Migration, COVID-19 and the Prime Minister’s shameless TV appearance

After a week of silence despite a surge in COVID-19 cases, Robert Abela spoke on One TV. Kurt Sansone takes the Prime Minister to task on his misguided optimism and shameless finger-pointing at migrants

Prime Minister Robert Abela on Karl Stagno Navarra's Pjazza Sajf on One TV
Prime Minister Robert Abela on Karl Stagno Navarra's Pjazza Sajf on One TV

Robert Abela has shamelessly attributed the recent spike in COVID-19 cases on infected migrants in his first appearance after a week of abject silence.

In the comfort of his own party’s TV studios, the Prime Minister corrected his interviewer, Labour propagandist Karl Stagno Navarra, when the surge in coronavirus cases cropped up in the discussion.

Abela insisted the numbers shot up because of the arrival of rescued migrants who tested positive for COVID-19 and which, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control must be included in Malta’s list of active cases.

However, the Prime Minister failed to point out that from the 199 active cases recorded until Monday, only 88 were migrants who arrived last week. The rest were largely local transmission, with the bulk attributable to a hotel pool party, the Santa Venera feast and a Paceville cluster.

Although the migrants may pose a strain on the country’s health resources if they require hospitalisation, they are the least problematic in terms of contagion because they were kept in isolation and quarantine from the moment they stepped onto Maltese land.

But Abela found it convenient to use the migration card to hide his government’s failure to act quickly and ban mass events, which were the primary cause of the recent surge in coronavirus cases.

Yesterday’s grab-a-mike-and-say-what-you-want interview was Abela’s first public appearance since sounding over-enthusiastic a fortnight ago when addressing his party’s general conference.

Abela was adamant the economy will not be shut down and labelled people worried about a surge in coronavirus cases as negative.

Only after threats of widespread industrial action by doctors and nurses, and decisions taken by festa organisers to cancel street marches, did government act.

Just four days after Abela’s triumphalist words, Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne and Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci introduced new measures to mitigate the risks of contagion at mass events.

Subsequently, several large parties marketed to international audiences for the coming months were also cancelled by the organisers.

Within this context, as Malta faces a surge in COVID-19 cases, Abela’s government is also facing flak from a section of the electorate over the arrival of migrants.

This concern has translated into a legally dubious parliamentary petition that has so far garnered more than 25,000 signatures.

Abela yesterday addressed this concern, which has rattled the party’s grass roots, by playing the victim card.

“It is not right for the country to have its prime minister, the army commander and the army subjected to continuous inquiries because of decisions taken,” Abela replied with reference to a magisterial inquiry requested two months ago when the army was accused of sabotaging a migrant dinghy and rescued people were taken back to Libya by a private fishing vessel chartered by the government.

The inquiry eventually absolved Abela, the army commander and a patrol boat crew of wrongdoing.

On TV, Abela correctly explained that Malta had international obligations to adhere to and the stark choice would be to allow people to drown at sea, something he was not willing to do.

However, the Prime Minister conveniently forgot to mention that it was himself, only a couple of months ago, who led people on and pledged that no other migrant would set foot in Malta.

With those words coming back to haunt him, Abela yesterday simply told people that their concerns about migration were also his without indicating how the government will address their worry.

He insisted with his interviewer that facts showed how the number of migrant arrivals since March was lower than it was last year, attributing this to government’s talks with the Libyan authorities.

Abela had travelled to Libya at the height of the pandemic to press Malta’s point on the need for better coordination with the Libyan coastguard to stop migrant boats inside Libyan territorial waters.

Malta and Libya went on to set up joint coordination centres in Valletta and Tripoli.

The number of migrant arrivals has dropped but those who do require rescue are coming with the added problem of coronavirus to deal with.

And at a time when Malta is experiencing its own, home-grown COVID-19 surge, the arrival of scores of infected migrants has led to a dangerous cocktail of fear, xenophobia, and racism.

This cocktail was on full show this week when a Facebook rant by a certain Ryan Fenech about an alleged assault on his parents by a black person went viral. It now turns out there was never an assault but the speed at which the video went viral was alarming.

The last thing the country needs at this stage is a Prime Minister blaming migrants for his own failures.

Protecting lives and livelihoods

Abela said yesterday that he wanted to protect not only lives but also livelihoods when dealing with the pandemic. This is why he has insisted on keeping the economy open.

He is correct. People want to earn a living and be able to go about their daily lives. The re-opening of the economy and social life came as a sigh of relief to many.

But the Prime Minister must not give away his moral authority to reintroduce restrictive measures if circumstances dictate so. His government was willing to allow one economic activity – mass events – ruin it for all the rest and that is not protecting lives and livelihoods.

Unfortunately, Abela’s appeals for prudence, discipline and respect to social distancing measures are only scant and lack conviction.

Malta did well in handling the pandemic and Abela has the duty to ensure that what was achieved so far is not lost because of misguided optimism and the shifting of blame on marginalised groups.