We breathe the crisis

By Nikos Konstandaras

The crisis has found its symbol – the thick and bitter smoke that smothers the capital as soon as it gets dark. It covers everything, it slides in everywhere. It drives home the fact that we are living in another era. We all breathe the air of defeat. We still don’t have scientific readings and analyses on the effects that it will have on our health, on our monuments and environment, but we know that the smog is the product of our inability to deal with our problems. From symptom, though, it is also becoming the cause of worse problems.

This new plague appears to be democratic, spreading out all over Athens’s coastal basin, over the center and suburbs, over rich and poor, over young and old, natives and immigrants. Wherever we go, the smoke clings to our clothes, our skin, our hair, our eyes, our lungs. It waits for us to leave our work and follows us inside when we enter our homes. It creeps through every crack.

But the veneer of universality is thin – again it is the poor who suffer most: They live on lower floors, where the toxins congregate, they are forced to burn whatever they find, huddling around open fires and buckets of embers. They will not be able to send vulnerable family members to the countryside. But in the richer areas, too, where fireplaces were just decorative, this year there are no Christmas trees lying on sidewalks, stripped of ornaments, waiting for the dump truck: They have been burned, along with the forests and parks feeding the insatiable capital and other cities and towns.

The reddened eyes, the heavy hearts, the burning throats – are they messages from a forgotten past or from a future dystopia? Will the smog disappear as quickly as it came or is this how we will live from now on? Will it harm the children? To the many fears of our time, we add this one.

Our days are deceptive. Cars, trucks and motorbikes go about their business, people rush to work. The image of normality hides the 1.3 million unemployed and innumerable closed businesses. But every night the smog falls on everyone, confirming that we are all in crisis. Higher taxes on heating oil, along with people’s reduced incomes, have driven the search for alternative fuels. The government did not anticipate this. Citizens were not informed of alternative sources of heat, nor were they warned of the dangers of burning whatever is available. Even those entitled to fuel subsidies are unaware of how to get help.

Now nothing can control the pollution. If a solution is not found immediately, this new plague will eat at us for years. Like our debt.