On March 14, the Greek prime minister announced that he had tested positive for Covid-19. On March 22, having recovered and tested negative, he visited Athens’ central vegetable market at Renti. He wore a mask when he arrived, but it soon came off as Kyriakos Mitsotakis spoke with producers and wholesalers in the open air, in the market’s halls and inside their stores, up close and surrounded by a crowd.
He had said as much during a visit to a school on the island of Syros at the start of the month: “We’ll soon be rid of the masks; they’re such a nuisance,” he told the pupils there. “Soon” obviously became “now.”
A similar message that all is well is also being sent by the leadership of the Health Ministry. Minister Thanos Plevris is talking about restrictions being completely lifted by Easter, while his alternate, Mina Gaga, announced the abolition of the 100-euro fine for people aged over 60 who refuse to get vaccinated. It will be interesting to see how the government plans to convince citizens to get a fourth dose of the vaccine when they are basically giving a free pass to those who have refused to protect themselves and others by getting the initial round. That said, the fine was a mistake to begin with.
Add to this self-testing being reduced at schools from two a week to one, the lifting of crowd restrictions at sports stadiums and nonexistent controls of what few measures remain, and it is obvious that the government has decided to call the pandemic over. But the pandemic is not a game, it does not have a running time, nor does it obey any rules, and there are no safe predictions concerning its course.
Covid-related deaths are still in excess of 50 a day – with a regularity that ought to be frightening – and the overall toll has risen above 27,300. The high transmissibility of the Omicron variant is sparking a massive wave of infections. The majority of Covid cases are mild, but among the thousands getting infected, some will have serious symptoms and need to be hospitalized. How much more can the long-overwhelmed public health system take? How many more deaths are we going to count?
The virus is here and it can take us by surprise. The issue is not about staying at home and keeping away from the virus, but about – finally – developing a culture of safeguarding public health. And it is the responsibility of the government to set the example. Masks are a nuisance, but they are also a very valuable tool for managing the pandemic. It also needs remembering that games can be lost just before the buzzer sounds.