Since when are four deaths a day considered ‘normal’?

Since when has the gradual extermination of an entire generation become so commonplace, that we no longer even recognise it for the shocking calamity it truly is?

Has anyone else noticed how Robert Abela and Chris Fearne seem to have assumed the twin roles of ‘good cop/bad cop’, respectively, when it comes to making public declarations about COVID-19?

Since around the end of July, it has generally fallen to the Prime Minister to regale us with a series of increasingly bizarre and inane comments – like, for instance, his ill-fated remark that ‘waves are to be found in the sea’ – all aimed at reassuring the general public that Malta has somehow brought the pandemic situation ‘under control’.

As a rule, however, the Prime Minister’s upbeat, optimistic (and, quite frankly, delusional) tone is nearly always undercut by his Health Minister’s more sober, cautious approach.

So where Abela plays the ‘good cop’ card at every opportunity – telling people exactly what they want to hear, instead of outlining the cold, harsh reality we are all really going through – Chris Fearne is usually the one who bring us all back to earth with a solemn thud: by consistently reminding us that… erm… no, actually: waves are not found ‘only in the sea’; the danger is not ‘behind us’ … and above all, that now is certainly not the time to lower our guard.

That, at any rate, was how it generally played out until last weekend. For instance: as recently as November 4, Robert Abela claimed that “with certain restrictions we’re managing to live a relatively normal life”… and – just a day after Malta registered four COVID-19 deaths: our highest death toll, in a single day, since the crisis began last March – he even added: ‘Right now, things are doing well…”

Hmm. Almost makes you wonder if our Prime Minister is even living in the same country as the rest of us. Or, alternatively, if the words ‘normal’ and ‘well’ actually mean something very different, in the language we now recognize as ‘Abela-speak’.

I mean, honestly: by what stretch of the imagination can a sudden spike in COVID fatalities – not to mention the consistent emergence of (at the time) well over 100 new cases, every single day – possibly be described as ‘doing well’?

And that, of course, was before the situation took a very dramatic turn for the worse. A few days later – on 11 November – COVID-19 claimed seven lives in the space of 24 hours: i.e., almost double our previous record.

Meanwhile, just to put those figures into some kind of perspective: last Wednesday, it was reported that the US death toll had reached an all-time high of 3,250 fatalities in a single day, out of a population of 330 million people.

That works out at around nine deaths per 1 million inhabitants… and the figure was considered so alarming, that it literally made headlines across the entire world.

Malta, on the other hand, has a population of around 500,000… which also means that our own record, of seven deaths in a single day, actually works out at 14 deaths per million inhabitants: in other words, around one-and-a-half times higher than that of the USA.

Sadly, that was not a one-off, freak occurrence, either. Abela might not have noticed this himself… but our fatality rate has since then more or less stabilized at approximately three (sometimes four) a day.

To stick to the same ratio: that’s around six to eight fatalities per million inhabitants: just marginally lower than the highest-recorded death toll in the United States… which, in case you hadn’t already noticed, is widely held up as an international model for the ‘worst-case scenario’, when it comes to a single country’s (mis)handling of the crisis.

And, just like the corresponding statistic of 120-30 daily new cases, this unacceptably high death toll has so far shown no signs of slowing down. As things stand, there have only been two days over the past month – 22 November and 1 December – where no deaths were registered at all.

I suppose it says something about the sheer gravity of the situation – you know, the same situation Abela himself seems to think is perfectly ‘normal’ – that the local media reported both those fatality-free days as something completely out of the ordinary.

It seems that we have become so inured to a daily death toll of two, three, four, or even higher… that the simple fact that ‘nobody died’, on any one day in particular, has in itself become ‘news’.

So again, I ask: how on earth did we even allow such a bizarre, unearthly situation to become so… ‘normalised’? Since when has the gradual extermination of an entire generation become so commonplace, that we no longer even recognise it for the shocking calamity it truly is?

Ah, but this where the ever-dependable Chris Fearne usually steps in, to counterbalance the Prime Minister’s state of denial with a much-needed dose of good old-fashioned realism.

Only… it didn’t quite happen in this case, did it?

No: it seems that the Health Minister, too, has been bitten by the same ‘good cop’ bug we previously only ever associated with Robert Abela. Or at least, that’s the impression I got reading the interview he gave to this newspaper last Sunday.

For instance: when it was put to him, in no uncertain terms, that “the number of new COVID-19 cases has not dropped dramatically” since the introduction of emergency regulations last month… this was his reply:

“The numbers show that the measures we adopted were a success. In September, we were seeing the number of cases increasing on a weekly basis, but now we have been seeing stable numbers for the past few weeks… we have an average of new cases per day of between 120 and 130, and that is how it stayed. The cases have not decreased and are not decreasing and that is why the existing measures, which are working, have to be kept in place….”

Huh? What? Come again, please?  Did the Health Minister really just describe the government’s measures as – of all things – a ‘success’? And if so: on what basis, exactly?

Going on Fearne’s own comparison with September’s figures – when the average rate of daily new cases stood at between 40 and 50 – today’s statistics suggest that as many as three times that number are now getting infected with COVID-19… every single day.

And yes, granted: in September, we registered a steady increase in contagions… unlike today’s figures, which seem to have levelled out (though let’s face it: this could all change tomorrow… and almost certainly will change, over the Christmas period).

But… seriously, though: do I even need to continue? Is it even possible that a man of Chris Fearne’s intelligence cannot see the glaring flaw in his own argument?

Because it’s pretty darn visible to me, you know. So here goes: yes, the numbers have levelled out… but they’ve levelled out at an average that is much, MUCH higher than anything we were ever used to before.

And this means that, even if September’s figures tended to increase, from one week to another… they still remained comparatively much lower – and, therefore, infinitely more manageable - than what we are experiencing today.

Which brings me to an even more conspicuous fly in the ointment: somewhere along the way, we seem to have also lost sight of the original aim of our entire national COVID-19 strategy… which, as I recall, was to minimise the rate of new cases as much as possible, so as not to overload the health system all at once.

Last I looked, ‘to minimise’ meant to keep numbers as low as possible… and certainly NOT to content ourselves with an average daily case-rate of 130-140 – which is a shockingly high figure, by any standard – just because it’s ‘no longer increasing’.

Because ultimately, a certain percentage of our daily COVID-19 cases is always going to end up in ITU – which was already reportedly overstretched at the end of September, when we were dealing with around one-third of today’s figures – and I need hardly add that, the higher the contagion rate – no matter how ‘stable’ – the greater the percentage that will need emergency hospitalisation, and… at the end of it all… the higher the daily death toll, too.

So to describe the present situation as ‘a success’ – when both our contagion AND death rates are entirely comparable with the very worst the entire world has to offer – sorry, but that’s right up there with ‘waves are only found in the sea’.

And coming from someone who has hitherto always been perceived as a lone voice of reason, in a government that is otherwise in total denial over its own, woeful mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis… it doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence for the future, either.