When things do not work out

We are now at a point where the return of COVID-19 is more dangerous than ever before

Prime Minister Robert Abela and Health Minister Chris Fearne
Prime Minister Robert Abela and Health Minister Chris Fearne

I guess everyone can point their finger and accuse Prime Minister Robert Abela and his government of the very speedy decision to open up so early on after Malta’s coronavirus strategy seemed to have obtained welcome results.

Certainly enough, it is the easiest thing to blame every single decision that Abela has taken. The truth is that politicians have the unlikeliest of jobs in this pandemic: they must double as health policy-makers as well as economists, and the two simple don’t go together. The balancing act is tricky. On the one hand, you have businesses clamouring for normality the second you get reprieve on the health front. The moment you take the gamble, the minute it all goes wrong, you are back to square one.

One wonders however, whether the Public Health Superintendent, Charmaine Gauci, has been forceful enough on the medical advice her office is recommending, to counter any political efforts to re-open too fast. Has Gauci’s advice on the scientific arguments to keep the containment measures in place, especially for mass events, been as clearly communicated to the public as one would expect?

  We are the moment, per capita, second only to Spain in new COVID-19 cases.

So one asks: what is the point of closing down nightclubs and discos (which is an understandable and necessary measures) but do nothing about other gatherings in Paceville? And why did mandatory COVID-19 testing for incoming tourists not come into force, when this would have at least blocked some carriers from entering our shores?

The government has sent mixed messages and the enforcement arm may have imposed draconian measures in one field but completely ignored other sections of Malta’s business community.

We now know how many people precisely can enter a Church and that they need a face mask and must sanitise their hands, but not how many can stand by a busy kerb in Paceville brimming with youngsters drinking alcohol, most of which could not care less about social distancing or coronavirus hygiene.

Abela is under immense pressure to open up the economy; he has said that the cancellation of mass events will cost the country €25 million alone in foregone revenues.

In reality the decision to go ahead with them will cost it many millions more, because we have now entered the realm of countries with the fastest growth rate of COVID-19 cases in Europe.

Our attraction as a safe country has vanished into thin air.

And more worrying is what will happen to our private businesses and schools in October. When the COVID-19 contributions stop, many businesses will collapse and disappear. Robert Abela will have to extend those contributions that started in March of this year and extend the scheme further to avoid economic collapse. If he does not do this, many, including those in the media, can pack up their bags and close down.

The biggest challenge of all is the opening of schools. We cannot afford not to open schools in October. Permanent closure will lead to severe problems with kids; learning, socialisation and the immense pressure on parents, many of whom are unable to stay home and away from work. These hurried decisions to open up will lead to thousands of children and teenagers possibly missing out on education in October to the detriment of thousands of families. The next few weeks are crucial and if the numbers of COVID-19 are not contained, we are facing a catastrophe.

So, one can understand the consternation of hundreds of parents who are worried with the careless approach after the first COVID-19 outbreak.

The opening of private and state schools is crucial in bringing back some normality to our society. And on this, the government needs to continue sustaining the difficult situation faced by parents in private schools by imposing a subsidised and reduced bill. This has to continue until after October, to ensure that private schooling remains accessible to as many middle-class families as is possible, and that these same schools do not capriciously increase their fees at this delicate stage.

The spike in COVID-19 has led to one other particular ugly measure: the control of visiting hours for patients and the banning of visits to old people’s homes. The hurried decision in lifting restrictions has had a direct impact on hundreds of families with loved ones at hospitals and many other hundreds who will be robbed from visiting their sick and elderly. From the sheer ability of being by their side when they pass away!

Understandably the fear of contaminating vulnerable people is a reality, but then why allow for the continued widespread breakdown in social distancing rules in the entertainment hubs of Paceville, Valletta, Sliema and Bugibba?

The cost of ill-thought decisions has led us to this. It has wiped out all the good work and made us less of an attraction to tourists. Ironically, the contamination of wards has been seen to have its origins from staff members, some who either contracted COVID-19 from ill patients, or others who were in clusters linked to entertainment or their living conditions.

We cannot escape the fact that this country is living two realities. Those individuals who are either in government employ and have no problems in their financial standing, or those who arguably are doing well in this pandemic. And then, the many thousands who have salary cuts, no job, or a business on the brink of disaster or at a complete standstill.

Robert Abela has to see this new reality. His advisers have to see this new challenge. Equality demands sacrifices on everyone’s part. That does not seem to be case for so many thousands.