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6 May 2020updated 05 Oct 2023 8:39am

A Cypriot tragedy: How diaspora deaths expose Britain’s failings to the world

Countries suffering mildly from coronavirus despair at the UK, where their friends and relatives are dying in above average numbers.

By Anoosh Chakelian

By 23 April, a month after the UK went into official lockdown, two brothers admitted to the same intensive care unit in North Middlesex Hospital with Covid-19 had died within days of each other. Andy and Lonny Leonida, north Londoners whose family originated in Cyprus, were in their fifties and worked as builders together.

The tragedy shocked Britain’s Cypriot population, but it wasn’t the first time coronavirus had struck the community so cruelly.

The previous week, a 26-year-old British Cypriot carer called Sonya Kaygan who worked at a care home in Enfield, north London, died with Covid-19, leaving behind her three-year-old daughter – a story that made national headlines.

On 11 April, a much-loved cobbler called Ahmet Kamil who had run a shoe repair shop in Newington Green, on the Islington/Hackney border in north London, died from Covid-19 at the age of 63 – a week after losing his father, the 87-year-old co-founder of the Hackney Cypriot Association, Kamil Ahmet, to the virus.

Husbands and wives in the UK Cypriot community have died within days of each other – with at least two married couples, Andreas and Lily Christodoulou and Pavlos and Diana Faccas, reported to have died this way in April.

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Three people from the same Greek Cypriot family in Weston-super-Mare died of coronavirus in mid-April.

More than 287 UK Cypriots have died of coronavirus in England at the time of writing, according to the journalist Michael Yiakoumi, who has been reporting from London on Covid-19 deaths among UK Cypriots for the weekly Cypriot newspaper, Parikiaki.

“We estimate that there are 300,000 Cypriots living in the UK,” he tells me. “We did some figures last week and calculated that we account for 5 per cent of coronavirus deaths in London.”

Although official data is not available, it is estimated that 200,000 Cypriots in the UK live in London.

“It has shaken the community,” says the Labour MP Bambos Charalambous, the first person whose parents were born in Cyprus to be elected to parliament in the UK.

On 7 March, Charalambous sat at the same table as an active member of the Cypriot diaspora in London, Theologos Papapavlou, 72, at a dinner and dance. “I discovered five weeks later that he’d got coronavirus and died from it. It’s one of those things that’s hard to fathom.”

Charalambous represents the constituency of Enfield, thought to be home to the largest population of Greek Cypriots outside of Cyprus. An issue coming up increasingly in his work is the lack of burial space in north London cemeteries.

The tragic impact on Cypriots in the UK is part of a wider trend of disproportionate deaths among ethnic minority groups, as reported and analysed by the New Statesman. Factors such as urban living, a tight-knit community lifestyle, and multigenerational households are thought to contribute to such above-average deaths.

“The very nature of the Cypriot community is that they tend to congregate in certain hubs… whether it’s church, or going to the same shops, the same dinners. A lot of these people tend to be older people, who tend to stick to traditional venues,” says Charalambous.

“It’s also not unusual for grandparents to be with the kids and grandkids in one household. That’s another reason why it’s impacted the community a lot more. It’s really heartbreaking.”

Most of the infections that led to these hundreds of deaths were spread before lockdown, believes Parikiaki journalist Michael Yiakoumi.

“Before the lockdown, UK Cypriots, like most other ethnic minorities, were having major events where a lot of people turn up,” he says. “If we have a funeral, 300 or 400 people turn up; if we have a wedding, 300 or 400 people turn up. Then we have church congregations, with maybe over 100 churches all over England.”

Nevertheless, the death toll has not gone unnoticed in Cyprus, which has only suffered mildly from the pandemic so far, with 15 recorded deaths.

The Cypriot authorities appear concerned about the UK’s pandemic response in particular, controversially refusing entry even to some Cypriot students attempting to return home from the UK, and looking to reopen Cyprus to tourism by July – but not to British holidaymakers.

“Among everyone I talk to in Cyprus, generally the consensus is kind of absolute shock at the way the UK has handled this thing,” says Anabella Spanos, 25, a Cypriot who moved to London for work last September. She took one of the last flights allowed back into Cyprus before the country temporarily closed its borders.

A close friend of her family recently lost his father, who was in London on business, to coronavirus. “He was told several times not to call an ambulance unless ‘he thought he was dying’,” she tells me. “Once he did call an ambulance, it was too late”. The family is now struggling to return his body to Cyprus.

Spanos sees the UK lockdown as “incredibly lax” compared with Cyprus’s rules.

She had to self-isolate for 14 days once she returned to the country. To leave the house, Cypriots are required to text the government with their ID number, postcode and intentions to receive permission. Until this week, when the rules were slightly softened, this was limited to once a day, with a 9pm-6am curfew. Drones patrol after curfew, and helicopters check all stores are closed on Sundays. Fines of 300 euros were imposed for flouting the rules.

“When you did go out, you could only go around a certain perimeter of your zipcode,” Spanos tells me.

Cyprus also began mass testing in early April.

Discrepancy between the experience of the diaspora community and that of its ancestral counterparts exposes the UK’s shortcomings. Other such nations with strong links to Britain have also been sceptical of its approach. There is disquiet in India, for example, particularly regarding Indian students trapped with no work or income in the UK.

The UK’s delayed lockdown was panned in the Greek, Irish and US press, and criticised by Singapore’s national development minister and the mayor of Italian epicentre Bergamo, who deemed his two daughters – who were studying in the UK – safer back in Italy.

The day before the UK’s official 23 March lockdown, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, reportedly warned Boris Johnson that he would close the border to the UK if he did not take more restrictive measures.

Now the UK has reportedly recorded the highest number of deaths in Europe, this global scrutiny is likely to intensify.

“At the moment, the community is in a state of shock,” says Charalambous. “I think when there is a greater reflection as to what’s happened, there may well be questions asked about why things have happened the way they have, and why they’ve affected the community disproportionately.”

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