The coronavirus exposes what societies value

These past few months have been a waking anxiety-induced nightmare for all of us. But as a Greek-British dual national contrasting my birth country’s response to the UK’s seemed like an exercise in slowly going insane.

Coronavirus image

Boris Johnson hailing the country’s ‘success’ against covid-19 on Monday pushes the narrative that the UK’s more than 20,000 deaths were unavoidable. But as someone who comes from a country that took this threat seriously from the start living in a country that very much didn’t, I don’t believe they were.

Leaving aside Johnson’s baffling ‘invisible mugger’ turn of phrase or the sobering fact that the true death toll is more than double that of hospital deaths, this speech continued to evoke war metaphors. If we must look at this global pandemic under the prism of war imagery, the UK’s initial response is the equivalent of unconditional surrender.

These past few months have been a waking anxiety-induced nightmare for all of us. But as a Greek-British dual national contrasting my birth country’s response to the UK’s seemed like an exercise in slowly going insane.

The first confirmed coronavirus in Greece was on 26 February, and the government cancelled carnival celebrations the very next day. An aggressive information campaign was launched, along with social distancing measures.

School closures followed, and then bars, cafes and restaurants. As Greece closed all non-essential shops and public buildings on 16 March, I watched in growing horrors as Brits kept attending the Cheltenham festival and Stereophonics concerts while the half-hearted government advice was to wash our hands and sing Happy Birthday.

I can assure you it is not because Greeks, who defied the smoking ban for more than nine years after it was implemented, are more disciplined or likely to comply with strict measures than British people. Nor is Greece’s current right-wing government not cognisant of the the devastating effect of lockdown on the economy of a country just starting to recover from a decade-long crisis.

In some ways, Greece had no choice but to act decisively, after years of punitive austerity measures left the ravaged health system with just 560 ICU beds. Following a complete lockdown imposed on 23 March, on Monday morning Greece has 134 coronavirus deaths, compared to the UK’s 20,732.

While population sizes differ and other factors may play a role, the difference in two radically different strategies and outcomes exposes what is fundamentally valued in a society. As many pointed out, an obsessive focus on the value of health and respect for the elderly are an integral part of the Greek mindset.

While government advisor and occasional SAGE meeting attendee Dominic Cummings denies the ‘herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad’ line, the mere rumour of such a callous remark from any Greek public figure would have led to calls for them to be drawn and quartered.

The repeated claims that this government never pursued herd immunity and only ‘followed the science’ ring hollow coming from the very same people who spent years telling us to ignore the experts. All governments have experts advising them but it is ultimately a political decision on whether to act on that advice.

Depending on those leaders, you can have outcomes ranging from New Zealand recording zero new coronavirus cases to Donald Trump ‘sarcastically’ suggesting injecting disinfectant into the lungs of covid-19 patients to a horrified doctor.

Johnson initially appeared to tackle this crisis in the same way he approaches Brexit — with a bumbling insouciance, belief in British exceptionalism and unwarranted optimism that somehow things will work themselves out in the end.

While Greece watched the unimaginable tragedy that Italy was going through and brought home its own vulnerability, it seems that the UK government thought its ‘go at it alone’ outlook extended to stopping a deadly pandemic.

By the time the UK did eventually impose a (much less strict than in other countries) lockdown, with some hystrionic headlines bemoaning the ‘end of freedom’, it was already too late for the thousands infected while following government advice. The UK government cannot be allowed to rebrand hundreds of daily deaths as a ‘success story’.

Sophia Dourou is a freelance journalist

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