The risk of losing control before help arrives
Vaccines for Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, produced by the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna are expected to be approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the regulator of the European Union (EU), between December 29, 2020 and January 12, 2021, at the latest.
That promising news comes amid record levels of infections, hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19 in Greece during November and early December. Many pandemic experts in Greece and abroad are warning that the most critical period of the pandemic – before the vaccines arrive and are distributed – still lies ahead of us.
In Greece and other countries across Europe citizens fatigued by and businesses frustrated about lockdown 2.0 measures can nevertheless cautiously start considering what they will do when the pandemic meets the approved vaccines. But with new recorded infections in Greece reaching 1,882 on Thursday (December 3), with 622 intubated patients and the number of fatalities recorded at 100 this consideration is mixed with painful memories and anxieties about the immediate future.
Combating the Covid-19 pandemic remains an exacting struggle before and possibly also while the vaccines are distributed to the population. With the next three months critical as regards a winter wave of infections and its subsequent adverse consequences the vaccines could not arrive in time. Put otherwise, until we reach the other side of the bridge, we face daunting challenges from private households to businesses, hospitals and government decision making. The widespread distribution of vaccines is not expected to arrive in Greece before the March-April 2021 period.
In the meantime, Greece, like many other European countries, faces what could turn out to be the most challenging three months period for its public health system. From Athens to Rome, Brussels and Berlin, the expectations of both scientists and public authorities that a reduction in the number of daily cases can be achieved through different versions of lockdown 2.0 have not been met with tangible success across European countries. In light of this development, the Greek government announced the extension of lockdown restrictions until at least December 14.
Until doses of vaccines go into the arms of willing citizens on a daily basis in Greece fundamentally changing the trajectory of the epidemic will remain a formidable challenge and subject to daily introspection. The fall wave of infections that began in October in Thessaloniki and other parts of northern Greece is now arriving across much of the country. How the virus is spreading across the landscape and among subsets of society makes for grim emotions ahead of the festive period. As can be witnessed every day at hospitals up and down the country, turning this significant challenge into a sustainable success story is exhausting.
Health-care workers in hospitals are doing their best to navigate the punishing surge in infections and admissions into ICUs. But beds and staff are in short supply. Infected patients have to be moved to Athens as Thessaloniki is reaching breaking point in hospitals’ ICUs. But hospital staff must also decide if other specialized medical care, like trauma, heart operations and transplants, can be carried out or must be delayed.
For nurses and doctors, it’s a very uncomfortable place to be in. The medical staff is exhausted, in particular nurses who have been on the front lines of this fight against Covid-19 since the Spring and Summer of this year. The sense of small victories and looming defeats while working so hard is tangible. The dedication for their work hasn’t changed, but these men and women are tired, frequently worn out. What frustrates these silent heroes is the experience of trying to save lives when taking care of Covid-19 patients in ICUs but then hearing from citizens and neighbors about conspiracy theories, that the virus is like the flu or that vaccines are a novel way to control the population.
The vaccine news from different pharmaceutical companies is a milestone in medical research and the brightest spot so far in fighting Covid-19. But the current problems and challenges confronting Greece will not disappear with the forthcoming distribution of vaccines. For the time being, the most convincing message across Europe reads that every citizen needs to mask up, stay at home as much as possible during the Christmas festivities and New Year period. In a word, hang on and keep safe.
Blunting the surge in infections cannot wait until the arrival of the vaccines. Until this form of help arrives, other public health measures are necessary, even if they increasingly become contested by citizens. Societies can define themselves by their capacity to get out of such a challenge together. They can muster coronavirus responses in a civil manner and with joint determination. This is all the more necessary and possible as the light at the end of the tunnel is becoming visible.
Many citizens in Greece and elsewhere are asking themselves if and when life will get back to normal, or at least something that feels closer to normal? The rollout of vaccines in the coming months will present governments, pharmacies, hospitals and private households with new logistical, communication and execution challenges. But the vaccine news has given the conclusion of 2020 an opportunity to look differently into the New Year while confronting a rough winter period.
*Jens Bastian is an independent economic analyst and financial sector consultant, based in Athens, Greece