critical and could be performed remotely. Even those in non-essential departments were recently (upon the opening of primary schools) asked to return to their offices, again, even if their tasks could be performed remotely. The Minister of Finance who issued the circular did not explain why.

Coming now to the current situation. We see that there’s considerable dissemination of the virus in schools. To be expected given the lack of action on behalf of the Ministry of Education, which left our children and their teachers exposed. Despite the problem at schools and the worsening epidemiological picture, the authorities are resolute to continue with the return of the first and second year lyceum students and then gymnasium students. It really makes no sense. I can see why younger kids should go to school – they need someone to take care of them, which means lost work hours for their parents. Fair enough. I also see the reason for graduands to return, with the exams coming up. But not the rest, as they are teenagers who can work alongside their parents, without significantly impacting the latter’s productivity.

I sound like a broken record but this is what many people are thinking right now and what many people discuss when they talk to each other. I fail to understand the decision making of the authorities or even their mid- to long-tern plan. Even if we accept that they prioritize the economy over public safety, which itself is a false dichotomy, it still does not make sense.



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