I was thinking just the other day that if I were the prime minister of the Netherlands and was being criticized by the opposition over my country’s performance in managing the coronavirus, I may have responded: “What’s your problem? If we were like Greece, we’d have double the number of deaths.” No Dutch prime minister would deign to compare the public policies of his country with this one, you may say, but that’s not the point.
The point is that with almost double the population of Greece, the Netherlands has more or less the same death toll, making it one of the most successful examples of pandemic management in Europe. It is also the most densely populated country in Europe, with 17 million residents living in an area almost the size of the Peloponnese, and has the highest ratio of people living in cities, which, as we all know, have been hit hardest by the virus. If we add the fact that it is a major transport hub and that its multicultural and youthful population is defined by an independent-minded culture that makes it harder to impose lockdown-style restrictions, it’s somewhat surprising that is has fared so well.
Anyway, it is obvious that Greece is not doing great with the pandemic, as in other areas. Even though we bragged about how we were managing better than most wealthy European countries a year ago, that is no longer the case. Just a couple of months ago, in fact, the government boasted about Greece having half the number of fatalities from Covid that Portugal was experiencing; today we are in the unfortunate position of having more. And as you read these lines, we may even have surpassed France in the number of deaths per million residents. Yes, France, the world’s number one tourism destination, so mercilessly slammed by the pandemic’s first wave. If we continue at the current rate, we will soon pass Spain in terms of deaths per million.
Does this mean that we have failed abominably? No, because we’re still faring better than most former Eastern bloc countries. The numbers for the Czech Republic, Hungary and some of the Balkan states are just depressing. Hungary, for example, has twice the death rate we do.
So, the glass is half empty, or half full; you choose. There is nothing for the government to crow about, but there is also no reason to say that we’re in the pits. The truth lies somewhere in between. We’re neither the best nor the worst.
If there is one thing that is often missing from this country, it’s sober consideration – not just about the pandemic, but generally. A calm critical approach instead of oversimplification. This is the kind of public discourse we’re lacking.
So, what went wrong? Was it the relatively low vaccination take-up that caused such a big problem? If that were the case, then why has Germany done so much better with a similar rate of coverage? Or is our public health system very sick? I have personal experience on this front; having lost my mother during the pandemic, I was witness to some tragic scenes at one of Thessaloniki’s central hospitals. I didn’t make an issue of it because I understand how difficult the situation is, but I also won’t stand for anyone lying to my face and being told that the public healthcare system is in great shape.
Are there also other lingering issues that we should be worried about? For example, is the overall health of the Germans better than that of the Greeks? Furthermore, why does Greece rank so poorly in terms of citizens’ confidence in its institutions, and why are so many people unconvinced by the government and the scientists? How can the trust of the citizens be earned?
We need the truth and we need a proper understanding of our real situation – neither frills nor doom. Our basic problem, as I have so often argued, is that every issue is treated like the subject of political rivalry. Our governments and our opposition parties approach every problem in exactly the same way: How many votes will I get, or how many will I lose?
Professor Nikos Marantzidis teaches political science at the University of Macedonia.