By Themos Demetriou
Waking up on a lockdown day changes perspectives. I have lived through curfews before, as a child, during the struggle against the British. We complied with curfew regulations. Breaking them would risk being shot by the soldier patrols. At the time, things were simple, understandable. Repressive measures were imposed by the colonial power in its attempt to intimidate the people and turn them against the guerrillas. In my village it never worked. Even us, children, knew who the guerrillas were; yet, there was not a single case of someone in the village turning informer.
Today things are different. The Government is ordering draconian measures and people are crying for more. The mass media are saturating public discourse with horror stories about the coronavirus and political parties accept the erosion of democratic rights as a welcome positive action. Fear and desperation are the new norm for the population. The soldier in the street is not a colonial enemy, it is an invisible virus given disproportionate and invincible powers by the general hysteria. This time the Government imposing the repressive measures is seen as the protector. There is no community spirit to resist. People are atomised and made to feel powerless.
But is the situation that much different? For how long will the President and his amateur cabinet fool the people? My feeling is that this time will not work either. And when the edifice of control collapses, it could collapse catastrophically.
Two weeks before the first case of coronavirus tested positive in Cyprus the Government felt secure enough to indulge in electoral exploitation of the pandemic. With parliamentary elections next year and its ratings falling disastrously, it decided to flirt with the extreme Right and its own nationalist wing by closing four crossings to the occupied North citing the coronavirus thread as the reason. This sparked a furious reaction from the pro-solution political forces and for the first time since the post-1974 events a police cordon was overrun by Greek Cypriot demonstrators who joined with Turkish Cypriots in the buffer zone in a rare display of solidarity.
This was followed by successive nationalist demonstrations, all of them organised by ELAM, an extreme right nationalist organisation with close links to Greece’s Golden Dawn, demanding the closure of all checkpoints. A week on, a new spontaneous pro-solution demonstration on both sides of the checkpoint led to a clash between the Greek Cypriot riot police and Turkish Cypriot demonstrators. Pepper spray was liberally used, prompting Mustafa Akinci, the Turkish Cypriot leader to comment that demonstrators should be met with olive branches, not tear gas.
Although the Government was not exactly facing a mass revolt, it was the first time that a firm, anti-nationalist opposition was forming. It was obvious that the President’s decision to close the checkpoints was backfiring. The press was slowly but surely getting to the point of ridiculing the closure of the checkpoints while allowing the Carnival to go ahead, Disy, the President’s own party, was distancing itself from the decision, Akel, the main opposition party, was going on the attack criticising strongly the nationalist turn of the Government. Then, the virus struck.
When the first coronavirus cases were diagnosed, the Government went into panic mode. In a beautiful symmetry, two cases in the South and one in the North were diagnosed on the same day. The virus did not cross the checkpoints – it came through the official airports from Britain and Italy. On top of that, it struck at the very heart of the Health Care system, the cardiology wing of Nicosia Hospital. Its director, returning from Britain, was diagnosed positive after working for days in the ward and creating a large trail of possible infections. The hospital was closed for days and the doctor vilified for negligence by the Minister of Health and the media, before the case against him collapsed as the facts came out. None of the dozens of his contacts tested positive.
In this panic mode the Government banned all Cypriots from returning to Cyprus unless they could provide a test from an official laboratory certifying that they did not carry the virus and even then, anyone returning was to go into a fourteen-day quarantine. Needless to say, no country was prepared to test asymptomatic persons in order to give such certificates, thus wasting valuable test kits when supplies were running low. There was an uproar, mainly by students’ parents, which led to a backdown. The test was replaced by a letter from a Cypriot consulate certifying the need for a person to return. Keeping Cypriots out of Cyprus proved a tall order, even for the most cynical of Presidents Cyprus ever had.
Without any serious challenge to its policies, the Government started to realise that the coronavirus was not an unmitigated disaster. It realised that all the scandals and all the problems it faced in the previous period disappeared as by magic from newspaper headlines. The corrupt image of the President and his entourage was being replaced by the image of a crisis leadership of cross-party stature. The calamity of the coronavirus was morphing into a valuable opportunity.
Taking cue from other countries, especially Greece, the President became bolder in his hard-line approach. He slammed a ban on ‘unnecessary’ travel, he closed parks and beaches, he closed down all shops and businesses except pharmacies, food stores and suchlike. He addressed the people in a paternalistic speech and accused them of disobeying the emergency decrees – threatening that if refusal to comply continued harsher measures would be taken.
By now it was clear that the Government was overcoming the panic stage and was trying to exploit the crisis in every way possible. They were feeling safe enough to impose any measures they felt like without the fear of popular reaction. Being able to impose a lockdown and ban movement seemed to give them reassurance that they can control the situation. They are even beginning to plan the distribution of emergency funds, made possible by the ‘whatever it takes’ policy of the European Central Bank and the relaxation of financial restrictions, in a way that will again fill the coffers of their corrupt inner circle of business friends and relatives.
Dishing out decrees on a day by day basis cannot of course provide consistency. Banning meetings of more than 75 persons was clashing with the needs of the religious ceremonies leading to Easter, the most important religious period of the Orthodox Calendar. Before explicitly banning religious gatherings, the President seems to have persuaded the Archbishop, one of his staunchest supporters nowadays, to issue an appeal to the faithful to stay at home and follow church services on television. How?
The dates chosen for the lockdown point to a probable answer. The Orthodox Easter falls on the 19th of April while the lockdown ends on the 13th, leaving the whole of the Holy Week free for people to flock to the Churches for Easter services. Most people expect that the President will extend the lockdown and will see failure to do that as capitulation to the Church. It is however questionable whether he can muster the courage to clash with the Church. Already, some bishops are openly refusing to abide by the Government decrees, asking people not to be afraid, asking people to display social solidarity and help those in need and each other, asking people to pray reassuring them that God will provide all the necessary help. In these desperate times, we should not underestimate the appeal such an approach could have for desperate people.
Whatever path he chooses, the President will have a hard ride. Riding the proverbial tiger, he knows dismounting is not an option. He will continue taking more and more repressive measures, spreading more and more dissatisfaction and discontent. How long this is sustainable, only time can tell.
The SARS-CoV-2 may not be the creation of 21st century Capitalism, but the effects of Covid‑19 are. The pandemic is not creating this crisis, it is exposing the inadequacies of the structures of global capitalism. It is clear by now that a well equipped and staffed health infrastructure, combined with a prompt and determined government policy could deal with the epidemic with no more social disruption than a normal flu. But decades of persistent undermining of national health systems, wholesale privatisation of hospital care services and treating health as a commodity created the conditions in which the state is unable to cope without major social and economic dislocation. On top of that, the powers that be will attempt once again to unload the burden on those least able to bear it and increase even more the obscene levels of inequality we already witness.
Forgetting their ‘liberal’ mantras, capitalist governments are again throwing tons of money in the economy to save their system. But even now, the way they do this is by channelling the lion’s share to the banks and the big corporations. The share they give to the workers is the minimum they consider necessary to avoid wholesale starvation but barely enough to sustain an acceptable life for the people. Their policy is in fact a shameless attempt to redistribute wealth in favour of the rich, taking advantage of the crisis – as they did in 2008.
But as in 2008 they are not going to have a smooth ride. 2008 signalled the dawn of a new era of capitalist disintegration and popular movements. It was the event that spawned the Arab Spring, the Indignados, the Occupy Movement, Syriza and Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. All these movements failed despite their promising early development. They failed because they did not develop into a clear political movement for the replacement of capitalism.
We still don’t know what the coronavirus will bring, but certainly we shall see a changed world. New movements will express the new awareness people will acquire because of the crisis. We should be alert and join these coming movements challenging the system and be part of their development. Our experience as well as our theory could prove crucial for their success or failure.