Politics and the pandemic

How to tackle this problem is also a political issue – and the Opposition has the duty and every right to criticize any political decision made by the Government of the day in this regard

PN leader Bernard Grech
PN leader Bernard Grech

In a speech last Sunday, PN leader Bernard Grech saluted the memory of the Qormi mayor who was one of the youngest men who died as a result of COVID-19 in Malta. The late mayor was elected on a Labour Party ticket and Grech confessed that he did not know him personally. I thought Grech’s comment was made in a respectful and civil way and, personally, I did not see any blatant attempt by Grech to get any political brownie points from the mayor’s untimely death.

Not so those who run the GWU’s weekly, l-orizzont. They took the trouble of contacting the Prime Minister for a comment on Grech’s comment. This was reported in last Tuesday’s edition that also carried an editorial accusing the PN leader of ‘politicising’ the pandemic.

The Prime Minister and l-orizzont continued on to demean the political class by following the line that anything said by a Maltese politician cannot be accepted at face value as it must necessarily have ulterior motives.

In his comments – as reported by l-orizzont – the Prime Minister said that Bernard Grech’s comments had saddened him. The report also referred to the reaction of the late mayor’s family who said that at this time the least thing that they expected was the politicisation of his death.

While I understand, the emotional state that is reflected in the reaction of the late mayor’s family, I cannot agree with the Prime Minister’s comment and the thrust of the l-orrizont editorial.

The editorial, in fact, pursued the line that Bernard Grech’s comment was a desperate attempt to get some political advantage from the mayor’s death and the worst thing that we Maltese can do is to use the pandemic to exacerbate the political divide. In the circumstances, this was a misleading and a short-sighted reaction to Grech’s very courteous comment.

Politicians did not bring on the pandemic. But the way they reacted to it is a reflection of their ability to act when faced by a crisis. Respecting the memory of all those who died from COVID-19 is a common and universal reaction that has nothing to do with criticizing the way governments have acted in response to the pandemic This is a political issue all over the world.

I am sure that Trump’s attitude and the lack of action on the pandemic in the US – where 250,000 persons have died of COVID-19 – was an important factor in the recent US Presidential election. It is normal for human beings to react in this way.

Malta’s handling of the pandemic was excellent, wherever the decisions were taken by our health experts, but the current government is at fault as a source of conflicting messages that undoubtedly has made things worse.

The launching of the ‘Christmas in the City’ programme, for example, signalled the green light to Christmas activities anywhere, not just in Valletta. This was in direct contradiction to the stance taken up by the Minister of Health and Deputy PM, Chris Fearne, who had warned that this Christmas we have to limit the number of people in gatherings, even in closed family gatherings.

Some have alleged that the conflicting messages are the result of a Robert Abela vs. Chris Fearne pique that is still festering in the running of the government ten months after Abela beat Fearne in the leadership election. If this is so, one cannot get more political than that.

On the other hand, the administration also took some good decisions such as using laid up workers in the hospitality sector for contact tracing. I do not know how this good idea was put into practice, but I expect that a government that resorts to this measure would also realise that the hospitality sector will not suddenly return to what it was after March next year. This means that government is subsidising jobs that are lost in the long term, not just those of employees who will go back to their old job, come April 2021.

If one looks at what happened in the US, one should consider the possibility of stopping the subsidy while increasing unemployment benefits for people who lose their job. Theoretically this will induce laid-up workers to seek employment elsewhere, rather than pocketing the subsidy while moonlighting – as is also happening in some cases.

How to tackle this problem is also a political issue – and the Opposition has the duty and every right to criticize any political decision made by the Government of the day in this regard.

Debunking science

Earlier this week, a group of 62 coronavirus sceptics filed a judicial protest against the Superintendent of Public Health, Charmaine Gauci, and Health Minister Chris Fearne, saying they have caused an unnecessary ‘national panic’ over the COVID-19 pandemic.

They also raised doubts over the results of the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test used to detect coronavirus (commonly referred to as the swab test), while criticising the restrictions in place for asymptomatic carriers.

Gauci was also criticised for taking measures – such as the obligatory mask wearing – without announcing a public health emergency, a situation that was described as ‘illegal’.

On Wednesday, 12 medical specialist associations and colleges joined the doctors’ union, MAM, to ‘strongly condemn’ the judicial protest against measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. The specialists described those who had filed the judicial protest as “a group of highly irresponsible persons”.

In a statement, they said that the judicial protest contained a “hotch-potch of senseless allegations that completely lack scientific basis” and which “are very dangerous” in a climate that is already fraught with mixed messages.

All over the world, people are revolting against policies imposed on the advice of medical experts. Last Wednesday, Berlin police used water cannons in an effort to break up a protest against Angela Merkel’s coronavirus policies.

Debunking science and rubbishing experts is a popular ‘pastime’ all over the world. The problem is that those who debunk science are prepared to believe all sorts of myths.

The debunking of vaccines comes into mind. This has led to a resurgence of diseases that were once thought to have been obliterated. Yet there are some who still continue to believe the debunkers and the resulting conspiracy theories.

People believe whatever they want to believe – as always.