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:
- monitoring/enforcing the measures they themselves impose and
- 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.