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.