It’s a classic case of ‘your money or your life’

The COVID-19 numbers are clearly eclipsing all Robert Abela’s attempts at maintaining his usual upbeat, positive mood. There can be no ‘sweeping’, ‘spinning’ or ‘ignoring’ a steadily mounting death-toll

I stand to be corrected, of course: but I know of no crisis, anywhere in the world, that has ever been successfully resolved… by simply repeating, ad nauseam, that the situation has ‘been brought under control’.

Still less have I ever heard of anyone actually getting away with that strategy, time and time again: even when all the facts and figures point painfully in the opposite direction.

And yet – for the umpteenth time – Prime Minister Robert Abela instinctively fell back on precisely that same old mantra, when faced with the latest, record-breaking surge of the waves he once assured us were ‘only in the sea’.

Yesterday, the health authorities announced a staggering 336 new COVID-19 cases, along with the now-customary daily death toll (three, this time… with the youngest aged only 41); to which Abela responded almost exactly as he did when the last record was set, just a few weeks earlier.

On that occasion, he claimed that Malta was a ‘heaven on earth’, compared to the 26 other EU member states; now, he argues that: “One has to take into consideration the context in which other countries find themselves in. I am satisfied that in Malta we managed to control the pandemic…”

Unfortunately for him, however, these latest stats expose both those assertions as – at best – somewhat delusional.

Let’s start with how Malta really compares to other EU countries. As has already been widely pointed out, ‘336 new cases in Malta’ equivalates to approximately 51,000 new cases in Germany (to mention but one example of European countries that are supposedly doing ‘worse than us’).

Yet last December, when Germany announced its own highest daily record since the crisis began… the actual figure was only 23,637: i.e., less than half our own record today.

As for the claim that ‘the situation is under control’: we don’t really need any international comparisons, to illustrate how the limited restrictions we did introduce – following the similarly dramatic post-Christmas spike – have so far clearly failed.

And it’s worth revisiting what those restrictions actually were, too… and, by extension, why anyone in his right mind would have actually expected the outcome to be any different.

For some obscure reason, it seems that the idea of closing down all bars – while leaving all restaurants (and all sorts of other places, where people congregate just as much) to carry on operating as usual – didn’t really work, when tested in practice.

Hmm, I wonder why. Could it be, perhaps, that the Covid-19 virus doesn’t actually care if its victims were having a drink at a bar – or a meal at a restaurant – at the precise moment it infected them?

Same goes for some of the more bizarre aspects of those regulations: such as a ban on the sale of alcohol, in all establishments (including supermarkets), after 9pm.

Personally I was unaware that COVID-19 goes around asking to see our shopping receipts, before deciding whom to infect or not (and even then: on the basis of what time, specifically, he or she bought certain products, but not others)…

Seriously, though: how on earth was any of that actually supposed to deter this virus from spreading, anyway?  And let’s face it: there wasn’t very much more to those ‘emergency restrictions’ at all… except maybe that a previous ban on gatherings of more than 10 people, had been reduced to only six. (Ah, but does COVID-19 bother counting groups, before choosing to strike? Does it even know how to count at all…?)

Hardly surprising, then, that the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses would so bitterly complain – echoing the sentiments expressed by virtually all other members of the medical community – that “the government is taking things too lightly…”

Nonetheless, those December regulations did (ironically) succeed in proving at least one other thing: i.e., that the virus itself isn’t actually influenced by the same illogical considerations as we humans so often are.

And this, too, is part of the reason our national COVID-19 strategy appears to be failing.  Unlike viruses, human beings may indeed be occasionally taken in, by oft-repeated claims such as ‘the situation is under control’. In fact, that political strategy has a long history of spectacular success – arguably nowhere more so than Malta; where people’s opinions are moulded so directly by the statements of politicians…

…but, well, that’s human beings for you. Viruses, on the other hand, are more or less immune to that kind of thing. They don’t have any emotive bonds to one political party or another; so they are not quite so easily swayed into believing only what they want to believe, for purely political reasons.

And this is why those numbers are so clearly eclipsing all Robert Abela’s attempts at maintaining his usual upbeat, positive mood. There are, after all, political failures that can always be somehow ‘swept under the carpet’; or spun away by a well-oiled propaganda machine… or, more frequently, just ignored indefinitely (along with all the resignation calls)…

…but there can be no ‘sweeping’, ‘spinning’ or ‘ignoring’ a steadily mounting death-toll, caused by a viral epidemic that has clearly spiralled out of all control. That’s the sort of thing that people tend to find out about, sooner or later… and the more victims die from this disease, the more survivors will emerge from this crisis having lost someone in their wider circle of family and friends.

Those people, in particular, are unlikely to be impressed by Robert Abela’s ‘unchanged melody’, since this entire crisis began. And – to be fair to the Prime Minister – he seems to have belatedly realised this himself: by assuring us that his next step, in the face of the latest spike, will be ‘decided by the health authorities’.

It is not, perhaps, quite the same thing as ‘declaring a public health emergency’ – which Robert Abela did do, almost exactly a year ago today (i.e., at a time when the number of new cases could be counted on the fingers of one hand)… but it is, at least, a commitment to bow to any recommendation by the Public Health Administration.

As such, however, it also bats the ball squarely back into the court of Charmaine Gauci and Chris Fearne: both of whom were last heard arguing against the concept of another partial lock-down (admittedly, in reaction to much lower figures).

In any case, however: what their next step turns out to be is something we shall have to wait at least one more day to find out. Certainly, a lot of people (not least, the entire medical profession) expect nothing less than a temporary lock-down… or ‘curtain-breaker’, if you prefer… of the kind that government has so far doggedly resisted from day one.

But while we can’t predict what the ultimate decision will be… it’s not exactly hard to spot the political currents underlying the general discussion.

Indeed, Robert Abela himself has already spelt them out for us, in no uncertain terms. At a political event last January, he even told his supporters that his decision to avoid a lockdown was taken on the basis of… (I kid you not)… ‘Malta’s attractiveness as a foreign investment opportunity’:

“Now is the moment that foreign investors are surveying their options on where they can potentially expand. When they cast their eye on Malta, they’ll see a country which didn’t close its factories and keep its workers at home, unable to go to work. In fact, we took measures that allowed workers to keep on working…”

And this, in turn, illustrates another way COVID-19 also acts as a ‘great leveller’: it very literally forces us to weigh one concern (public health) against another (money)… and, unlike all the other issues we are more used to contending with: this time, there is no ‘negotiation’ of its terms.

Like the classic highwayman of old, COVID-19 holds us at gunpoint and demands ‘our money or our life’. And it cannot be appeased by compromise. It’s either one, or the other - so that the success of one will automatically be offset by the failure of the other.

To put that another way: the imposition of a lockdown, in today’s circumstances, would no doubt wreak untold havoc to the economy… but it may save tens (if not scores) of human lives.

Conversely, this also means that the cost of not imposing one – or, if not a full lockdown, at least some form of (effective) emergency measures – will have to be measured in human life, too.

This automatically raises an uncomfortable question for Robert Abela: how many human lives will the government consider to be worth sacrificing, in pursuit of its aims to ‘improve Malta’s economic pull-power in a post-COVID future’?

Today’s death toll is already 319, and counting: at what point, exactly, will it start becoming ‘too high a price to pay’… even in exchange for long-term economic survival?

And I’ll grant you: it’s not exactly the easiest (or even fairest) choice any Prime Minister can ever be expected to face. But that, as the situation stands today, is precisely the question Robert Abela has been called on to answer.

So what can I say? Let’s just hope that, this time round, he at least comes up with something just slightly more original (and helpful) than… ‘the situation is under control’… again…