Two pints of lager and a packet of crisps

It declared that ‘food’ should be interpreted as snacks and platters and could even be a simple serving of crisps at a table of seated patrons

The Medical Association of Malta (MAM) ordered all doctors working in public health to strike for an hour last Thursday in protest against the ‘political and unscientific’ interference by other ministries in their work. Doctors working at swabbing centres were exempted from this directive.

MAM said that this was a symbolic protest in order to show that public health doctors cannot take responsibility for decisions that are taken without their knowledge or against their advice, and which may result in serious harm to their health or their colleagues.

This followed the decision taken by the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA) to interpret the regulations issued by the health authorities after a legal notice issued on Tuesday evening had already diluted the restrictions announced that same day to close bars following a fierce resurgence of COVID-19 cases.

The MAM said the legal notice was ‘completely different’ to what was announced on Monday by the Minister of Health and the Superintendent of Public Health in a bid to control the COVID-19 spike.

Health Minister Chris Fearne had implied that only restaurants would be allowed to remain open. However, the legal notice allows all bars to stay open as long as their patrons are seated at a table and served food and drinks.

MAM said the decision undermined public health measures aimed at controlling the epidemic: “The Malta Tourism Authority is in self-destruct mode and fomenting epidemics again, putting profit before health,” adding that “Whoever drafted the legal notice is insulting the intelligence of all the Maltese people.”

According to MTA, the main focus of the new regulations is that customers should be sitting at a table and not standing, so that social distance can be maintained. It then decided that it had the right to interpret the definition of food in the already diluted published regulations. It declared that ‘food’ should be interpreted as snacks and platters and could even be a simple serving of crisps at a table of seated patrons.

The further dilution of the steps to fight the pandemic was again evident.

The Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses (MUMN) then stepped in to say that platters or snacks that are to be served in bars and kazini (clubs) should be served individually and not shared.

MUMN said Malta is paying a high price on this second wave both from a health and from an economy perspective and complained that enforcement is only being carried out on public transport and in supermarkets, while bars and kazini are left unchecked.

Public perception of so many mixed messages does not instil confidence in the way that Malta is fighting the ‘second wave’ of the pandemic. People with financial interests at stake should not be allowed to ‘interpret’ directives issued by the health authorities.

That the MTA is beholden by the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association (MHRA) is not great news. It is also becoming more apparent that the Minister of Tourism, Julia Farrugia, has evolved into a puppet in the hands of MHRA whose policies do not necessarily coincide with what should be the right tourism policies from a national interest standpoint.

The tourism sector being allowed to undermine directives issued by the health authorities and endorsed by the health minister – who happens to be also the Deputy Prime Minister – reflects the lack of control that should be exercised by the Prime Minister and his office.

The unexpected intensity of the second wave of the pandemic has diminished Robert Abela’s reputation in the eyes of many citizens. His lack of control, evident by his allowing this open tug-of-war between the health authorities and the tourism sector, is continuing to shrink his stature as Malta’s Prime Minister.

Abusing tracers

Last Tuesday, The Times carried a story on the abuse that voluntary COVID-19 tracers are facing when carrying out their very important job. They are facing abuse and threats, swearing and shouting when they phone contacts of positive cases and instruct then to quarantine.

Some just hung up and refused to give the requested information, others threatened these volunteers with taking legal steps through their lawyers or with complaining to ministers.

I understand that in normal circumstances, no one should have the power – and the gumption – to phone people and ask them about their recent whereabouts.

But current circumstances are not normal and contact tracing must be done at all costs so that the heath authorities are able to control the pandemic. This means contacting people indicated as having met others who had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

Dr Tanya Melillo, head of the Infectious Disease Prevention and Control Unit told The Times that “no one wants to go into quarantine in summer.’”

Still the story reveals a shockingly selfish attitude by people who should know better. No surprise there. Irresponsibility is becoming a hallmark of the Maltese character.

Europe’s last dictator

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has stepped up efforts to reassert his control after some two weeks of street protests and strikes triggered by a disputed election result.

Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss, is facing the biggest crisis of his 26-year rule. The official result gave him 80% of the vote but the opposition has denounced the poll as fraudulent. Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya urged the EU to reject official results giving Lukashenko 80% of the vote. She stood as his main challenger in the election after her husband, a better-known opposition figure, was jailed.

The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, made it clear that the EU did not recognise the result of the election and rejected Lukashenko’s re-election. He announced financial sanctions against officials responsible for election fraud and the abuse of protesters.

EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, explained: “This is about the Belarusian people and their legitimate right to determine the future path of their country.”

The EU wants to avoid a repeat of violence in neighbouring Ukraine, where a pro-Moscow leader was ousted in a popular uprising six years ago, triggering a Russian military intervention.

But EU officials say the situation differs from Ukraine in 2014, because the Belarus opposition does not seek to loosen ties with Russia, but only to get rid of Lukashenko.