Bless you

Parents may be forgiven for paying less attention to the October 4 elections than to the opening of schools on Friday. The elections appear set to change the political scene – if the center-left PASOK replaces center-right New Democracy in power – or to herald a period of political instability – if neither party wins an outright majority. Yet few believe that either of the two will be able to do anything to solve the country’s problems or to usher in a period of change. On the other hand, the dangerous new flu is capable of changing everything. The start of the school year has concentrated minds on the threat that everyone faces from the global pandemic of the H1N1 virus that has killed 2,837 people since it emerged in April. The number of fatalities is relatively low but experts worry that the cooler weather and the opening of schools will spread the virus faster, leading to a greater number of deaths. Its virulence has already been proven by the fact that places like Crete, at the center of the tourism industry, were quickly afflicted this summer. Kindergartens and schools are proven breeding grounds for germs and viruses, as every parent can attest. As Angelos Hatzakis, professor of epidemiology at Athens University, told Kathimerini, keeping schools closed could cut the flu’s spread by 89 percent, as long as 60 percent of the children stay at home and don’t frequent crowded places like shopping malls. Keeping schools closed, however, would place an unbearable burden on families and the economy, forcing at least one parent to stay at home instead of going to work. This measure would also affect an estimated 30 percent of healthcare employees, as they would have to stay home to look after their own children, straining medical services even further in the face of the increased need presented by the flu. Studies conducted in the United States and Britain estimate that if schools were closed for three months, the cost would come to between 1 percent and 6 percent of gross domestic product. Greece is already struggling with a budget deficit of 5-6 percent of GDP, so even the lowest estimate of a further burden would be too much for our economy to handle. (And this does not take into consideration the number of people who will be struck by the virus and be forced to stay away from work, hurting the economy even further.) So there really does not appear to be any alternative to opening schools as scheduled. The issue, then, is what happens once the children are all in school. The government has announced an action plan that includes setting up a special call center (tel 1550) to provide information on the H1N1 virus and using the Education Ministry’s website to set out preventive measures. Plans for a nationwide vaccination program are on hold until the vaccines arrive and clinical trials on their safety are conducted. About 45,000 vaccines have been secured for teachers. As none of this sounds likely to stop the flu, the ministry does not rule out closing schools if the virus does begin to spread. In that case, a program is being set up to educate children at home, via television. As elections approach, parents will be watching their children more carefully than they will be following the political campaigns. We can only watch and wait and hope for the best. The school year traditionally begins wi0th priests holding a ceremony in the schoolyard to bless the children before they go to their classes. This year, parents – if not their children – will be paying a lot more attention to the blessing ceremony than usual.