Has anyone informed COVID-19 that it lost the war?

I sincerely hope that both Abela and Fearne are indeed correct: that COVID-19 really is ‘behind us’, and that we really have ‘won the war’ against this disease

Yes, I know I have a habit of starting articles with movie references – but what do you expect? I’ve been stuck at home, watching two or three movies a day, for almost three months now. And with so much of reality starting to look every bit as far-fetched as a Hollywood film… like, um, ‘World War Z’… I’m afraid it’s more or less inevitable.

Nonetheless, I am aware that this habit is becoming slightly repetitive; so this time round, I won’t be referring to any movies. Instead, I’ll refer to a cartoon. ‘Lupin III’, to be precise (and don’t pretend you’ve never of heard of it, or I’ll report you to Inspector Zenigata.)

Looking back, I think we can all agree that ‘L-Incorregibile Lupin’ taught us all some invaluable life-lessons back in its time: for instance, that crime really does pay in the end; or that the police are generally useless and incompetent; or that the only way to a woman’s heart is to wear a red jacket and yellow tie, and drive around in a convertible 1932 Alfa Romeo 2300 Touring.

As all these facts are universally, undeniably and self-evidently TRUE… it follows that re-watching old ‘Lupin III’ episodes may teach us other things of more direct relevance to our present predicament. And if you ask me, Episode 118 – entitled ‘Diamonds in the Southern Cross’, in English – is a good place to start.

The plot takes us to a presumably uninhabited island in the South Pacific, to which Lupin and his accomplices – Jigen and Gaemon (note: I won’t mention Fujiko, because… well, let’s just say I’d get ‘distracted’…) - venture in search of ‘the lost treasure of Captain Cook’.

What they find instead, however, is that the island is home to one Sergeant Hajime Kimihiro: and having been stationed there, incommunicado, since Japan’s entry into World War Two in 1941… he has no idea that hostilities actually ceased with his country’s unconditional surrender in 1945 (and, more pertinently, does not accept defeat, even after learning the true facts more than 30 years later).

I remember watching that episode, back in the 1980s, and thinking that the premise was ingenious… but rather implausible. Well, many years later I discovered that it was actually based on a true story; there really were Japanese WW2 veterans who either refused to surrender, or persisted for decades in the belief that the war had never ended at all.

Kimihiro himself was (very loosely) modelled on Hiroo Onoda: an Imperial Japanese Army intelligence officer who hid out in the jungles of the Philippines for 29 years before being formally relieved of his post in 1974. (Honestly, though: what would we do without Wikipedia?)

But in any case: what does this story teach us (both historic and fictional versions) that’s so important to know right now? To me, the moral is pretty straightforward. You can ‘declare victory’ all you like… but if the enemy refuses to lay down arms and surrender, you cannot really describe the war itself as being ‘won’.

And last Sunday, we all got a glimpse of precisely why, too.  Some of you may be aware of an impromptu party that got a little out of hand at a popular Sliema beach-lido resort that evening: with patrons apparently ‘dancing on tables’, to the tunes belted out by a DJ at the decks.

And yes: it is pretty clear that all the ‘social distancing’ restrictions were very cavalierly ignored on that occasion… just as they had been with Floriana FC’s celebrations the week before.

What few people seem to have noticed, however, is that those scenes of jubilation occurred only a few hours after the Prime Minister himself, on live TV, announced that – and these were his exact words, please note – ‘Statistics show that COVID-19 is behind us.’

At the risk of being pedantic: those words have a meaning, you know. To say that something is ‘behind us’, is to suggest that ‘the danger is past’. And if, as Dr Abela announced on Sunday morning, there is no further danger posed to us by the COVID-19 virus… then why the hell shouldn’t people throw all caution to the wind, and dance on tables to their hearts’ content?

Besides: on the same day (Sunday), the Prime Minister also said: “It is my wish that we introduce an immediate mechanism by means of which an amnesty is given for certain fines which people received over these last few weeks.”

OK, admittedly the precise meaning here is a little less clear-cut; I tend to agree with those (including Abela himself) who argue that his words were misinterpreted, or blown out of proportion.

Still, they do point towards a very widespread, deep-rooted and instantly-recognisable cultural phenomenon in this country: i.e., that it doesn’t really matter if we disregard the rules a little here and there… because we can always reach a ‘cosy little arrangement’ afterwards, that will sweep everything under the carpet.

Put those two statements together – i.e., ‘COVID-19 is behind us’, and ‘fines for breaching social distancing rules might be forgiven in future’ – not to mention the teenie-weenie detail that most people have been denied the chance to socialise (still less party) for almost three whole months… oh, and also that this was the first weekend when there actually were open restaurants and beach-clubs to even party at in the first place…

… and, well, what do you all expect? Of course people were going to rush out and celebrate at the earliest opportunity.  Of course they were going to disregard regulations that the government itself had just suggested were ‘negotiable’…

Ah, but that was just last Sunday. The following day, the same Prime Minister addressed a live press conference, flanked by Health Minister Chris Fearne and Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci… and this time, it was Fearne (usually the more prudent of the two) who announced that: ‘We have won the war on COVID-19’.

Let me repeat that a little louder, just in case the virus itself didn’t hear it the first time: ‘WE HAVE WON THE WAR ON COVID-19’.

And it doesn’t stop there, either. At the same press conference, it was announced that the last remaining restrictions were all going to be gradually lifted… starting with bars and night-clubs next Friday, and continuing with the re-opening of the national airport (to 19 destinations) as of July 1.

And let me guess: I suppose nobody out there is expecting a repeat performance of that little Sunday night disco in Sliema - only on a much larger scale - the moment all Malta’s bars and nightclubs suddenly open their doors for business again next Friday, after months of entertainment-deprivation…

No, I imagine we’re going to once again pretend to be ‘shocked’ and ‘outraged’, when large crowds inevitably descend onto places like Paceville at the earliest opportunity, to celebrate our nation’s historic victory over the global COVID-19 pandemic… even if it was their own government that fired the starter-pistol for a street party…

At this point, all I can really say is that… I sincerely hope that both Abela and Fearne are indeed correct: that COVID-19 really is ‘behind us’, and that we really have ‘won the war’ against this disease.

But thanks to that cartoon I watched around 30 years ago, I somehow have my doubts. I can’t shake off the sneaking suspicion that – just like Sergeant Kimihiro, who carried on fighting WW2 for 35 years after it had ended – there may be a single, solitary COVID-19 virus out there, hiding away somewhere in a microscopic droplet of water, which hasn’t yet been told of its species’ sudden, unconditional surrender to the government of Malta last Monday.

Or who knows? Maybe it did hear of it, but decided: ‘Screw the others, I can always carry on fighting this war on my own’. Because let’s face it: even if Malta really has ‘won the war on COVID-19’… other countries, in Europe and elsewhere, have been demonstrably less victorious. And with our airport soon to open to tourists from 19 countries – most of which are easily accessible overland, to people who come from other, harder-hit destinations – that single, solitary virus might not be ‘on its own’ for very much longer.

But still: let me not ruin everyone’s cause for celebration. There is, perhaps, no real reason to doubt Fearne and Abela’s claims… I just wish that, apart from unilaterally declaring victory, they’d also publish the damn declaration of unconditional surrender: signed ‘COVID-19’.

That way, my mind would be at rest… and to be honest, I could do with a little partying myself.

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