By Perry N Halkitis, PhD, MS, MPH, Dean, Rutgers School of Public Health
On November 7, 2020, millions of Greek Americans breathed a collective sigh of relief. After a hard-fought battle, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were announced as the prospective winners of the 2020 presidential election. With this one statement our long national nightmare began to come to an end– years of questioning and ridiculing scientists like myself; years of demeaning women; years of blatant racism accompanied by white supremacy; years of lies; years of questioning facts; years of attacks on democratic institutions; and years of alienating our allies in Europe.
In short, our incredible Greek values of honesty, reverence to family, respect for intelligence, empathy, and upholding democracy, to name a few—do not align at all with those of the man who occupied that White House since 2017.
The atrocities of the last four years are too many to enumerate, but historians will note this time in the United States as anything but united—as one of chaos, hate, and division, incited by a foolish leader and the corrupt Republican party that enabled him for their own self-interest. It will also be noted as the years when people sought refuge in our country, much like many of our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents did, arriving from a poor and war-torn Greece throughout the 20th century. Yet unlike in the past, when my parents, Niko and Kalliope, came to America affording me and my brother endless opportunities, our American president and his cronies instead closed our borders to those seeking refuge from counties as devasted as Greece was when our ancestors sought a new home; build a fictitious wall as if to keep animals in a cage; separated babies from their parents; and committed other inhumanities reminiscent of the atrocities enacted by the Nazis, the Serbs, and the Ottomans and the Turks.
For me as public health scientist, the American disaster of the last four years has been epitomized by the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, 250,000 have died, and this winter this number will certainly increase. All the while, the person leading the country has chosen to lie to us, to obscure scientific facts, and to model behaviors that fuel this disease. The result has been 75 deaths per 100,000 people in the United States, a number only surpassed by a country with another autocratic leader–Brazil. In our beloved Hellas, under a government which respects science and truth and human life, and despite the economic turmoil of the last decade, there have only been 8 deaths per 100,000. The Greek experiment has been working.
America has much to learn from handling of the pandemic in Hellas. This is likely to occur under the leadership of President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris. Within days of the election, a scientific task force, consisting of many of my most esteemed colleagues, was announced and steps were outlined for managing and controlling COVID-19. President-elect Biden has asked Americans to call upon our humanity and do the right thing like wearing masks, and he has been honest to us about what the future holds ahead. The Greek government under the leadership of Prime Minister Mistotakis and Minister of Health Kikilias took these steps last March while our current American president made false proclamations that the virus would burn away over the summer.
Unlike America, Hellas had a unified approach to the pandemic. The government intervened and started canceling events in late February before a single death was recorded, even though it was during Apokries. This was followed by systematic closures: schools/universities on March 10, cafes and restaurants on March 13, and full lockdown on March 26. My goddaughter, Harris Gazi, informed me she had to text to receive permission to leave her apartment in Halandri, as a means of controlling unnecessary contact which could lead to spread. Eva, a model to sustain tourism is a safe manner was also enacted. And now as infections have begun to reemerge, the Greek government has steps have been taken quickly and decisively
The Greek model is a model for us in America and is the model that Biden-Harris are espousing. It is rooted in a respect for science and public health, a familial orientation, and altruism. The approach to COVID-19 in Greece has been based on trusting experts. At the onset of the pandemic, the Greek government appointed an epidemiologist to lead a team of public health experts and prioritized science. The approach has been defined by speed with early restrictive measurements. It has been directed by transparency, clear communication, and enforcement as authorities shared evidence in a timely fashion. The battle with COVID-19 in Greece also has been facilitated by strengthening public health. The government recruited 3,500 medical professionals into the public health system. Moreover, the approach to the disease, was nested in addressing the needs of the whole-of-society. The government worked with foundations, industry, and the private sector to secure resources and combat COVID-19, much like the modern public health paradigm, my colleague Leslie Kantor and I have conceptualized for Newark and other urban centers. Finally, the Greek government was fearless in defying cultural norms as the government confronted the Greek Orthodox Church prior to Easter.
Contrast this with the anemic, disorganized, and unscientific American response in the last year that continues to be coupled with the undermining of American democracy by the obstinate, childish presidential election loser. Fortunately for us, Biden-Harris have taken steps out of the Greek playbook.
There is a hope for a renewed United Stated under Biden-Harris—a country that will control COVID-19 with science and public health. For those who didn’t vote for this ticket, I have one gentle request. Please give the new president a chance to succeed. Look beyond your own self-interest at the few extra dollars that have been added to your wallet or 401K under the last administration. Instead, take steps to bring an end to COVID-19 and at the same time create a home for immigrants to our country much like our “yiayias” and “pappous” were afforded all those years ago. And above all, check your racism at the door. Do the right thing and hold Greek values close to your heart—values that very much in the ethos of Joe Biden.
**The opinions expressed by our authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of HNA and its representatives.