Taking history as an example

Our numbers are still low, but it could get higher and the worst thing that can happen is if those infected turn out to be elderly or the vulnerable

The Lazzaretto, a former quarantine facility and hospital on Manoel Island in Gżira
The Lazzaretto, a former quarantine facility and hospital on Manoel Island in Gżira

The pressure on the health authorities to open up the Maltese economy threatens to ruin all that has been achieved in the last 70 days.  

For the last week, we have witnessed low numbers of infected individuals. It followed that everyone was expecting the lifting of more restrictions. But just as those record low numbers put us on the road to recovery, we started to experience a spike and the number of active cases has risen to 90. That will rise in the coming days and dropping our guard would be a fateful mistake. 

Our numbers are still low, but it could get higher and the worst thing that can happen is if those infected turn out to be elderly or the vulnerable. 

An outbreak at an old people’s or a care home would cause unnecessary death with sections of elderly people. 

The news report in the last days that Tourism Minister Julia Farrugia was suggesting ‘safe corridors’ to certain countries to revive tourism led to many in the tourism sector warming to this idea, but many think that this is an incredibly premature consideration. And surely there is nothing that can guarantee that this will happen any time soon. 

The general feeling is that we should eradicate the virus and then take the necessary steps to lift restrictions, gradually and one by one. 

Our responsibility will pay dividends and many businesses, investors and tourists will recognise these measures and Malta will only gain. And we will reap benefits. 

Perhaps a very good lesson to learn is by seeing how Malta acted in the plague of 1813.  

To be fair, how the British acted.  

I am referring here to a plague that left 5% of the population dead or 4,500 around 200 years ago. The origin of the plague was from a ship that arrived from the Egyptian port of Alexandria that entered the Grand Harbour in Valletta, when two sailors died soon after being suspected of having the plague. They had been placed in quarantine at Lazzaretto on Manoel Island.  

In March 1813 Egypt was suffering from the plague. Nonetheless goods on the ship, also originating from Alexandria, were smuggled into Valletta without respect for the proper quarantine protocol. The lax atmosphere at Lazaretto also led to the spread of disease.  

The plague served to deny the Maltese any form of self-rule or government. The Maltese were very unhappy with this. But they could not even protest or come together to protest

The weeks following the arrival of the ship were relatively calm with no notable infections.  

It was not until mid-April that another death occurred and attributed to the plague. An eight-year-old girl died, but the next day her mother died. And the father also fell ill, and soon the entire family and extended family was placed in quarantine at the Lazaretto, along with those who had close contact with the sick family.  

These measures were not enough to stop the plague from spreading and from the 12 May and 22 May, 30 people died of the plague. Eight days later, 109 people died.  

The Health Board wanted to curtail the plague. In fact, the board wanted to destroy the ship and its cargo, while the sailors were obliged to respect the requisite number of days in quarantine.  

But the authorities, led by the civil commissioner Lt. General Hildebrand Oakes, insisted that the vessel should be allowed to remove their property and then return the vessel to Alexandria. The health board and authorities led by Oakes continued to squabble over the health protocol and procrastinate. Oakes argued that commerce could not be neglected and that business families were facing economic extinction.  

In months the whole Island Malta and Gozo was suffering from the plague and people were dying by the dozen. As with this crisis, there were bright suggestions and unwarranted ideas from everyone. One suggestion was for all British subjects of the Crown to leave the main islands and move to Comino and leave the Maltese on the islands of Malta and Gozo… to die.  

What stopped the plague in Malta?  

It was the adoption of extreme measures, including a complete lockdown, but not before 4,500 had lost their lives and the plague was declared no longer in September 1814. It was only the acceptance that health reigns supreme in the face of disease that no more lives were consumed by the disease. 

For a population of 91,000 Maltese and Gozitans, the number of registered dead was a very big number.  

Malta suffered economic deprivation, but the small island bounced back after London finally decided to inject money into the economy. 

The plague damaged Malta’s reputation and commerce came to standstill. Unlike today the plague was limited to Malta and some other countries. And very interestingly Britain took the opportunity and advantage of the calamity in designating Malta a Crown colony and controlling the political destiny of the island. This effectively meant that the civil government and military administration were combined under the executive command of a governor. 

The plague had served to deny the Maltese any form of self-rule or government. 

The Maltese were very unhappy with this. But they could not even protest or come together to protest. They were divided, stuck in their homes and dependent on the benevolence of the British colonial government. 

Now if only there were lessons we could learn from history… 

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