By Theodore Arapis*
Covid-19 is a crisis of large proportions, so large that World Health Organization (WHO) Director Dr. Tedros Adhanom has called it “an enemy of humanity.” For that reason, governments are called to take extraordinary measures to save as many of their citizens as possible.
Some answered to the call on time, others got the message late and now playing catch-up. How fast governments respond to a crisis, emergency management scholars suggest, depends upon their leaders’ perception of risk. When leaders are aware of risk, actions trigger sooner diminishing the probability that crisis turns into a disaster with devastating community effects.
Take Greece, a country not known for its efficient public sector and effective governance and the United States, for example. Unlike in the U.S., where 46,500 intensive care unit beds are available and just as many could be added if needed in a crisis, the Greek healthcare system has just 605 for its 11 million people, where more than 20 percent of the population are older than 65. Greece can’t match the U.S. economy either, as it just escaped an eight-year depression. It eroded 40 percent of the country’s GDP, leaving 16.4 percent unemployed and one out of three in poverty.
With such limited resources, the risk of Covid-19 becoming a Greek tragedy is high. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had only one option, to move aggressively against the virus. To his credit that’s exactly what he did. Just one day after the first case was confirmed on February 26, Apokries, a three-week series of carnivals, masquerades, music and dancing taking place all over Greece were canceled. This left many unhappy, but most abided with the decision.
But U.S. President Donald Trump perceived the first confirmed case on January 21 –a Washington man who visited Wuhan, the pandemic’s ground zero– simply as “one person coming in from China.” “It’s going to be just fine,” he reassured. In the following months, Trump ignored trends from abroad, even warnings from his own top health and intelligence officials. He belittled the pandemic calling it on February 28 a “new hoax” of the Democrats.
It was not until March 16, that Trump recognized the seriousness of the virus. By the time he asked Americans to stay at home, there were more than 4,500 confirmed cases and 88 deaths in 16 states. Maybe, in Trump’s mind risk was minimal due to the country’s resourceful healthcare system and strong economy. Maybe, the impeachment distracted him from assessing the risk. He thought, “it probably did.”
Mitsotakis had shut down the country by March 22, with just 600 cases confirmed. Unlike Trump, he has worked in harmony with world-renowned epidemiologists, health practitioners and government officials enforcing measures, like creating a special center to trace as many contacts as possible made by anyone who tested positive, resembling those of democratic South Korea; others, like lockdowns and ban on unnecessary movement, of authoritarian China.
The borders, as most other things in Greece, are also closed, only allowing the return of Greek nationals. Unlike Trump’s confusing travel ban causing panic and long lines at the airports, Greece used its “ancient warfare tactics” to repatriate its citizens through coordinated flights. Upon their arrival, all were isolated in hotels and placed in two-week quarantine.
Equally important to taking measures early during a crisis, is building trustworthy channels of communication. Only then, will there be effective community response to measures. But in the U.S., the White House briefings have turned into a reality show, where reporters get in trouble for asking questions Trump dislikes. Covid-19 communication is chaotic and at times providing inaccurate and contradictory information. Even Trump’s son in law Jarred Kushner, a real estate developer, recently got deployed adding further confusion to the media and the public. And then Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Brix –the nation’s leading doctors against the virus– are trying to save the day and keep everything together. God Bless them!
In Greece, two main figures communicate Covid-19 information. Since the first case was confirmed on February 26, Mitsotakis has addressed the nation five times, most recently on April 13. All of his messages are short, coherent and serious, reassuring solely science drives his decisions. Then, daily at 6 p.m. Dr. Sotirios Tsiordas –the Greek equivalent of Dr. Fauci and Dr. Brix– updates the nation on the spread.
But the Greek government has also been creative informing the public via police patrol cars broadcasting warnings in 10 languages and the country’s SMS messaging alert system texting in both Greek and English: “To High risk population: Stay home as much as possible. To General population: Stay home at first sign of infection. If you have symptoms, consult with doctor before going to the hospital. Maintain personal hygiene. Don’t put yourself & others at risk.” Unlike in the US, 9 out of 10 Greeks support all measures a recent poll shows.
Because of acute risk assessment, creative but clear and trustworthy communication, Greece as of April 15 has 2,192 confirmed cases, of which 102 have died. The largest one-day increase saw 129 new cases added on April 2. But this number has not been matched since then with new confirmed cases counting just 22 as of April 15.
While still some risk exists, this week offers proof that Greece has flattened the curve and now is “counter-attacking” the virus. Doing so, allows Greece to consider reopening its economy. This though, is meaningless if the virus still exists among the population. “At face value there is a trade-off to make: either save lives or livelihoods. This is a false dilemma – getting the virus under control is, if anything, a prerequisite to saving livelihoods,” the IMF’s and WHO’s Directors noted in their joint appeal to leaders.
To trace and isolate every Covid-19 case before it opens for business again, Greece has deployed 500 mobile labs across the country to reach all who request a test in the convenience of their homes.
But the U.S. due to Trump’s negligence became the epicenter of the pandemic with one third of cases globally and counting. Death is soaring too exceeding any other country’s number.
The White House now expects 60,000 deaths, significantly less than its initial prediction toping at 200,000. Had measures being deployed earlier, more lives would be saved, Dr. Fauci recently noted. Nonetheless, less than expected deaths are proof that social distancing measures work in the U.S., too. In Trump’s mind, though, it’s another reason to reopen the economy, even though the infection curve has not yet flattened, nor the virus tested accurately or adequately. Clearly, Trump’s risk perception still remains low for Covid-19, but rising sky high for the November elections.
While in the past decade Greece drew media’s attention for its fiscal troubles, this time it is for beating the pandemic. Covid-19 is Not a Greek Tragedy, But an American One Written By President Donald Trump.
*Theodore Arapis, a native of Kalamata, Greece, is an Associate Professor of Public Administration at Villanova University.
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