Refusing to take the bull by the horns

I realise all politicians want to be liked but I can almost guarantee that even his critics would praise Abela if he really came down with an iron fist on the culprits

At some workplaces, if a few employees breach company rules such as the need to sign in and out, the management decides that the best way to deal with this is to issue a generic email to the entire staff. For some reason, those in charge prefer this roundabout method rather than calling for the ones at fault and addressing them directly. This style of management has always annoyed me because (a) it is insulting to those who have always followed the rules and (b) it displays a cowardly inability to tell people things to their face. The most exasperating thing, of course, is that it rarely works because those who bend the rules keep getting away with it, while those who do things by the book will continue to do so because it is in their nature. So what has the management actually solved? One, big, fat nothing.

I was reminded of this practice when the PM announced the new measures this week, one of which concerned the flouting of the regulation which has banned bars from opening. He is aware, he said, that there are restaurants which then basically become bars where patrons continue to drink after having finished their meals. So, rather than biting the bullet and clamping down on the few places where this is happening (not to mention the bars which have continued to operate shamelessly because the owners have the right connections), his solution is for all restaurants to close by 11pm.

I realise all politicians want to be liked but I can almost guarantee that even his critics would praise Abela if he really came down with an iron fist on the culprits. Instead, much like members of staff who become resentful of their employer when everyone is tarred with the same brush, I imagine that business owners who have adhered to the health authorities’ measures are equally furious and frustrated at this latest rule. There are bars which have dutifully remained closed, some of which have gone out of business, and restaurants which have followed the measures to a T. We all know the places which are brazenly doing what they like, and I’m sure the Police and the MTA do too.

Similarly, there is this issue of the Gozo rental farmhouses and how they are contributing to the spread of the virus: we know it, the PM knows it and Prof Charmaine Gauci knows it and yet here we are again one month after New Year’s Eve, still feeling the ripple effect of the spike in cases, and yet, we are talking nonchalantly about what will happen during the Carnival holidays. I’m sorry, but if you are openly acknowledging that these groups going up to Gozo are creating a hotspot for infections, then do something about it rather than coming up with laughable measures. Instead of just banning the rental of these places until numbers go down (which is the logical thing to do), there will be spot checks by the Malta Tourism Authority to ensure that the accommodation is not hosting more people than the number of beds available, in accordance with the property’s licence. The onus of responsibility will lie on the owner of the propriety who risks a fine or losing his licence.

Predictably, the owners objected, claiming that those renting are the ones who should be fined not them. However, in interviews given to the news portal it became clear just how out of control the situation is. “Gozo Escape noted that although an operator may check the number of guests on check in, there is no guarantee that no more (would) come later.”

Another owner who manages eight farmhouse rentals in Gozo confirmed that this was a common problem, and sometimes she does confront guests for being more than they booked for.

Even if a farmhouse does not breach the rules because it has a licence for say, ten beds, isn’t the whole point of these mitigation measures to avoid so many people from different households sharing the same accommodation? But again, like the employer’s memo mentioned above, Abela refuses to take the bull by the horns and instead comes up with another lame ‘restriction’ because he is too reluctant to ruffle anyone’s feathers.

Maskless in Adelaide

Turning on the Tennis Channel I thought I was watching a repeat of last year’s Australian Open when I saw the smiling crowds sitting side by side with no masks. But no, the Australian Open tennis exhibition is actually happening as I write, in Adelaide, which has registered 12 consecutive days with no cases. It was downright strange to see people mingling and acting so normally and it was hard to not feel envious.

How did a city of 1.3 million people manage to eradicate the virus? To put it simply, it was a combination of swift, draconian, lockdown measures, strict enforcement and a people who were more than willing to abide by them for the greater good. As was pointed out by one commentator, “When the government came out and they mandated masks in the first week of August, there was about 20 seconds of complaining and then everybody emerged with a mask that matched their shirt.”

The nation reached its peak of case on 5 August with 739 cases, but they have been dwindling ever since. A report published in November of last year by a Canadian news portal explained how they did it: “In many cities, roadblocks were established to ensure people stayed home. Even when restrictions were eased there was a nightly curfew, and in the initial lockdown people weren’t allowed to be more than five kilometres away from home in certain regions. Break a rule, and you could face a fine of $1,300. School at first had an extended holiday break — and then education was moved, in many places, entirely online. Restrictions were sometimes so draconian that in some areas, it was illegal to walk your dog even on your own street… Australians arriving from outside the country had to apply to return — there were daily limits — and every one of them was required to quarantine in a government-designated hotel, sometimes guarded by soldiers.

Of course, Australia, like New Zealand, is in an enviable position because it can afford to keep its borders closed and limit who enters. Even though they complained, the world’s most famous tennis players arriving for the Australian Open had no choice but to abide by the strict rules to remain in quarantine for two weeks. “There will be no special treatment,” they were told firmly by the authorities.

It is still impressive, however, that a country so large can virtually eliminate the virus, when an island with half a million people cannot even obey the relatively lax restrictions we have been living under since our own mild lockdown was lifted in May. Can you imagine what a difference it would have made if we had all obeyed as readily as the Australians to the handful of measures which were imposed? For let’s face it, while Abela’s unwillingness to impose stricter measures and get serious about enforcement has been a hinderance, the biggest hinderance has been those who stubbornly refuse to give up anything, because their immediate gratification is more important than what can be achieved long-term: a much needed return to normality for everyone.

Instead, here we are almost a year later, and the possibility of anything remotely resembling those crowds enjoying a tennis match in Adelaide still seems very far away. I do believe all this will pass eventually, especially as the pace of the vaccine roll-out gathers momentum, but it just feels so unjust and cruel that so many had to die alone, so many are severely ill and so many continue to be deprived of contact with their families, simply because of the actions of others. Of course, it would have been ideal had Abela gone for the tougher approach, but I can’t help but wonder what the reaction of the populace would have been to have soldiers guarding quarantine hotels, or if any of the other harsh measures mentioned above had been imposed. Unlike the Australian people who understood that it was for their own good, compliance is not exactly our forte and I have a hunch he would have been fought every inch of the way.

Despite our moaning and groaning, at least we can be relieved we have not adopted China’s new COVID-19 testing policy. This country has opted to go for anal swab tests, especially for high-risk patients, claiming that they give a more accurate diagnosis (which is understandable). But I can just picture how this suggestion would be met in Malta, where every measure, no matter how harmless, has been resisted tooth and nail. Heck, some people still resist wearing a simple mask, let alone being told to bend over and drop their trousers. I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies.