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Our View:  School reopening row highlights economic divide

Nobody seems to be listening to the warnings of Finance Minister Constantinos Petrides

THE ROW sparked by the government’s decision to open all state schools on May 21, the day the on which lockdown ends and we regain most of our liberties, highlighted the division of our society into two camps, the public and the private sector. The former is made up of the entitled public employees who are guaranteed financial security by the state for their entire life, and the latter consists of the people that are at the mercy of changing market conditions and for the majority of whom financial security is an unknown concept.

Broadly speaking, the members of each camp would have a different outlook on many issues that is fashioned by their respective material circumstances. This was why the opening of the schools was opposed by the unions representing the teachers, questioned by the scientists advising the government and criticised by the champions of the public sector, Akel. They all cited their concerns about the health of the children and teachers, as if they were the only ones that cared about public health.

The reality is that they are in the camp that has nothing to lose from keeping the schools closed and children at home until the start of the new school year in September. Their monthly wages would carry on being paid by the state (most of the scientific advisors are also public employees) and there is zero chance they would have no job to return to after an extended lockdown. So why should they not insist the lockdown stays in place and schools stay closed until we have zero infections for two or three weeks? Thanks to their guaranteed financial security, they can be uncompromising about the lockdown.

Speaking on Friday about the opening of the schools, Akel’s spokesman Stefanos Stefanou implied that the government had changed its decision on not opening the schools after it had received a letter from the federation of employers (OEV). Before the letter from OEV, the education minister was giving assurances that schools would reopen only for students in their final year, said Stefanou, suggesting the government had been swayed by the capitalists, whose motives were not as pure as Akel’s that is now repeating the slogan that ‘the protection of health must be the first priority.’

It has been the first priority for the last two months – we shut down the economy for two months, people have been forced to stay at home and survive on a fraction of their monthly income for two months, many might not have a job to return to because businesses will close – but now it is time to make the restart of the economy the priority. New cases of Covid-19 are down to single digits every day, hospitals are empty and we are down to about one death per week, usually an elderly person with underlying health problems. How much more protection of health is needed?

OEV, which is promoting the interests of financially insecure private sector workers, should be commended for pressuring the government to open the schools and free parents to return to work, assuming they still have a job to go to.  There is no such worry for epidemiologists, public school teachers and Akel politicians. Nor are they concerned that the longer the return to economic normality is delayed, the more poverty there will be and the greater the problems our economy will face. The state cannot keep paying out grants to people for staying at home to look after their children while the economy is contracting and the future of public finances is in the balance.

Nobody seems to be listening to the warnings of finance minister Constantinos Petrides about the problems awaiting the economy, as result of the lockdown and state spending to protect jobs. State coffers were emptying and on Friday he spoke of the possibility of the state being forced to cut wages in the public sector and raise taxes, in order to reduce spending and avoid a fiscal disaster that would lead to another memorandum.

“We want to avoid such a prospect which is why we are cautious and taking a step at a time,” he said, while refuting Akel’s accusations that the relaxing of restrictions was based on economic criteria. But what if it were? The government is there to take political decisions in the interests of all the members of society and not just the employees of the public sector whose financial and job security are guaranteed.

The majority of the population does not work for the state and it depends on a functioning economy for its livelihood. Now that the coronavirus has been contained, the government should base its decisions on economic criteria, because people, not employed by the state need to get back to work.



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