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Medical maverick looks back in anger

Profile1

Outspoken and contentious, in a former MP and coroner THEO PANAYIDES finds a man perpetually misunderstood and disappointed in how the public is easily led and unwilling to fight the corruption that pervades the island

We’ve actually profiled Marios Matsakis before in this newspaper – but that was 11 years ago, and a Matsakis profile every decade or so is a minimum requirement for any self-respecting publication. Here’s the opening paragraph from that previous profile, in July 2009:

“So here he is – the ‘mad doctor’, hero of the people, twice MP (and once MEP), scourge of the negligent and un-patriotic, ‘a medical monkey up a stick’ in the vivid phrase of former British high commissioner Edward Clay. Marios Matsakis sits in a coffee shop in Pyrga, the pine-scented village where he’s lived since the mid-90s, looking back at the ups and downs of a turbulent 15 years in the public eye. Arrested by the British during a protest in Episkopi (subsequently sparking a riot). Arrested by the Turks after entering the buffer zone to remove a Turkish flag from an observation post. Sensationally fired on live TV from his job as state pathologist by then-minister of health Manolis Christofides. These are just a few of the incidents that made him notorious, contributing to his reputation as a combative maverick.”

Profile2 Arrested By The British
Arrested By The British

Eleven years on, not much has changed. He was 55, he’s now 66; the beard is bushier, and definitely grey now; we’re once again in Pyrga, but now at his home on the outskirts of the village – sitting outside at opposite ends of a table, for Covid’s sake – instead of in a coffee shop. A decade ago he looked back in anger at the Stock Exchange scandal, which divested people of their savings, now he looks back on the haircut, which did much the same – and to much the same general apathy, which of course makes him furious.

“The people of Cyprus are cowards!” he fumes. “They are cowards. The vast majority of the people of Cyprus are cowards. And they’re also stupid. Politically speaking,” he clarifies, noting my startled expression, “I’m not saying they’re stupid in their everyday lives. Politically, they are stupid and cowards. They suffered so much. With the haircut, [the politicians] stole the money from their pockets. And there was not even one major protest!”

He himself will protest when he feels it’s warranted, and “of course my protests are more – uh, dynamic,” he adds, his English ever-so-slightly rusty after 27 years back in Cyprus (he’d spent the previous 24 years in the US and UK, first as a student, then as a doctor and coroner). Even here in Pyrga there was trouble a while back, caused by a nearby firing range that rained down occasional stray missiles on the village; Matsakis – the name’s so familiar, it seems weird to call him by his first name – disrupted proceedings by physically occupying the range, joined by much of the village. (He was the only one arrested, and spent a night in jail though charges were later dropped.) Back in the day, he recalls, he was arrested seven times by the Brits, and thrice by the Turkish authorities.

“So I did protest. I did fight. But you know, I was banging my head against a concrete wall, hoping to bring it down – and all that happened was that I was bleeding, and the wall is still standing. Because you need a lot of people to push the wall down.”

Is he slightly bitter about the way things have gone?

“I feel disappointed, yes. Because I don’t see people being willing to do anything. There’s so much corruption – and everyone’s saying ‘OK, if there’s corruption I cannot change things. If you can’t fight them, join them’.” He shakes his head disapprovingly. “Sometimes I have periods when I’m a bit more quiet, trying not to express my feelings, not to fight the system. And then it all erupts again.”

Some might say he has a tendency to play the martyr – and he is indeed perpetually misunderstood, the way he tells it. He enjoys his notoriety, and has no false modesty: “Things have changed since I came to Cyprus,” he tells me, “because I pressed and pressed and pressed”. He may not bear grudges, but I doubt he forgets a slight; I mention Clay’s ‘monkey up a stick’ comment, and he smiles grimly: “A very stupid statement by a very stupid person”. The comment came from yet another protest, when the Brits were building “enormous aerials” on a nature reserve near the Akrotiri salt lake and Matsakis climbed up one of the masts. In the end, he only managed to delay the project by about two years – but the case did go before Parliament, and the Bases formed “an environment service to look after Nature in the region” by way of compromise, so that’s something. “My problem was that I had no back-up from the Cyprus government,” he says sadly – and goes on a brief rant about our politicians being “midgets” who never want to stand up to anyone, lest it get in the way of their law offices and business interests.

We’re interrupted by Tara, an ancient-looking hound with a somewhat distracted air. “Don’t worry about the dog,” he reassures me. “She’ll come and smell you a little bit, then she’ll go away.” Also in the picture is Jerry, a fluffy, friendly cat who sits purring beside my tape recorder. (His brother Tom is no more, alas.) Matsakis is a bit of a country squire, he and his wife Maria living here with five dogs and four cats. He goes on walks, climbs the nearby mountains, has a patch of land at the top of a hill where he likes to plant trees, pine and cypress and carob. He’s 66, “but I feel like I’m 36”. Does he live healthy? “I work a lot,” he replies. “I mean, I work the land – you can see my hands” – he spreads out his hands, which are hard and calloused. “I planted 6,000 trees on the mountain. 6,000!” I suspect he gets on better with trees and animals than he does with people, or at least they’re less disappointing.

Disappointment at others being weak or unprincipled is a recurring theme in our conversation. “I was one of the few MEPs who took part in the human-rights resolutions,” he recalls of his time in Brussels (2004-09) – the reason being that the vote was always on a Thursday afternoon, and most of his colleagues were already catching flights home for a long weekend. Later, he rails about the average Cypriot caring only about “what they’re going to eat [and] how many cars they’re going to have”. Even with Covid, on which he has much to say, he doesn’t think there’s any great conspiracy; it’s just a case of people being feeble and easily led again. “The media has this line, to portray [the virus] in a certain way, because everybody else is doing the same. It’s a group hysteria, in my view.”

Ah, Covid. One thing has changed dramatically since that previous profile in 2009: the role of social media has grown exponentially – and Matsakis is something of a cult figure on Facebook, his posts (on politics and “medical matters”) getting likes and shares by the hundreds. At the same time, his traditional-media presence isn’t what it was; it’s fair to say he’s been marginalised, maybe because he hasn’t sought public office since returning from the EU. He’s only been on TV once this year, to discuss the virus – an obvious subject, even if he weren’t a trained doctor with a degree in Microbiology – in a CyBC interview where journalist Katerina Milioti seems to have been instructed to push back against his views. (The interview contains some choice Matsakis-isms, as when Milioti mentions that Dr Nikolopoulos from the epidemiological team speaks highly of PCR tests. “Dr Nikolopoulos,” replies Matsakis scathingly, “is a dentist.”) He’s written to high officials repeatedly, giving his take on corona, but “they didn’t even lift the phone to give me a call”.

What exactly did he say?

“I said that the strategy for addressing the coronavirus pandemic is wrong,” he explains calmly. (He’s calm in general, with a kind of regal composure.) “Was wrong, and is wrong… I said that the strategy should be to protect those who are vulnerable, that should be the aim. Not to impose strict restrictions – fascist restrictions, sometimes – on all the population. On healthy people, those who are not in danger. What is the logic behind that?”

The usual argument is that it’s not practicable to separate the elderly and vulnerable from the rest of the population, I note.

“It’s extremely practicable. I will explain to you.”

We go back and forth for a while, talking death rates and previous pandemics. Some of his views are contentious but it’s hard to argue with his main points, viz. that the virus is seasonal and that the emphasis, right from the start, should’ve been on imposing strict restrictions on old people’s homes (and protecting the elderly in general). Instead, he says, the WHO – “an organisation I don’t trust very much” – led with the narrative of a deadly, plague-like disease and people fell into line, as they always do. “I think we over-exaggerated” when it comes to the pandemic, he concludes grimly. “We put in danger the whole economy of the world, and the lives of many innocent and healthy people.”

None of this is likely to convince the lockdown brigade, of course – and they’ll also note, with some justification, that he’s hardly a reliable source when it comes to a cautious assessment of the situation (the so-called ‘precautionary principle’), on Covid or anything else. He’s never been cautious, or risk-averse (though he claims to take “calculated risks”). He’s always been bold, with a daredevil streak.

He trained with the Parachute Regiment in the UK (he spent eight years in the Territorial Army) and loved fast cars, as a younger man. “I had my Porsches and BMWs – destroyed most of them!” he recalled in our previous profile; “I had some atrocious accidents, and escaped miraculously.” The Matsakis family also seem to have form when it comes to annoying the authorities. His grandpa (a Cretan by birth) owned a school in Limassol with Matsakis’ father – but got into trouble, and was forced to close in the 1950s (they opened a shop selling souvenirs to tourists instead), due to “fighting for the liberation of Cyprus”, i.e. being Eoka.

Incautious or not, he remains very popular; some of his posts have been viewed by over 100,000 people, he tells me. His recklessness attracts more timid souls, Facebook warriors looking for a hero, victims of injustice seeking a champion. He’s no longer an MP, but people ring him up all the time (he says) to report this or that outrage; he’s forever applying his coroner’s skills to high-profile criminal cases, and going public with his conclusions. Above all, he stands for a kind of principled populism, a lone voice against the “1,000 families who control everything” in Cyprus (actually, he adds on reflection, it’s probably a lot fewer than 1,000). “In every country there is this, a very small minority who control everything.” Simply put, an elite.

He himself – part diehard nationalist, part UK-trained technocrat – was never part of the elite, even in his days as MP (with Diko, though they later fell out). He proposed dozens of laws, he recalls with a sigh; “Only very few passed”. He proposed an ambulance service, and was ignored – but voted against what later became Gesy (in 2001) only to see it passed, because elections were coming up. Our misshapen, cobbled-together health system provokes another rant, mostly at unqualified GPs minting money while doing almost no work. It’s not viable, he says, exasperated, everyone knows it’s not viable, he went to all our top politicians (he lists them by name) and they all admitted it wasn’t viable – but “their view was we have to pass it, to show that we passed a national health system, and then we’ll correct it”. Once again, people’s cravenness and short-sightedness is the real disappointment.

There’s a hard side to his character, a world-weary distance. Let’s not forget he’s a doctor and former coroner. He’s seen death, bodies lying on slabs; he remembers that all is vanity. Maybe that’s the way to describe Matsakis: a man apart, literally and figuratively at the top of a mountain, looking down on stupidity and cowardice. Then again, that sounds quite misanthropic – and he’s not a misanthrope, he’s engaging and easy to talk to (though he does keep his private life private, presumably having been burned by indiscreet journalists). There’s an odd combination of warmth and wariness; he sits and chats, surrounded by dogs and pine trees, but glares at passing cars – they don’t pass very often – as if expecting them to disgorge gangs of enemies.

In the end, he’s just more outspoken – more assertive, more reckless perhaps – than the vast majority of people. “If I feel strongly about something,” he says, “and I’m confident that I’m right, it doesn’t matter if the whole world has a different view. I will give my view.” As it turns out, he said something similar in our previous interview: “This is perhaps my difference with many people: I am clear about certain things. Very clear. And I act upon that clearness. But people are confused, many times. They’re confused. Why are they confused?”. 11 years later, Marios Matsakis is no closer to an answer.

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