Thomas Helm: We have to learn how to live with coronavirus
Interview with Thomas Helm, Resident Representative of Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Kazakhstan.
Q: How is your self-isolation going?
TH: First of all, this is not something I can call self-isolation. Self-isolation is when you are forced to stay home. At the moment the whole city is in the lockdown. Of course, it is rather boring for me, mostly because I am used to traveling a lot. In Kazakhstan alone, I usually fly at a bare minimum 60-70 times a year. Including international flights, the number is around 110 a year. I am used to working with people, bringing our seminars to different regions of the country. As of now, I have been staying in Nur-Sultan for six weeks in a row. That has never happened in the five years since I came to Kazakhstan. Although I have a couple of publications that I am working on and I have other things to do, I might come to a crisis, if the quarantine does not end in 10 days. Mainly because I have never been locked up this way in my entire life.
Q: How would you assess self-discipline of the quarantined Kazakhstanis?
TH: To be honest, I think there is room for improvement but I don’t blame people for that. This year I am witnessing the most beautiful spring in Kazakhstan in the past five years. April has been very warm and sunny, which I never experienced before. It is really hard to keep children indoors in this weather, not a single child can stay home for such a long time. I believe people’s self-discipline could be better, but it seems hardly realistic. The entire isolation concept goes against human nature, habits and needs. People are social creatures by nature. Self-isolation poses a huge challenge to everyone.
Q: Do you think the role of medicine will change in the world and in Kazakhstan after the pandemic?
TH: The consequences of the pandemic and future plans will definitely be re-evaluated after it ends. However, it is hard to assess the scales of re-evaluation. In the first place, we need to assess social and economic damage and see what we can afford after the crisis. It is a question in what kind of condition we will be at that moment. I have to say, back in 2012 the most famous institute of virology in Germany issued a clear warning to the German Parliament, saying the country is not ready for a pandemic. And nothing happened after that, which is causing a lot of questions nowadays. We were as surprised about the pandemic reaching us as Kazakhstan. But our health systems are different, so the outcome will be different. However, nobody was prepared for that. I suppose in the future countries will be more prepared for this kind of threat. But it is not only the question of the outcome of the pandemic, it has also to do with the traditions we have and whether we are able to implement large-scale reforms.
Q: How would you assess Kazakh government’s efforts in the fight against coronavirus?
TH: The measures taken in March are all in all good, which I previously mentioned in my other statements. I support them but I also believe it is not possible to extend quarantine any longer. Just look at this weather, as I previously mentioned, you simply can’t keep people indoors. Another important thing is, you can’t educate children at home for a long time. It brings along new challenges. Families are different, some parents are not able or may not be willing to help their children by home schooling. I think keeping children out of schools and kindergartens will not work for much longer. Also, there are a lot of people who get desperate because they can see their wellbeing is deteriorating. People have to go back to business. We have to learn how to live with this virus now. Otherwise the country’s economy and society will get more damaged than from the coronavirus itself. So far, I must say everything has been done properly, but we have to open a new chapter of the anti-coronavirus strategy.
Q: How would you assess the anti-crisis measures taken to support our people and businesses?
TH: Of course, the support rendered to people was absolutely right, I mean allocating 42,500 tenge for everybody. I am happy it was extended for another month and was distributed automatically, so that people did not have to go through the whole application process again. At the same time, 42,500 tenge is not much and it can not cover all the expenses. The tax regulations for small and medium-sized enterprises are also good, and they got extended as well. If people lose their jobs completely and small and medium-sized enterprises have no income, they will not pay taxes at all. It is a good help for some time, but it does not eliminate people’s obligation to go back to business.
Q: What support measures are important for your business today?
TH: My business is 100 % covered by the German government. I think there must be realistic understanding of how things will go back to normal, so that people can plan accordingly, keeping in mind all the time frames. One of the most important issues is to ensure safety and protect people’s health. However, it is far from being the only thing. Plenty of other social and economic questions are coming with it. I would highly recommend a similar thing to what has been done in Germany. They organized a consulting group named ethic council, consisting of physicians, economists, lawyers, sociologists and even religious representatives, who will come up with a strategy and the appropriate timeline on how to go back to normal life. So that people can rely on it as well. Without this perspective and experiencing all the damage from coronavirus, people get desperate. People should have a clear vision to eliminate any type of desperation.
Q: Did you have to change some of your plans because of the quarantine in Nur-Sultan?
TH: There has been no change in our office at the moment. We have our tool box and will keep operating the same way. We will see what our government is going to do in the future and what support will be rendered. The damage is huge in Germany and there might appear people who will ask the government: “why are you allocating money abroad when we need it now in the country to cover the damage?” From what I can see right now, there are no big changes in nearer future but on the long run things might change.
Q: What are you going to focus on in the future?
TH: A new aspect now is the economic transformation in the context of the coronavirus crisis aftermath. Because this subject is becoming more topical, we will definitely organize conferences on how to deal with it, how to go back on track. In the process we will keep working on education, including dual and academic education. We will focus on energy, policy, self-governance of communities, and all other subjects we had been already dealing with. But, of course, I think we should focus a little more on economic crisis now.
Q: Are you going to increase your support of Kazakhstan in your projects?
TH: Our projects are 100% focused on Kazakhstan, and it can not be more than that. We never spent a single euro on something else.
Q: As we know, the Kazakh-German center is being established at the moment, have there been any delays so far?
TH: I am not aware of any delays. I heard about postponing of the opening ceremony. But this is the only thing I am aware of. Of course, being involved in the project and when they invest in abroad, our Interior Ministry checks everything very carefully. We have appropriate organisations that check everything, so I think everything will be good with the project.
Q: Experts speak about growing social and political tension in the countries with the regime of strict self-isolation. How would you assess the level of tension in Kazakhstan?
TH: First of all, one should have a clear strategy. What are the next steps? People should know what will happen. The most important thing is to be transparent on that. I would say it is critical to communicate your plans, and not only when specific events are occurring. Meanwhile, press conferences or other things should be done, including on social media, to explain people what and why you are doing something. Transparency is vital for people to understand why specific measures are necessary. That way they will understand and recognize them, there will be a clear vision in people’s minds. They will be able to say “I can trust my government” and that implies transparent and regular government communication with them. When people understand how to get out of crisis and go back to normal, they will stay calm.
Q: Many people praised your expert opinion in an interview with Rakhim Oshakbayev. Would you like to add anything to what you mentioned a month ago?
TH: First of all, I stand by my words, I think it was a good interview. It took place four weeks ago, and as we learn new things every day, I would indeed add something. Of course, there are a lot of opinions, but one thing seems to be very clear - we definitely will not have a vaccine until next year. The most optimistic forecast from a person in the US says it might happen as early as January. All German experts agree it might be not before spring next year. For me it is clear that we need to urgently change the strategy, we cannot lock up people for another year. In my interview to Rakhim, we were talking about the fall potentially. Now we understand the vaccine will not be available until 2021. We have to learn how to live with coronavirus, go back to business, including on the international level, and start travelling again. Otherwise we will cause more damage and desperation.
Q: Fake news become widespread in the world during the pandemic. How do you think we should deal with it?
TH: There is always space for rumors and conspiracy theories when a big crisis happens in the world. Take September 11, 2001, or the murder of President John F. Kennedy, for instance. There were a lot of rumors and conspiracy theories beside the official reports and investigations. Even when the plague occurred during the Middle Ages, killing hundreds of thousands of people, conspiracy theories appeared about its origins. At the time of pandemic, there are a lot of people who spread rumours. One of the most dangerous rumors is that the virus has an artificial origin. This implies it was conceived as a strategic weapon. If that would be true, it would result in a lot of consequences. That is why we should be careful on such things. I would recommend regular communication from the government to give people and critics opportunity to discuss things. The government can argue with critics, pulling people away from conspiracy theories and providing them official information. You should always mention official web-sites and sources that give reliable information, so that people stay away from fake news. And be open to discussions about governmental strategies and what the country should do in the future.
Q: During the fight against coronavirus and its consequences, is it possible to radicalize our society? Crime rate and domestic violence is said to have increased. Could it provoke global conflicts?
TH: It can provoke anything in fact. When people are desperate and do not know what is going on, it is always the time for easy answers on questions, which can be given by populists and conspiracy theories’ supporters. The crime rate can rise if people have to face poverty. It is not possible to take care of everyone. Government can tackle it within some period of time. That is why it is important to get back to business. When people are losing jobs or facing the loss of money and perspective, they are getting desperate. When they stay in their tiny flats, it might cause domestic violence as well. Germany has a different strategy, it never forced people to stay at home. Germany supports social distancing. We have 160,000 cases, 130,000 people recovered, the number of sick is 30,000. Our healthcare system can provide 30,000-40,000 intensive medical treatment spots. We have patients from other countries undergoing treatment. People can walk outside, go wherever they want, but keep the distance of 1.5 meter. Our strategy is social distancing. Of course, this pandemic can cause global conflicts because of a lack of solidarity, responsibility for the crisis and lack of help in case of extreme consequences of the crisis.
Q: How would you assess assistance from various countries to Kazakhstan? As we know, humanitarian aid came from the UAE, Turkey, China, the US (NGOs). Is it good in your opinion? Or it might create more tension?
TH: It is very good that foreign countries cooperate and provide help. I have mentioned that Germany takes the COVID-19 patients from France, Spain, and UK, as our healthcare system is good. Of course, the aid of the US, EU, multinational organizations is good. A little bit of a problem, I have to say, is China. It wants to do politics. China absolutely knows that they are responsible. From all what we know the pandemic began in Wuhan, they waited for too long and the virus spread around the globe. A lot of Chinese people were travelling to other countries when the virus was in effect. Now they are trying to tell the world they are not responsible. If you blame China for responsibility, they block your economy like it happened with Australia. Delivering a humanitarian aid China tries to bring people on their side, telling that they are the best managers of this pandemic crisis. It is very good that China helps now, but the should be open for an investigation as well, because the whole world can learn from it, learn how to avoid such things in the future.
I also want to add that I admire what Kazakhstan is doing. Kazakhstan delivers food support, for example, to Tajikistan, which is absolutely welcomed
Q: How do your relatives in Germany feel about the pandemic and social distancing in general?
TH: In Germany, people can go everywhere. The problem is, they have to keep the distance. It means no birthday parties, no other events. My brother had birthday last Sunday. It was a small birthday. Of course, nobody is happy with it. Many people have to work at home even if they do not like it. My mother had to send her cleaning lady home because of the of the risk. Everybody is waiting to go back to normal life.
Q: Why people still don’t believe in pandemic and come up with conspiracy theories?
TH: The situation is very complicated. The researchers do not know a lot of things. It means there is a lack of understanding why this is happening and where it comes from. This causes people to develop a lot of enemy images. They are leaning towards stereotypes in their heads. Nobody has a clear picture and then you put things you heard from everywhere together and they shape into perfect conspiracy theory. That is dangerous, because these things are not connected with each other, but people who create conspiracy theories mix different information, which is poisoning.