It’s a question of responsibility. And it has to be answered

Let’s face it: Robert Abela’s idle boast – ‘back to normality by March’ – was hardly the first time that the Prime Minister has publicly minimized the dangers of this pandemic

Prime Minister Robert Abela
Prime Minister Robert Abela

So it seems that Robert Abela took considerable personal offence, at a couple of rather pointed questions he found himself facing at Wednesday’s press conference.

All together now: gee, how sad. And how unfair of those pesky independent journalists, to puncture his ego by reminding him of a few of his more recent failures as Prime Minister….

Because that’s what those questions were all about, weren’t they?

Let’s see now: one of them was: ‘Shouldn’t you apologise for having predicted a ‘return to normality’ by March (that is, today: when Malta’s daily caseload comes in as the highest in Europe)?’

And the other – which was actually directed at Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci (but answered by Abela anyway) – was: ‘shouldn’t you consider resigning, to make way for someone who doesn’t let political expedience get in the way of decisions affecting public health?’

Admittedly, they both home in on slightly different details… but both are nonetheless underpinned by the same dominant theme.

Responsibility. For it’s not as though those questions were asked in a vacuum: last Wednesday’s press conference took place against the backdrop of a very specific context, after a whole year of our collective experience of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And looking back over the last 12 months (especially from December onwards)… let’s just say things haven’t exactly gone according to plan. We are now experiencing the third (and by far the worst) successive wave of this deadly disease; yet all along, the government has doggedly resisted introducing any of the stricter measures called for by all Malta’s health specialists; and when it did eventually get forced into action, by a series of (incrementally larger) spikes… all its regulations fell conspicuously short of what the experts in the field have actually been demanding for ages.

So when, in December, the Malta College of Pathologists called for a temporary ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown – i.e., a slightly shorter version of the strategy that proved so successful from March to June – government limited its restrictions to only certain select industries and professions: leaving the rest of Malta virtually unaffected.

And when – three months later – the third wave inevitably materialized (as had been predicted by virtually all medical experts)… government’s response was to simply tweak the existing measures a little: extending the ban from bars to restaurants; and increasing the already paltry fines to €100.

Any particular reason, then, why an approach that has already clearly failed twice in a row, can suddenly be expected to succeed the third time round: when the numbers are much higher… and when the deadline for ‘vaccination immunity’ has now been pushed back to October, a full eight months away?

Even without factoring in all the events and festivities lined up for this last stretch of the race – Easter, Sette Giugno, Mnarja, Santa Marija, the entire summer season, etc. – our chances of controlling this latest wave look about as bleak as…. well, the last time we tried and tested the same formula, with no success.

There is, after all, a limit to how many times a strategy can fail… before we finally accept that it simply doesn’t work.

Even I just stopped there, then, the relevance of ‘responsibility’ would already stick out like a sore thumb. Sorry, but what we’re looking at is the text-book definition of a complete fiasco, staring us right back in the face. So it is only natural that the Prime Minister would to be called to account, sooner or later, over his abysmal handling of the crisis.

Unfortunately, however, we can’t really ‘just stop there’. One of those questions also touched on Robert Abela’s own, direct contribution to a national ‘laissez-faire’ culture, that has consistently undermined all the health service’s efforts ever since last June. For let’s face it: that idle boast of his – ‘back to normality by March’ - was hardly the first time that the Prime Minister has publicly minimized the dangers of this pandemic.

Much as I hate to repeat it so often: this is, after all, the same Robert Abela who pooh-poohed the idea of a second (still less, third and fourth) wave as being ‘only in the sea’…. who turned out to be yachting in Sicily, when the proverbial excrement hit the fan in August… who undermined the national enforcement drive, by suggesting that fines could be ‘refunded’… and who even repeatedly boasted that we were ‘winning the war on COVID-19’ (even when COVID-19 was – and still is – very evidently kicking our ass.)

These things make a difference, you know: especially considering that the success of a national health strategy depends, in no small part, on how seriously the broader population takes the threat in the first place.

Yet even I, upon hearing that ill-fated ‘Ides of March’ prediction, found myself thinking… but surely, the Prime Minister would not take such a rash gamble without solid, reliable information to back it up. Who knows? Maybe, as prime minister, he is privy to data and statistics that are withheld from the ordinary man in the street. So perhaps there really is reason to suppose that things are likely to start getting better, from now on…

Even the simple fact that I myself entertained that possibility – albeit for around half a second – probably means that deep down, at some subconscious level, I may have lowered my guard a little.

So I shudder to imagine how the same words would have been received by the vast multitudes out there, who seem to hang onto every crumb that falls from their beloved Prime Minister’s table (you know: the sort of people who are busy trolling and harassing those two journalists, for doing their job, even as I write…)

This brings me back to the original question: is there no correlation at all, between a Prime Minister who seems to consistently delight in trivializing the dangers of COVID-19 … and a steady rise in the number of cases, as people increasingly throw all caution to the wind?

And yes: to be fair, I suppose we can all agree that the situation faced by Abela’s government is unprecedented, to say the least; but to argue – as Abela did, at that press conference - that he should bear no responsibility at all, because… um…

OK, this is where things start getting a little weird. Instead of actually answering the question, Robert Abela regaled us with a long list of his own personal ‘achievements’ over the past year: the vouchers, the wage supplements… and, above all, his undying commitment to ‘ensure that Maltese businesses continued to operate as usual, while all the rest of Europe was at a standstill’.

Now: leaving aside a few teenie-weenie details (the wage supplements, for instance, are subsidized by the EU)… the problem is right there, in Robert Abela’s own answer.

For over a year now, we have all become deeply sensitized to at least one problematic aspect of COVID-19: i.e., that it forces us to weigh public health against the interests of the economy (which, incidentally, explains why certain business sectors - especially in tourism – have been so deadest against restrictive measures from day one).

There was, in brief, a need to somehow balance these two seemingly incompatible concerns. So all along, the fundamental question has always been: how do we save lives, while causing as little disruption to the economy as possible?

Yet poring through that long list of Robert Abela’s achievements… all of them, without exception, were focused on only one side of the equation: the economy. There was not a single detail (beyond, of course, measures that are clearly not working) that can be held up as an example of what Abela’s government has actually done to control the spread of the virus, and to minimize the death toll.

And this is why the second question was directed at Charmaine Gauci, not the Prime Minister at all. For better or worse, Robert Abela can be excused for not having a workable public health strategy at his fingertips. He’s not exactly a scientist, or a health practitioner; and in any case, his government is obliged to base its health strategies on the advice of the Superintendence of Public Health.

It cannot escape notice, however, that Charmaine Gauci’s refusal to ever impose stricter measures chimes in perfectly with Robert Abela’s consistent downplaying of the crisis, every step of the way. And there would be nothing at all wrong with that, I hasten to add… if only there was evidence that this combined strategy was actually producing positive results.

But we can see the results of all this pussy-footing with our own two eyes. Cases are skyrocketing, the death toll is increasing… yet the national strategy remains the same regardless.

With one significant difference, however. While the government is within its rights to try and safeguard the economy… the Superintendent of Public Health is under so such obligation. Her remit is to ensure that the other central pillar of the entire argument – health – also gets a fair hearing, alongside its economic counterpart.

But judging by the advice she has clearly given government so far – even now, as the crisis deepens – it doesn’t really look like she’s fulfilling that mandate, does it? On the contrary, it seems as though the Superintendence of Public Health is likewise driven by the same concern underpinning all Robert Abela’s efforts: i.e., to upset the economic apple-cart as little as possible.

And what was the question again? Didn’t it have something to do with ‘letting political expedience get in the way of decisions affecting public health…?’

Having said this, though: it remains debatable whether it really adds up to a resignation matter (I myself have doubts about that, to be honest). But there can be no doubt that the question itself was fully warranted.

Indeed, if this were any other European country apart from Malta, it would not have come just from random, individual journalists here and there… and even less would it have resulted in a barrage of hostility towards those same journalists.

All things considered: far from ‘taking offence’, Robert Abela in particular should really be thankful that he lives in a country where the role of the media remains so hopelessly misunderstood. Otherwise, there would probably be precious little left of him at all… after the media vultures had finished picking his bones clean.