What if there’s no ‘normal’ to go back to?

People are unpredictable creatures at the best of times… and it is perfectly possible that - even with just a few centimes left in the bank - their first impulse, after months of lockdown, might be precisely to book a holiday they can’t afford in Malta

There’s been a lot of talk recently about when – if ever – things will start ‘going back to normal’ again… for all the world as if the current global health emergency were something that could be turned on or off at the simple flick of a switch.

In some cases, that metaphor can be applied almost literally. This week, for instance, MHRA chairman Tony Zahra called for the re-opening of the national airport as soon as possible: arguing that “the tourism sector in Malta has reached ground zero as result of this crisis, and is now desperate to reopen and face the ‘new normality’.”

“If we don’t open the airport,” he continued, “then we shall see mass unemployment, as there is no reason for anyone in the tourist industry to hold on to staff if there is no summer.”

Don’t get me wrong, I can fully understand those concerns: for it is undeniably true that Malta’s entire tourism sector (on which so much else depends) now runs a serious risk of total annihilation.

What intrigues me, however, is the underlying assumption that tourism can somehow be ‘saved’, by simply re-opening an airport that has been shut (not, it must be said, without good reason) since mid-March.

Again, it is as though the national airport were some kind of glorified ‘water-tap’, connecting us to a bottomless reservoir of tourists – all itching to come here this summer, it seems - whose inflow can be more or less guaranteed, just by turning the tap back on.

Hmm. Call me pessimistic, but I see no rational reason to assume anything of the sort myself. Indeed, you can’t even make that assumption about real tap-water, flowing from the real taps in your kitchens or bathrooms: as anyone who lived through the 1980s in Malta (well, in Sliema, at any rate) can easily confirm.

Even today, there is always a chance that the water mains in your street might be accidentally ploughed through by any of the dozens of construction/excavation projects going on within a half-mile radius. Not to mention the ever-present possibility of a major catastrophe affecting all the country’s water supply at once: like, for instance, contamination of our only two water-sources (groundwater, and the sea); or an accident/act of sabotage that disables the power station, making it impossible to desalinate sweater through reverse osmosis…

Well, it’s the same with tourism, you know. To put it another way: our infrastructure to receive and accommodate tourists can be as fully functional, up-and-running, and open-for-business as it likes…  but whether tourists will actually come here or not is another question: to which the answer depends entirely on factors outside our own control.

Right now, I would say that the one determining factor happens to also be the very reason why our airport was closed in the first place.

For in case anyone’s forgotten, there’s still a deadly virus out there, stalking four out of five of the world’s continents; and as I assume we don’t get too many tourists from Antarctica these days… that means that all the countries we depend on to sustain our tourism industry are also contending with the COVID-19 pandemic themselves.

Leaving aside that some of those countries have imposed travel restrictions of their own (and, let’s face it, there’s not much point in reopening our own airport, if other airports remain closed)… and also that our two most lucrative tourism markets - Italy and the UK –  just happen to be among the worst-hit countries worldwide.

Even ignoring all that (and with it, the likelihood of a fresh wave of local contagion, once we reconnect ourselves to those same countries)… there still remains the other consequence of this pandemic: i.e., a global economic crisis whose effects are only just starting to be felt.

The ‘mass unemployment’ Mr Zahra referred to, above? It’s already happening throughout the rest of Europe (and here too, albeit on a less noticeable scale).

At the end of March, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) calculated that “at least one million people have lost their jobs during the past two weeks in Europe”.

But by April 4, that figure had risen to an estimated 11 million European jobs lost over the same time-frame; and on April 20, The Guardian reported that “in the UK alone, up to 11 million people could end up furloughed or unemployed over the next three months…”

Not unlike the virus itself, it seems that unemployment is experiencing an exponential, upward curve; and those statistics do not include the millions who have been forced to accept drastic pay-cuts; or who have lost their homes through bank foreclosures, etc.

That, at any rate, is an approximation of the economic turmoil the rest of the world is either already going through, or bracing itself for as we speak.

And while I am the first to concede that there is an irony in all this – after all, this is precisely the scenario that the MHRA chairman (and the Chamber of Commerce, the GRTU, the MTA, etc.) is trying to avoid for Malta – aren’t we being just a little unrealistic here?

In the present economic climate, you can hardly expect people to simply switch back to their usual ‘planning a summer holiday’ routine… at a time when they are also losing their own income on an unprecedented scale, and seeing their own standard of living plummet to hitherto unimaginable levels.

And this is something that other sectors of the economy have already experienced, to their own cost.

After shops were allowed to re-open on 4 May, for instance, many of them quickly realised that they were (in their own words) worse off open than closed.

To quote one proprietor who gave a comment to The Times last week:  “I dare say we were better off when we were shut and all at home because at least I wasn’t spending more on water and electricity, with the ACs on all day at full blast and a handful of people walking into my shop. This cannot go on for longer…”

Something tells me that Malta’s hoteliers, restaurateurs, etc., may yet make the same discovery for themselves: i.e., that it might actually prove more costly to re-open for business now, than to sit back and wait a while longer (while the government pays their employees E800 a month for doing nothing.)

But that only validates the other part of Mr Zahra’s argument: i.e, that “every day that passes the economy is sinking further and further into trouble; and every day that passes government is spending circa €11 million per day, or €330 million per month, to keep everyone at home: money which the government is borrowing and has to be repaid from everybody’s taxes in the future.”

How long can that situation be realistically expected to last?

To be honest, I have no idea (though countries like Greece did manage for a good long time, before it all caught up with them in the end).

But to me, the more pressing question should be: would industries like the tourism sector be willing to risk losing those government subsidies, in exchange for a possible ‘return to normality’ as early as this summer?

If the answer is no – and hotels, restaurants, etc. expect to continue having their losses compensated for by the State, even with the airport open – then the incremental debt Zahra warns about will continue for the foreseeable future regardless (not to mention that it would be unfair on other businesses which forfeited their subsidies upon re-opening).

If, on the other hand, the answer is ‘yes’… then the tourism sector will be left to its own devices, to face what is gearing up to be the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

And who knows? The gamble might even pay off in the end. After all, people are unpredictable creatures at the best of times… and it is perfectly possible that - even with just a few centimes left in the bank - their first impulse, after months of lockdown, might be precisely to book a holiday they can’t afford in Malta.

I think it likelier, however, that the gamble would go the way of most gambles, and backfire horribly in the long run.

If so, by demanding a ‘return to normality’ so soon, our tourism sector might well be condemning itself to an unnecessary, premature demise (in which case, those ‘mass unemployment’ fears will materialise anyway).

And this, perhaps, is what people really mean when they talk about a ‘new normal’.

Maybe the ‘normality’ of tomorrow will involve Malta having to let go of a good number of things that it always took for granted in the past… like, for instance, the convenience of running water at the turn of a tap; or even having such a thing as a tourism industry to try and salvage in the first place…

More in Blogs