COVID: the endurance of a Greek tragedy.
“When someone comes in and robs your house, you don’t let them rob it over and over again. At some point you have to lock the door and turn them in. But we’re not doing it. We keep letting them in.”
-Athenian Cab Driver
After spending a wonderful week in Greece—where I lived and breathed the ancient and the modern, the pious and the scientific, and ate a lot of feta and seafood along the way—I took a 30 minute cab ride to the Athens Airport on my way home. And on that ride I heard far more wisdom than all the COVID experts and all the brilliant and insightful media pundits have strung together for the past year.
“We all know who it kills,” the cab driver said of COVID. “Most of those who die of this cold, most of them already have one foot in the grave. Sure, others die too, but others die of everything else all the time. We should be lucky that this virus is so mild for most people; believe me, it could have been far worse. But yet, they won’t let it go. And they are strangling us and killing us in the process. It’s not the virus that is tragic. It’s how they have taken from us everything that we have.”
That’s when he told me about the robber. The leaders of Greece, he said, and of most of the world’s nations, they and the scientists and the media have robbed the people of their lives, their livelihood, and their joy. They have robbed them without cause; to this insightful cab driver, they have done it, and continue to do it, as a way to hold power. He acknowledged that a lot of people are profiting from the lockdown, a lot of rich people are getting richer. But in the end, he said, the politicians and media, and many doctors and scientists, acquired power that they never thought was possible in a free country.
“That’s why they’ll never let it go,” he said to me. “That’s why they will probably shut us down again. They open us up long enough to keep people from revolting. They keep scaring us, making us wear masks so we’re all afraid, and then when we think we’re out of it, they tell us that the virus is back and that we have to shut down. And everyone is too afraid to fight back. Even I am afraid.”
He told me that 40% of businesses in Greece have permanently closed since the lockdown a year ago. That many who he knows have lost their jobs, have had marriages end, have fallen into a depression. “We were just coming out of the economic crisis of ten years ago,” he said. “And then, boom, just like that, they take it all away from us. For no reason. What they did to us, to the world, it’s a catastrophe. If you had said to someone two years ago that we were going to shut down the world, destroy the world, for a year, two years, who knows how many more years, that we were going to shut it down and ruin everyone’s livelihood, and we were going to do it for a virus that mostly kills those who are already going to die, they would think you’re mad. And now, here we are. I mean, this isn’t Ebola. Ebola is frightening. It this were Ebola, I’d stay inside. But now I’m only staying inside because they force me to. I’m lucky to have a job. Most of my friends don’t. And so, I do what they tell me to do.”
“Why do you think they’re doing it?” I asked him.
He shrugged his shoulders. “I guess because they can,” he said.
It is almost too bizarre to be true; it is playing out like a science fiction saga that no one would ever believe to be possible. Across the world. governments have assumed power over every part of our lives, have destroyed their economies, have taken from their citizens the very pulse of life, have taken from them their livelihoods and hearts and souls, and yet no one is fighting back. To me and this cabbie both, that was what was most difficult to swallow. Why weren’t people saying, screw it, I’ve had enough, we can make our own choices, and we choose to live.
“Because,” he said again. “When they sense we are getting angry, they ease the restrictions just enough, and then when we are no longer angry, they lock us up again. It may never end.”
Masks to him are like they are to me; symbols of compliance, symbols of the control that the state has imposed upon us. “It’s obvious that they don’t work,” he said to me. “That the virus goes right through them or around them. But still, if we don’t wear them, wear them even outside in an empty park, we can be fined 300 Euros. And yet, I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of people not wearing them. Do you know why?”
I didn’t, so he told me. He said that the police were handing out fines left and right, and that some people started fighting back. Then, in two instances, the police beat people up for just not wearing the masks, beat them until they were bloody and bruised. Word got out about what the police did, and people started getting angry. And so, after that, the police refused to be party to the persecution. They wouldn’t fine or arrest people for not wearing them.
“Still,” he said, “You see out on the streets, everywhere, people still wear them. It makes no sense. But, they do. They are still afraid, not afraid of the virus, but afraid of getting in trouble for not wearing them and following the rules. Until fewer people are afraid, until more people throw them away, then we will have no power. They will keep shutting us down and ruining our lives. It has nothing to do with the virus. This virus, this virus is nothing. It has to do with control, with power.”
At that moment, a man on a motorcycle screeched past us. He was wearing a mask but no helmet. I had to laugh. Yes, this is what it has come down to. It makes no sense. What can possibly legitimate the draconian “catastrophe” that our leaders have put us through? Justify the continued 24 hour coverage and fear-mongering that the media slams at us day after day? Justify the many doctors and scientists who lie and deceive and magnify COVID into something far worse than it really is? No, he said, there is nothing to justify allowing the robber back in the house, certainly not this virus. But until we are brave enough to do something about it, that robber will keep coming back.
“You people in the United States,” he said. “You love filling your bodies with chemicals. You have a drug for everything. We here, we don’t choose to harm our bodies in that way. But now we have to. The companies that sell all their poisons and potions, they have to first make it seem like we need them, like we are sick. This COVID nonsense, it’s just like that. They take a virus that is only bad for those who have one foot in the grave, and they make it seem like it is a threat to everyone. Then they forece us to buy their poisons. Our prime minister owns mask companies. He also said that unless enough of us get immunized he’ll shut us down again, even if no one is dying of the virus. He has the power to do that now. He doesn’t care about the suffering and hardship that all of this is causing us, that it is setting us back ten years after we finally worked so hard to dig ourselves out of an economic mess. No one cares about all the businesses that are destroyed and that people can barely pay their rents. As long as we let them do this, let them keep robbing us, they will never stop.”
This cabbie was not about conspiracy theories or ascribing motives to specific people, nor did he have a solution. He did say that the bankers were doing quite well and that maybe it was them more than anyone who didn’t want it to go away. “The government needs the bankers, a lot of them profit when the bankers do well, and with everyone now losing all their money and their livelihood, now so many people will need to get loans from the bank, and then we are all dependent on those banks. That’s likely part of it. None of this has anything to do with the virus, of that I am sure. They are not causing this catastrophe because they really think the virus is so dangerous. They are doing it for other reasons, for power and money, for things like that. That’s why they keep making us do all this nonsense, keep shutting us down, even though they know that the virus is not as bad as they say.”
In Greece, despite the fact that we know that COVID is not a surface virus, we still had to wear gloves when getting food from our hotel buffet. Mask mandates were everywhere, even though I did not speak with a single shop owner or hotel worker who thought it made sense. They did it because they were lucky to still have a business, and they feared getting shut down if they dared resist.
“You can’t fight it,” the cabbie said. “They have so much power now. How can we fight it?”
It almost sounds like what the citizens of Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union said after their countries were taken over by dictators. If we dare fight against the government, they will squash us like ants, so it’s best to comply and do what they say, not make a fuss. Except, now the entire world has fallen into this morass, and even as everyone suffers and most people know that the fear of COVID is far worse than the reality, even as COVID is being used to justify stripping us of our economic security and our freedoms, even as we all have been transformed into drones who follow rules that are both absurd and suffocating, even despite all of that, we are powerless to stop it.
Why isn’t someone pushing back? How can we all be trapped?
“As long as people keep driving their cars in a straight line that the government tell us we must do, as long as no one dares to turn off the road that these people have paved for us, then why would anyone in power try to change course? We gave them the power. Why do you think they’d want to give it back?”
On the plane ride home I watched a YA movie called Spontaneous. It’s both a simple and funny movie, and yet so profound, far more insightful than Dr. Fauci, the TV academic experts, our news anchors, and our political leaders. In it, kids at a high school start exploding. No one knows why. They do everything—isolate the kids, experiment on them to find pills that will save them, concoct one theory after another—but the kids keep exploding. Finally, at the end, when the explosions stop just as quickly as they started, the main character realizes several things. First, the “experts” have no idea what they are doing, but they’ll continue to consider their absurd theories to be truthful and then sell everyone pills that they claim are effective, even if it’s clear as day that nothing they say or do makes any sense at all. Second, these explosions can’t be explained, that it doesn’t matter if you are good or bad rich or poor as to whether you will be a victim, and that you can’t stop living your life for fear of exploding. As one character says to the main character: life is crap, it’s not fair, and bad stuff will always happen, but if we live our lives in fear of all that, if we spend all our efforts trying to dodge the inevitable and unpredictable, then what’s the point? We really aren’t living at all.
I think the cabbie would agree. There’s always something around the corner that can kill or maim us, something far worse than COVID; that’s what life is, and our deaths are inevitable. But if we let fear rule us, if we let people take away our lives and our happiness and our livelihoods to try to fend off one illness or another, if we hide every time a virus hits us (even one that mostly impacts people who already have a foot in the grave) then we will have lost everything. We have essentially killed ourselves, not saved ourselves.
“I don’t fear the virus,” he said. “I fear the next shutdown. I fear losing everything. So yes, I live in fear, and I won’t fight back because that may give them the excuse they need to shut us down again.”
And thus do the masks continue to profligate, news anchors continue to bully and frighten us, the lies and fear-mongering continue to be accepted as fact, because, well, because it’s all working. Never have leaders of democratic nations, never have scientists and doctors, never have a few media outlets, exercised so much control over our lives. They don’t care if people suffer, they don’t even care about the virus.
“It’s all about power,” he said again.
It’s all about letting the robber in, and being scared of chasing him away. And to me, listening to this man, hearing so many stories about the devastation that the quarantine caused this wonderful country, and feeling every bit of that pain in my own life, I realize that COVID is a Greek tragedy more onerous than anything Sophocles could have written. It is a story full of hubris, self-destruction, deception, and ultimately greed and power.
When will we be brave enough to pull the curtain shut? Will the Greek tragedy ever end? That’s the question that all of us ask. Tragically, we just don’t know.