By Nikos Kotzias *
Three distinct approaches unfold within the public debate on the pandemic. The first one, that of the government, is that it did everything it could, adhering to the “instructions” of scientists and Brussels. It falsely believes it has done better compared to others and that, aside from some failures, it has responded effectively in both phases of the crisis. It chose the economic recession (which, however, was already running before the pandemic) in order to manage health issues. The government, as with the memoranda, presented its neoconservative choices in tackling the pandemic as the only way forward.
The second one, that of the main opposition, claims that it rightly backed the administration in the first wave, during which it deemed the policy pursued as solid, yet the government did not take advantage of the interim period over the summer. The latter is correct. This resulted, the opposition points out, in the country being left unprepared for a crisis deeper than that of the spring. This constitutes yet another correct assessment. In addition, as we at PRATTO have pointed out from the outset, it rightly argues that the government should have ensured the strengthening of the logistical infrastructure in education and health. Staff of all categories should have been recruited. In addition, powerful servers should have been procured and personal computers be distributed to students. The cost for upgrading the electronic-technical infrastructure of the School System and securing one computer or tablet for each student, the future of this country, was calculated -as I have already shown- to 108,000,000 euros. That is, less than the 120,000,000 provided as a gift to Aegean Airlines.
What the opposition may not have realized is that its consensus in the first phase of the pandemic inadvertently contributed to the source of today’s drama being depicted as the only way forward. It did not, therefore, invoke the utmost fundamental democratic argument: that, as with the memoranda, there are more-than-one ways forward in dealing with the pandemic.
The committee headed by Mr. Tsiodras claimed that “masks are deadly”. Lacking a scientific basis, they presented its conservative views as the only way forward. A position that forced us at PRATTO to criticize them harshly. In addition to the mistake, this view also prepared the ground for the cultivation of mistrust and conspiracy theories against the means of protection. Because, when someone was convinced they would die if they put on a mask, why should they wear it today?
The third line was the one we suggested alongside a number of institutions and schemes: mass free tests; distribution of masks to all employees and to major social institutions such as schools, universities, ministries, transport; substantial measures to maintain the necessary social distances. We of PRATTO, putting our limited dynamic into use, explained that different models were applied internationally in the fight against the pandemic. That of Greece was based on the Brussels model, with an additional advantage of the peculiarities detected in SE Europe (better weather, multiple vaccines until a few years ago in diseases that had disappeared in Western Europe decades ago, such as tuberculosis and malaria, less internationalization of the area in the months before the tourist wave). The most successful model was that of Southeast Asia, in areas such as New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam. According to the New York Times, at the end of 2020, the latter recorded the largest economic growth and increase in exports worldwide.
The Southeast Asian model was able to combine the fight against the virus with the economic rescue of the aforementioned regions, as was the case in China. What did all these areas have in common? A) a strong public health sector that has been further bolstered. New specialized clinics and hospitals were even established. B) Masks for everyone from the very beginning. C) Massive and continuous tests, with targeted follow-ups. There are cities in China with a population of 10-15 million that were tested in their entirety three or even four times, whereas in Greece they were heralding that such a number is unreal. The employment of social distancing and tests in educational institutions was particularly systematic. D) Methodical and strict application of social distancing, ensuring the correct (and sparse) distribution of public transport. E) Handshakes as a form of greeting were replaced with bows from a distance. F) Special measures at workplaces. G) Prohibition of mass gatherings in places of worship. Twice in South Korea such sites have been shown to be the source of the virus. H) Provisions to support citizens’s mental well-being. I) Closure of borders and fortnightly quarantine for anyone arriving from abroad. J) Use of new applications on social media to capture the full picture of the situation and the interconnections formed between carriers and non-carriers of the virus.
I do not wish to expand on the measures taken and how successful the above parties ended up being. What I do want to emphasize, however, is that when we presented an alternative solution back in March and April that appeared to be yielding results in a number of states, we were attacked by the pro-government press with irony, proof of their lack of education and knowledge, study and insight. The problem was that none of them had studied the international experience, a prerequisite to practice politics amid the current conditions.
I underline, therefore, that studying was and is necessary. After all, the Left always used to study and learn. It used to compare the international experience and draw from it ideas, thoughts, suggestions; combine them into politics. Science, when it is democratic, allows and generates many approaches. None of them are outside the struggles and contradictions within a scientific object, or society as a whole. And this occurs regardless of whether the protagonists themselves realize it or not. I iterate: ranging from health policy to the economy and from foreign policy to education, nowhere can there be found only one way forward. And the entire Greek Left should know this, after ten years of crisis and memoranda. /ibna
* Nikos Kotzias is an Emeritus Professor of International Relations-Foreign Policy, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Member of the PRATTO Movement and author.