Resilient nation: from pandemic to progress

This is an opportunity to make environmental improvement an integral part of Malta’s economic recovery

COVID-19 may be an invisible virus, but it has shown how vulnerable we all are. Our tomorrow will never be the same as our yesteryears and our new norm will need to be shaped around one crucial concept: resilience.

Resilience is society’s ability to be able to withstand economic, social and environmental shocks. COVID-19 has exposed our vulnerabilities across these three pillars, in particular within our socio-economic fabric.   

We are seeing people losing their lives, health services against the ropes, battered stock markets, businesses crippled, jobs lost and people requiring mental support. This shows us the need for a new norm centered around sustainable development and planning to shore up our resilience enhancing our preparedness to deal with such emergencies.

There are a number of studies on how such new diseases are emerging. But climate change, pollution, and illegal wildlife trade are known issues that may increase the risk of further pandemics.

My ministry is looking into the matter in a strategic context. It is therefore important for us to integrate well-being and the need for a sustainable balance between the economic recovery process and environmental protection.

As a result of the current pandemic and our altered lifestyle, we are seeing some short-term environmental improvements, including what appears to be significant reductions in air pollution and emissions, less environmental noise and more wildlife, particularly in urban areas. The preliminary data shows that to no surprise, air pollution has subsided due to reduced traffic. Air monitoring stations registered an average reduction of 40% in nitrogen dioxide levels. Reduced car usage has also resulted in a reduction in noise. This reduction is however very significant and unequivocally demonstrates the anthropogenic nature of our environmental degradation.

While this reduction is temporary, it is clear that we must re-think our ways of commuting and the need for us to instill sustainable mobility practices into our lifestyle. This is an opportunity to make environmental improvement an integral part of Malta’s economic recovery, rather than environmental measures being perceived as an additional burden at a time of crisis.

It is up to each and every one of us to realise how unsustainable development and environmental degradation affects us all. The majority of the Maltese are heeding the advice of the health authorities. In the same way, we have to heed the advice of those authorities responsible for the environment and sustainable development. The pandemic has shown us potentially devastating outcomes in a very short timeframe. Environmental degradation can have the same effect albeit over a longer timeline, but the devastation associated with the status quo is indeed a risk which we must all come to accept and act upon.

My ministry is preparing for a post-COVID-19 life and these preparations will permit us to hit the ground running in reshaping to a new norm once the pandemic has receded.   

I will be working to implement the commitments in Malta’s National Air Pollution Control Programme. The end of this year will see the completion of Malta’s Low Carbon Development Strategy which seeks to decarbonise Malta’s economy by 2050.

At the same time we should also have adopted our new Waste Management Plan which charts the developments in the sector till 2030.  We are also advancing our work on environmental dimensions, not least the management and quality of our natural waters, through the revisions of our Water Catchment Management Plan and the Marine Programme of Measures, the Air Quality Plan, the Noise Action Plan and a new National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan for the years 2022-2030.

The new norm will be the maximisation of economic, social and environmental objectives and the strengthening of our ecosystem services for it is these that can shore up our defences against future threats.  One-dimensional traits can no longer prevail if we are to develop our resilience in such a manner that this pandemic will only be talked of in our historical context.   

Since a poor environmental state could result in an increased incidence of non-communicable diseases as well as reduced public mental health, we are also collaborating with the Superintendence of Public Health (SPH) and the Environmental Health Directorate (EHD) to develop a Portfolio of Actions on Environment and Health. This action plan will prioritise thematic areas like air quality; noise pollution; climate change; transport and urban health; chemicals; waste; water and sanitation; and environmentally sustainable health systems. The ultimate aim is for all citizens to be able to grow, live, work and age in an environment that is conducive to the maximum attainment of health and wellbeing.

While today our worries are about tomorrow, government is working to demonstrate that tomorrow offers a new opportunity.   

By enshrining ecosystem services, sustainable development, climate change and environmental protection in the way Malta needs to do business tomorrow we are not limiting development.  On the contrary, we are opening a new niche of development which has been previously untapped. Why? COVID-19 has shown us the reality of an incomplete and sustainable development model which showed that even the strongest economies can be battered by social upheavals such as ill-health. The same can be said of a world with a degraded environment or a weak economy.   

Through our own personal experience we have all seen that economic prosperity is incomplete without social stability and a healthy environment.

While I will firmly promote and ensure urgent relief to impacted businesses and individuals within the environmental portfolio, I will also ensure that this will not be at the expense of our environment.

It is in times when we have been threatened and forced to slow down and to prioritise what is important to us in life, that we have turned towards what matters most – our wellbeing – which requires a three-dimensional balance between economic prosperity, social cohesion, and environmental protection.

Tomorrow requires a new norm. Let us make our tomorrow our every day for our own sake and for the sake of our children and grandchildren.