A Message by Prof. Sotiris Tsiodras

Third Webinar of Halki Summit IV – Implications for Health

January 28, 2021

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I would like to begin by thanking the organizers for inviting me to deliver this short presentation during the Halki Summit IV webinar, entitled “Covid-19 and health/mental health.”

I would like to send my greetings to all Greeks attending and wish everybody a better 2021 with the blessings of our Ecumenical Patriarch.

Greece passed through the first phase of the pandemic lightly compared to some other European countries.

The first phase of the pandemic was a tremendous success for our country and a good starting point in this continuing struggle against the pandemic — a struggle that reminds us of a marathon run. 

People in Greece religiously obeyed the tough measures last spring. It was partly due to the fear of the unknown but good communication answering basic questions about the virus, its spread and the effects both at the personal and societal level greatly helped.

The public’s response was not just crucial; it also revealed the true character of our people, their spiritual strength, their recognition of the truth and their sense of personal responsibility. It was a triumph of the Greek spirit — we were all heroes in that success. My contribution was to defend the truth in front of the cameras — nevertheless I never felt unique — I was part of the whole-we all fought together. I tried to explain to the people the need to understand scientific uncertainty and our efforts as scientists to overcome it. I think more people now understand the agony scientists have in their search for the truth.

After the summer the virus transmission -that had never disappeared- picked up again and we started seeing a second wave of infections that peaked in October and November, not only in our country but elsewhere in Europe and the US. Some of this spread still continues and has escalated to a third wave in several countries across the world.

This eruption of the virus has resulted again in a significant number of people affected and a significant loss in human health and human life. In addition, it has led to re-institution of harsh lockdowns that still continue or are extended in several countries around the world, in several states in the US, in Europe and Greece.  

Among these difficult measures implemented by states and leaders around the world, are school closures, cancellations of gatherings, including church ceremonies that are held with a maximum number of participants and with the use of strict hygienic protocols.

We scientists call these actions non pharmaceutical interventions- they can become tiring but are nevertheless essential in stopping the virus at its tracks. Social distancing, hand washing, travel restrictions, virtual conferences are things we have learned to live with. The highly debated mask issue has now become obsolete-we need the masks to reduce transmission. Increasingly more people adhere to wearing them — it was hard for people to accept especially during services at church. 

The effects of the pandemic and the measures are not only physical but mental as well. Anxiety about the future is predominant, a sense of vulnerability is prominent, the faith of the people has been challenged by a microscopic virus. Society and economy suffer together.

Over the recent months, things have continued to escalate and several new challenges emerged. People are now tired, mentally more than physically. Some of the uncertainties continue.

We still do not have a great therapeutic regimen against the virus.

We already enjoy the advantage of modern medical science, by the development of a safe and efficacious vaccine in less than a year an amazing scientific feat. We do have the hope of extensive vaccine use by the majority of people.

The vaccines still come at limited quantities and immunization continues among logistical hurdles at a big part of the world and in our home country Greece. Broad population coverage will ensure herd immunity that is widely seen as a way to free our society from lockdowns and a way to kickstart the economy again.

On the other hand, the pandemic may not evolve as we wish. We hear about virus evolution, about mutations and variants that could potentially make us vulnerable again. Science will act as a catalyst in addressing some of these uncertainties about the future.

It remains a tough journey — we need to continue collaborating and to work together: the public, the scientists and the state.

The advice to the public is to try to adhere to the difficult measures, to be patient. It is important to avoid stigma – the distinction between infected and non-infected people- Solidarity will get us through this, we are part of a whole in this endeavor. I wear the mask, I am immunized and I save the person next to me, from pneumonia and possibly death from a tiny virus particle that I don’t see and it may not even affect me personally.

I feel blessed having already received the complete vaccine schedule.  I hope we all get immunized. Currently it is our best shot in ending this — it is the light in the tunnel.

The advice of the scientists should continue to fall in receptive ears. We should continue to be well informed about fake news and conspiracy theories about the virus and the vaccine. Some people still don’t believe that the virus exists. I’m afraid of people applauding half-truths of people applauding lies. I’m afraid of people becoming fixated in their beliefs.

The virus evolves, we as scientists, will continue to follow, we will use our enhanced surveillance tools, the testing, the contact tracing, the research on therapies, the vaccines – we will continue to fight it without prejudice and respecting our fellow humans.

Yes, it is true, that we may need a new vaccine in the future, if the virus evolves,

Yes it is true that the virus may stay with us for the foreseeable future,

We answer that, we will not let our guard down we will continue to keep our stand-as scientists we will fight to the end.

Church and religious leaders should be sharing with the faithful evidence-based information about COVID-19, about preparedness, and response via a set of well-known to us measures. At this point and till we reach herd immunity by immunization, it is essential to keep avoiding large group gatherings and ensure that any decision to convene group gatherings for worship is based on a sound risk assessment and in line with guidance from national and local authorities. Only then, we will have safe faith-based gatherings and ceremonies.

The church should address stigma, violence, and the incitement of hate and should promote a peaceful coexistence during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The church should participate in sharing and ensuring that accurate information is shared with communities and actively engage in countering and addressing misinformation.

Science and religion pursue and agonize about the truth in our life. As written in the Gospel “the truth shall make you free.” Religion continues to be a cornerstone of many people’s lives as they struggle to understand this pandemic of severe disease and deaths.

Religion and science should be allies in this fight against the pandemic virus.  It is not hypocritical to pray for good health while at the same time taking all necessary measures and precautions advised by public health authorities. At this time of crisis, Religion and Science can walk together in the search for truth. Reinforcing public health messages during the current pandemic is the way forward and in my humble opinion a noble and spiritual action that can strengthen the faith of the people.