The importance of setting just the right tone

When the Prime Minister said “waves are in the sea” in his attempt to allay fears of a second wave of COVID cases, it might have seemed like a mildly amusing pun. Except Robert Abela is not some guy cracking jokes at his local bar to the admiration of this buddies – he is the PM. And making jokes at the expense of medical experts talking about the possibility of our flattened curve going haywire as the numbers started climbing up again, was not exactly his best moment since he has been in office. 

I realise Abela has been thrown in at the deep end and has probably had to deal with the quickest learning curve in the history of Maltese politics, but while his supporters might make allowances for a green politician who makes the occasional gaffe, he needs to realise that there is a time and place for everything. 

And this is neither the time nor place to be flippant because those numbers represent actual people. Abela needs to appreciate the gravity of his role; he is not just any politician, he is the head of state, steering the country during arguably one of the worst health and economic crisis many of us can remember. He seems to still be struggling to strike just the right note between being a prophet of doom and gloom (which would plunge those who are already depressed into further despair) and giving people false hopes that it’s all over (leading to even more reckless complacency). Granted, it is not an easy thing to do, but it is imperative for him to set the right tone. 

A PM during a crisis needs to be realistic and humane, while seeing the bigger picture after being guided by his various advisors. He needs to instil optimism while keeping his feet on the ground. He needs to give praise where it’s due but refrain from making it about himself or his party by bragging about how well everything is being managed. Let the results speak for themselves, and give the partisan rhetoric a rest for now. 

It is at moments like this that the maturity which comes with age and experience would come in handy. Since he cannot do anything about his relatively young age and since he has only been PM for a mere four months, perhaps Abela should consult with professional media communicators who could give him a few tips on how to avoid further mishaps. He also really needs to learn how to keep things brief. While public speaking comes naturally to some people, for others it is a skill which needs to be learned. Robert Abela is a lawyer by profession and when he gets on that podium it shows – the man can talk in a monotone drone for hours. Those who have been pestering him for a press conference must have been regretting it last Monday during that verbal marathon. 

Apart from its mind-numbing length, what was even more worrying about Abela’s press conference was that he seems to persist in conveying a different type of message than the one being drummed into us by the health authorities. Some accuse him of pandering to the crowd, telling the public what it wants to hear, because obviously most of us would prefer to be told, “relax, go out, enjoy life, everything’s back to normal!” It reminds me of an indulgent, laid-back father who is way more lenient than the strict, rule-enforcing mother. But just like different parenting styles simply result in one parent undermining the other, so too do these mixed messages simply thwart the ultimate objective. 

For example, while I understand why he kept playing down the issue of fines, in order to encourage people to do the right thing in a spirit of social responsibility, the PM also needs to realise that several people seem to be suffering from an acute hearing problem right now. He could speak for 15 minutes but the only thing some people will hear is, “blah, blah, blah, no fines”. Again, he is not in an easy position, because while he needs to inject an upbeat tone in his speeches in order to restore people’s confidence and soothe their fears, he must still be careful with his words, so that caution is not thrown to the wind. 

A PM during a crisis needs to be realistic and humane... Let the results speak for themselves, and give the partisan rhetoric a rest for now

Interestingly, the public reaction to his speech did not fall neatly along the usually predictable party lines. 

Those who agreed with his positive approach came from all walks of life, especially small business owners and those in the catering industry who were forced to close, taking a substantial financial hit. 

Then there are people who have weighed all the risks and have decided: we will follow precautions, but we want to continue to live our lives as best we can, without feeling constant fear. Those who lashed out and were angry at his cavalier attitude fall into various categories: those who hate him and ridicule him no matter what he does because you know, he’s Labour. Those who are genuinely and understandably scared of becoming infected because they or someone close to them falls into a high-risk category. And those who, while not at risk, have followed every press update religiously, read every article, watched every news item and are now simply a heap of jangled nerves and anxiety. 

Many are bewildered at why we have started re-opening at this point. It seemed that one minute we were being warned to stay home, and now we are being encouraged to go out to restaurants, and get our hair done. Understandably, the bitter conclusion was that the economy was now suddenly more important than public health. 

This is where I think that the communication strategy has faltered. While Charmaine’s briefings are important, I have noticed that many people are only obsessed with the daily number of positive cases. In fact, a straw poll on my FB page demonstrated that less people are bothering to tune in, and just ask each other, “how many today?”. But really, the most important numbers we should be focussing on is how many are critical or in ITU. Each Friday, I find myself writing this column with a sense of relief that, to date, we have no one in ITU. 

More importantly, we need to know how and where the virus was contracted, because that is the best way to educate people on just how easily it can spread. We also need more information about certain clusters. It is disturbing that we have hundreds of health care workers (anyone from nurses to doctors) in quarantine, which means they cannot work. After all, the main objective from day one has always been to ensure that the hospital can cope with large numbers of critically ill patients at the same time, so having so many health workers out of action is quite a serious matter. 

What is the agenda behind these rumours?  

The rumour spread like wildfire on Thursday morning: “Dr Gauci has tendered her resignation to the government – speculation is rife – the real reason is that the government is not listening to her advice anymore and she doesn’t want to be part of the ensuing bloodshed.”  

The Health Ministry and Prof Gauci squashed this rumour immediately although of course many still believe there is a kernel of truth in it.  

Apart from the attempt to instigate discord and scare people, what bothered me the most was the sheer glee and gloating with which the rumour was met by some quarters. Really? Does it really make you glad if someone of Prof Gauci’s calibre who is much-needed right now steps down, just so that you can rub it in the Government’s face? I am not saying she might not have differences of opinion with the PM (and if it came to that, he would be extremely foolish and short-sighted to let her go), but ultimately it would be us, the nation, which would suffer the most if she had to actually step down.  

I noticed a similar attitude as soon as it was announced on Friday that we only had one case. Cue the guffaws, the cynicism and the conspiracy theories (because of course we only believe the numbers if they suit our fears, our own predictions and our agenda).  

This sickening attitude at a time like this makes me honestly wonder what is wrong with people, and what it is they really want. If they prefer to see Malta crash and burn and our ITU beds groaning with patients just so that they can be proved “right”, then I think they should at least be frank about their own motives. 

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