It’s a crisis, all right… but only when it suits us

What can I say? Good luck with those European negotiations, Dr Abela. Something tells me you’re going to need it…

OK, let’s try and work out the latest little puzzle, shall we?

Last Monday, an upbeat Prime Minister took two hours of the nation’s time (which reminds me: has he hired Peter Jackson to direct his press conferences, by any chance?) to assure us all that Malta is winning the war on COVID-19.

Exuding confidence and enthusiasm, Robert Abela announced that a ‘return to normality’ would begin on Friday 22 May (as I type this, actually): a process that involves the re-opening of restaurants and hairdressers, subject to a number of conditions; an increase in the number of people allowed together in groups; a relaxation of the ban on funerals, or people visiting elderly relatives in hospitals; the resumption of non-contact, non-team sports such as tennis; and so on and so forth.

Meanwhile, in a separate interview on One TV, the same Robert Abela also openly scoffed at concerns about a ‘second wave’: blithely quipping (in what may well prove to be a classic case of famous last words) that “waves are only found in the sea”.

And all along, he insisted that “we are not making any compromises with our nation’s health”; and – most important of all – that “government’s decisions are based on scientific proof”.

Hmm. Ok, perhaps it was a bit unrealistic of me to expect Dr Abela to actually provide examples of this ‘scientific proof’ he keeps mentioning… even if he did have two whole hours to do it in. But given the enormity of the gamble he has chosen to take with people’s lives… would it be too much to ask for some now?

For instance: can the prime minister point towards any solid evidence that the rate of infection is indeed falling? Or at least, that the curve has been flattened enough to justify any easing of the former restrictions?

Probably not: because – as has already been pointed out elsewhere – the number of active cases in Malta was only 30 on 16 March, when the first restrictions were imposed… while on the day Abela announced their relaxation this week (18 May), it stood at 125.

More worryingly, the fluctuations between March 16 and May 18 also suggest that the rate of contagion did, in fact, plummet soon after businesses were originally forced to close. After having risen to a record 356 by 17 April, the number of active cases fell to only 58 in the three weeks of lockdown… only to start gradually increasing again, a week after government decided to allow certain retail outlets to re-open on 4 May.

Now: I’ll admit that I can’t exactly speak on behalf of ‘science’, myself – which apparently places me in a tiny minority, in a country that is overflowing with scientific experts of every description – but my unscientific interpretation of that data paints a somewhat less reassuring picture.

It suggests that Malta was indeed succeeding in keeping this virus in check – and quite admirably, too – for as long as those restrictions were in place. But no sooner were they lifted, even ever so slightly… than the situation promptly started slipping out of our control again.

But like I said; that’s just me… and you should know by now that my opinion doesn’t count for toffee anyway.

It does, however, seem to chime in with the concerns of pretty much every single representative of the medical community of Malta: like The Medical Association of Malta, the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses, and the UĦM Voice of the Workers, for instance… which joined forces on Thursday to call for a postponement of the latest measures.

This, after Malta had registered 15 new cases on two consecutive days in the same week; and – more inauspiciously still – after it was announced that 246 healthcare workers were currently in quarantine… 76 of them actively infected by the virus.

Even more bizarrely, they also declared that the ‘second wave’ – the one that’s supposed to be ‘in the sea’, remember? – was ‘already with us’.

“Malta, with a high number of new cases and a trend which is on the increase, may soon end up with the worst new cases statistics in the Mediterranean and other tourist destinations,” all three medical unions warned.

But then again… what do these people know about COVID-19, that Robert Abela doesn’t? I mean, they’re not exactly politicians, are they? No, they’re just doctors and healthcare workers… you know, the same experts and front-liners we rely on to protect our health and safety in times of global health emergencies. So I guess their opinion can safely be ignored, too…

Meanwhile, there were a few other vague contradictions in that two-hour press conference last Monday. For instance, just moments after Abela assured us all that his government was “not making any compromises with our nation’s health”… his deputy Chris Fearne – who also happens to be Health Minister – went on to say pretty much the exact opposite.

Asked about doctors’ concerns that “the lifting of restrictions could lead to higher coronavirus numbers in the future”, Dr Fearne replied that: “While they are right, government must look to strike a balance between the nation’s physical health and the long-term effects of the economy.”

Erm… much as I hate to point this out, that statement contradicts Dr Abela on two counts, not just one. For starters, it confirms that those doctors are, in fact, ‘right’… and that therefore, the number of cases can only be expected to increase as a result of these early efforts to reignite the economy.

So much, I suppose, for ‘waves only being found in the sea’…

The second problem is that… well, what Fearne said in that press conference actually amounts to a dictionary-definition of the word ‘compromise’. It does, after all, mean ‘striking a balance’ between different competing interests; and in this scenario – when the emphasis on public health can be seen to have adverse effects on the economy – it can only realistically be achieved by sacrificing some of the measures in place to protect us from COVID-19.

By its own admission, then, the government is very clearly ‘making a compromise with the nation’s health’… and there doesn’t seem to be very much in the way of ‘scientific proof’ to justify it, either.

All the same, though… even a contradiction of such magnitude simply pales into insignificance, when compared to another, much more gargantuan one that has been staring us in the face for at least the past three weeks.

For even as Robert Abela casually played down the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic on live TV last week, his Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo was all over Facebook and Twitter: informing the world (over and over again) that ‘Malta couldn’t possibly take in any more migrants’, because of… um… the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not only that, but the same pandemic was even cited as justification for Malta’s controversial decision, in the first week of April, to close its harbours to migrant vessels.

Abela’s own government even wrote a letter to that effect to the European Commission… but seeing as he has clearly forgotten all about it since then, allow me to remind him of the most pertinent paragraph:

“Considering the situation of a public health emergency resultant from the spread of the coronavirus and the current extraordinary burden being faced by the national health services, as well as due to the extraordinary commitments being made by the public sector, for the care and assistance to COVID-19 patients, it is presently not possible to ensure the availability of a ‘safe place’ on the Maltese territory, without compromising the efficiency/functionality of the national health, logistic and safety structures, which are dedicated to limiting the spread of the contagious disease, as well as to provide assistance and care to COVID-19 patients.”

Ah, but that was in early April. We’re now in late May; and things have apparently improved so much since then, that we’re now relaxing all the other restrictions that were imposed for precisely the same reasons.

Restaurants and hair-dressers? No problem, it’s perfectly safe for those to open for business again (and we even claim to have ‘scientific proof’ of this fact).

But 130 migrants rescued at sea, who have already spent three weeks in detention on ‘pleasure cruisers’ in the middle of the Mediterranean? Is it safe enough to allow them to disembark in Malta (you know, so that they might actually get a chance to exercise what is supposed to be a universally-acknowledged human right, and apply for asylum?)

Sorry, but you’ve got to be kidding me. I mean, haven’t you heard there’s a global pandemic going on right now? Can’t you see we’re the middle of a national crisis here? That our health services are in danger of being overwhelmed? And that we just… can’t… cope?

I don’t know. You’d have to be pretty damn myopic not to see the double standards at work there. And you’d have to be pretty damn naïve, too, to expect that the European Commission would actually fall for such a blatant ruse.

Still, I’d be curious to listen to Evarist Bartolo – or, even better, Abela himself – trying to make that case for Malta around the European negotiating table. Heck, I’d even gladly sacrifice another two hours of my life, just to hear them offer up some form of official explanation, for how COVID-19 can possibly be a crisis – and not a crisis – at one and the same time.

But I think we all already know the answer to that one. COVID-19 is a crisis, all right… but only when it comes to keeping immigrants out of Malta. When, on the other hand, it comes to Maltese businesses making money… suddenly, it becomes a classic case of ‘overblown media hysteria’.

What can I say? Good luck with those European negotiations, Dr Abela. Something tells me you’re going to need it…