Enforcement cannot just be for lesser mortals

More importantly, however, there are limits to our country’s logistical capability in dealing with this crisis. The bottom line is that is not just the national health services that risks being overwhelmed; the Police Force, too, has its hands kinda full at the moment

If there’s one thing this pandemic has taught us (well, most of us, anyway) it is that the old ‘business as usual’ mantra has its own inbuilt limitations.

And I don’t just mean the fact that ‘business’, in the strictly commercial sense, has now practically ground to a total halt. After all, the word has a much wider sphere of applicability. We also talk (or used to talk) about ‘going about our daily business’… you know, all the regular social activities we all took so very much for granted, until so very recently.

And just like that… it’s all gone. Not, mind you, because we’re all so intrinsically disciplined that we willingly put ourselves under house arrest for the duration of the crisis (on the contrary: judging by media reports, a sizeable chunk of the population still sees no reason to even remotely adjust their daily routine). But simply because all such activities have quite literally been placed beyond our reach, by State-mandated emergency legislation.

In other words: even if we all wanted to rise up as a body, and defy the oppressive new regime that has been put into place for our own good… well, we can’t. School is out for the foreseeable future; cafes and bars are shut; and with the exception of purely essential services like supermarkets and pharmacies, pretty much everything is on forced shut-down. Even gathering in groups of three is now an offence punishable by a 100-euro fine.

And after around five weeks of regular briefings by the Health Department, you won’t need someone like me to repeat, once again, why these extraordinary measures – of the kind we’d normally associate with wartime – have been imposed.

You’ve all seen the graphs; you’ve all had it explained to you that this is now a question of slowing down the rate of contagion as much as possible; trying, as best we can, to keep the number of serious cases to within reasonable parameters, so as not to overwhelm our national health services…

As such, you should all also be aware of the consequences of failure (if not… well, just look at what’s happening in Italy, Spain, the UK, the USA, etc.)

And yet… our chances of success cannot exactly be taken for granted, either. All those emergency measures I alluded to above? They all depend on enforcement to actually work. And enforcement, in turn, depends on a whole load of other factors; including, among others, our own willingness to co-operate… not to mention the operational capabilities of the Police Force as a whole.

OK, I’ll admit that was a long preamble… but I felt it needed to be spelt out, because there are just too many people out there who evidently still don’t get it. Like the hunters and trappers’ federation, for instance: which called on the government to open the Spring hunting season as usual next month… and by extension, people like Prime Minister Robert Abela, who took the request seriously enough to actually convene the Ornis Committee to discuss it.

At this point, maybe I do need to explain exactly why this is such an unconscionable notion to even contemplate, at this precise moment in time. In case you were wondering, it has very little to do with all the issues we normally associate with hunting and trapping (for if I hadn’t made this point already… we are not exactly living in ‘normal’ times.)

Nor is it even due to concerns with ‘social distancing’… something that (let’s face it) hunters have always been experts at anyway. No, the answer has much more to do with judicious allocation of our national resources, at a time when they are already stretched to their utmost limit.

This week, for instance, I was flabbergasted to read that: “the health authorities are assessing whether the spring hunting season should be opened in view of the coronavirus epidemic.”

Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci was even asked to comment about it (I mean, honestly: doesn’t she have enough on her plate already?)… and she duly confirmed that: “We are analysing and discussing the issue, so we can draw up an assessment of the situation.”

Can you imagine? This is the Public Health Department we are talking about here; and in case no one’s noticed, it is already tasked with the gargantuan job of keeping a nationwide epidemic in check (which also involves testing hundreds of people each day, as well as individually tracking down every human contact made by every patient who tests positive for the virus… not to mention conducting research, advising government, keeping the public informed, putting up with idiotic questions at press conferences, etc.,etc.)

Well… apparently, they’re just not working hard enough: so we had to go and invent something truly bizarre and preposterous to keep them all busier than they already are. Like wasting precious time and resources on analysing whether the activities of a few odd-thousand hunters and trappers may constitute a ‘health-risk’, in view of the COVID-19 pandemic…

And yet, the answer is already staring us in the face. Any proposal that is going to divert the Public Health Department’s attention from its more important functions – anything at all – is obviously going to constitute a ‘health-risk’ for the nation. This would be true even at the best of times… let alone now, when the entire country is bracing itself for a potentially exponential spike in COVID-19 cases over the next few weeks (which is also the timeframe within which this absurd decision has to be taken).

But there are other, less obvious ways in which this harebrained proposal might seriously impair our national efforts in the war on this deadly disease. BirdLife Malta (which, naturally, is less than thrilled by the idea) this week reminded us that the levels of law enforcement that would justify an EU derogation on spring hunting involve at least “seven police officers per 1,000 hunters”.

Well, last I looked there were over 14,000 licensed hunters and trappers in Malta and Gozo (not counting, of course, those who hunt and trap without any licence… i.e., the sort the police would be on the lookout for anyway)… so on the basis of that calculation, there should ideally be around 98 police officers assigned to the Administrative Law Enforcement section (which is specifically tasked with enforcing hunting and trapping regulations).

However, that assumes that all 14,000 hunters would be out hunting at the same time. So let’s go a step further, and divide the figure by two: which would still leave us with the necessity of having around 50 police officers assigned to hunting… just to be able to comply with all the legal requirements of a derogation.

In reality, however, the Administrative Law Enforcement’s actual human resources amount to no more than 20 police officers in total (some put the figure even lower, at 18). So at most, the ALE can only ever hope to cover the activities of fewer than 3,000 hunters at any one time – i.e., just under one-fifth of the entire hunting cohort.

In practice, this can only mean that there is, and can be, no adequate enforcement of hunting regulations at all… even, at the risk of repeating a tired cliché, ‘at the best of times’.

But this woeful scenario still falls short of the grimmer reality we face today. For the ALE does not exist solely and exclusively for the purpose of policing hunters and trappers; it is also supposed to cover a wide range of other activities… not least, the enforcement of all those new emergency regulations that have just come into force.

Right now – i.e., with the hunting season closed – all 18-20 of the ALE’s current staff complement have been re-drafted on the very front-line of the COVID019 emergency. It is their job to look out for people infringing quarantine, for instance (assisted by other police departments, of course – that’s what it means to be in an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ situation).

But if we allow the unthinkable, and open the spring hunting season in April… well, one of two things will happen. Either at least some of those 18-20 policers officers will have to be reassigned to oversee hunting and trapping again – in which case, we’d be starving the Police Force of invaluable resources which could be much better deployed elsewhere – or else, the much likelier possibility that the Police will (understandably) reassess its priorities, and simply ignore hunting infringements for the benefit of the more urgent task of ensuring public safety.

Ultimately, this would only illustrate (in case we needed further reminding) that ‘law and order’ only ever applies to people like you, me, and all the other lesser mortals out there… while some segments of society remain free to ’go about their business as usual’, without any fear of legal repercussions.

And this is where the matter becomes truly unacceptable, regardless of one’s personal views on hunting and trapping. For there is a limit to how far this sort of blatant inequality can be pushed, before people finally start losing patience (which, in this scenario, translates into disregarding potentially life-saving public health instructions… on the basis that: ‘If the hunters can do it, why can’t we?’)

More importantly, however, there are limits to our country’s logistical capability in dealing with this crisis. The bottom line is that is not just the national health services that risks being overwhelmed; the Police Force, too, has its hands kinda full at the moment.

So under the circumstances, I would have thought the very least we could do is not overload them both further with additional, useless work. But no, I guess that was too much to ask…

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