‘Mixed messages’? More like dangerous contradictions...

If I’m going to listen to anyone’s advice on how to safeguard my own health during a global pandemic… you can rest assured it’s not going to be the advice of either politicians or lawyers

Is it just me, or did I detect the faintest trace of concern in Dr Chris Fearne’s expression as he addressed yesterday’s press conference (in which he revealed a sudden overnight spike of 52 new COVID-19 cases: by far the highest daily increase since this crisis began)?

OK, probably it was just my imagination: or, to be more precise, I might have subconsciously transferred my own worries onto Chris Fearne’s face as I was listening.

For I shall have to admit that, to my inexpert ears, the news did come across as somewhat alarming. Not, perhaps, because of the increase in itself – ‘52 new cases’ being nowhere near enough to overwhelm our health services, for the moment – but because of what it portends for the near future.

From other countries’ experience we already know that, no matter how widespread the testing, the number of known cases will only ever represent a fraction (estimated at 10%) of the actual carriers of the disease: most of whom will not experience any symptoms for anywhere up to two weeks.

This suggests that the while the official count now stands at 293 cases… the real figure is likely to be well over 2,000; and - depending on how seriously we all take the ‘social distancing’ recommendations – each one of those undetected cases may be infecting numerous other people as we speak.

Naturally, I hope that the above calculation will be proved wrong (like I said, I’m no expert). But either way, we will know soon enough… for if my estimates are correct, we should start hitting triple-digit figures very soon.

In any case: Fearne hastened to reassure us that yesterday’s spike was ‘nothing to be alarmed about’: being in line with official predictions anyway.  “We are not surprised by the increase because it is according to our predictions,” he told the press. “If anything, we were expecting this rise to have happened last week.”

But if this is true (and I don’t doubt it is), it implies that the health authorities should also be expecting the figures to sky-rocket dramatically in the coming weeks, if not days. And this can only raise questions about the other new development (or rather, non-development) that Fearne also announced at the same press briefing: namely, that he saw no need for any further restrictive measures… so long as “people continued to obey social distancing rules”.

The way I see it, there are two problems with that assertion. For starters, there is plenty of evidence that… no, actually: people are not ‘obeying social distancing rules’ to begin with (so they can’t be expected to ‘continue’ doing what they haven’t even started doing yet).

Last Sunday alone, the police fined 81 people for breaching the rule about ‘gathering in groups of more than three’. And just like those undetected COVID-19 cases I mentioned earlier… we can safely assume that those 81 cases represent but the tip of a much larger iceberg (for reasons I will come to shortlu).

For the moment, however, it is the second snag that worries me a whole lot more. To put it simply: you can’t really blame so many people for openly flouting social distancing rules… when that is precisely what their own government is separately urging them to do on an almost daily basis.

At this stage, it cannot escape notice that our government is speaking with two very distinct voices on this issue. On one hand we have Chris Fearne, who is echoing all the health department’s advice and recommendations to the letter (in a nutshell: ‘don’t go out at all, unless absolutely necessary’); and on the other, we have Prime Minister Robert Abela, who is imparting the clean opposite message… not merely by telling us all that it’s perfectly ‘OK’ to go out, in spite of his own government’s health warnings… but actively encouraging us all to do so, for (believe it or not) ‘health reasons’.

No offence to Dr Robert Abela, or anything; but if I’m going to listen to anyone’s advice on how to safeguard my own health during a global pandemic… you can rest assured it’s not going to be the advice of either politicians or lawyers (or both combined, in this case); least of all, when their advice also flies in the face of all the official recommendations issued by the Superintendence of Public Health.

But that’s just me; and my tendency to value the opinion of doctors more than any other profession (in matters of health, anyway) seems to place me in a very small minority.  The fact remains that - in a country where so many remain so slavishly devoted to their political leaders - Abela’s words carry far more weight than Chris Fearne’s… or Charmaine Gauci’s, for that matter.

As such, his government’s doublespeak on this matter has created a dangerous dilemma. We can either heed the warnings of the health authorities, and self-isolate for the foreseeable future – something that, (let’s face it) none of us really wants to do – or else, we can follow the much more ‘pleasant’ advice coming from the direction of the Prime Minister… which, insidiously, happens to also chime in with what we all really want to hear anyway.

No prizes for guessing which of these two contradictory messages will prove more pleasing to the ear… and therefore, more widely followed.

Meanwhile, Abela’s position contradicts not just that of the health authorities… but also the country’s law enforcement sector: in other words, the second most important weapon at our disposal in the war on COVID-19.

I already wrote about Abela’s astonishing decision to open this year’s spring hunting season last week, so I won’t repeat any of the arguments here (other than to stress that this is primarily a law enforcement issue, and as such has very little to do with ‘hunting’, in and of itself).

But two things have happened since then. One, the Police’s own union has now come out against the decision… arguing that it will place an additional, unnecessary strain on their already limited resources; and two, Chris Fearne has separately confirmed that the decision was ‘not taken by Cabinet’ (indeed, several Cabinet members are reportedly fuming about not having even been consulted.)

And while Fearne attributed the responsibility directly to the Ornis Committee… we all know (or should know, by now) that the Ornis Committee’s can only ‘recommend’ the opening or closing of hunting seasons; with the decision itself resting firmly with government.

This leaves no room whatsoever for any doubt that Robert Abela took this decision all on his own, and in open defiance of the Police’s own warnings.

Which brings us back to those 81 people caught breaking public safety regulations last Sunday. As things stand, our Police Force only numbers 2,200 members in total: which may well be sufficient for the country’s needs in times of ‘normality’… but nowhere near enough to be present in all places, and at all times (as, unfortunately, today’s reality demands).

So if they managed to apprehend 81 people just last Sunday… well, the actual number of people defying social distancing regulations is surely going to be at least ten times higher, every single day of the week.

And that’s the situation as it stands today: i.e., with virtually all the police’s resources invested in the battle against COVID-19. But with the hunting season scheduled to open next week – which we now know was Robert Abela’s personal initiative: against the advice of the police, the health department, and even members of his own Cabinet….  there will very soon be even fewer policemen left to actually enforce these regulations than there already are.

For even if home affairs minister Byron Camilleri has now promised to ‘beef up’ the resources available to the police… it will not be to increase the police’s enforcement capability on the COVID-19 front (where enforcement is needed most); but rather, to make up for a shortfall in the number of ALE officers patrolling the countryside for hunting irregularities (which, at this stage, is about as ‘needed’ as a shotgun pellet in the head.)

All things told, then; much as I would dearly love to share the optimism expressed by Chris Fearne yesterday, I’m sorry to say that I just can’t. Not so much because I doubt the wisdom of his own strategy, or that of the health authorities; but because its chances of practical success now hinge on two, seemingly unattainable factors.

One is the co-operation of a largely uncooperative general public; and the other (on which the first depends) is a Prime Minister who doesn’t keep contradicting all the country’s experts at every conceivable opportunity.

And of neither of them is particularly visible at the moment.

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