You can’t cure a disease by distorting the symptoms

While the earlier COVID-19 predictions turned out to have been slightly exaggerated… the same cannot (yet) be said about how the pandemic is likely to ravage the global economy

Up to a point, I can more or less understand why Robert Abela was so stubbornly reluctant to impose harsher anti-COVID-19 measures: even in the face of a dramatic rise in both cases and deaths.

To see things from the same perspective, however, you have to fast-forward to a (hopefully not-too-distant) future: when the immediate crisis really is ‘a thing of the past’; and when the rest of the world is slowly beginning to pick up the pieces of its shattered economy.

Looking back from that point: I can certainly understand how any Prime Minister would want to claim that – despite all adversity - he had successfully shielded his own country from those (no doubt devastating) effects.

And who knows? He may even be vindicated, in the long run. Maybe there is a lot of sense in avoiding more draconian measures, for now; and – more pertinently – maybe there really is a way to do precisely that: without also endangering the nation’s health in the process.

Unfortunately, however, that consideration only brings us crashing back down to the present. For if it really is possible to – as Abela himself so often repeats – ‘protect both lives and livelihoods’… then it certainly doesn’t look like we’ve managed to come up with the right formula so far.

Just this morning, Malta officially made it into the Top 10 of worldwide countries with the highest number of new COVID-19 cases, per capita, over the past week alone.

Leaving aside that I’d never even heard of some of the other countries on that list (‘St Barthelemey’, for instance: is that even spelt correctly?): the reality is that, with over 2,000 new cases registered in just seven days, Malta is now the sixth-highest country in the world for the sheer spread of COVID-19.

So while we may still be able to check ‘livelihoods’ on the list of our national successes – but even then, only for those parts of the economy that weren’t directly impacted by existing restrictions - sadly, we can’t really do the same for ‘lives’.

This, by the way, was the substance of those questions that irritated Robert Abela so much recently. And yet, when asked specifically about Malta’s rising caseload: the answer we got from all three speakers – Robert Abela, Chris Fearne and Charmaine Gauci – was roughly the same.

All three tried to minimise the recent spike by comparing it to the earliest (and much more catastrophic) death-toll predictions, made almost exactly a year ago to the day; and all three also pointed towards the success of the ongoing vaccination roll-out, as a possible ‘antidote’ to the spread.

Both those arguments, I am sorry to say, are deeply (but deeply) flawed. Let’s take them one by one.

It is certainly true that, back in March 2020, experts had predicted that as many as 100,000 people would be infected – resulting in 2,000 deaths - over the course of just 14 days.

But it is equally true that those estimates were made at a time when very little at all was known about the COVID-19 virus; and (more pertinently) before we had a whole year’s worth of statistical data, collected from all over the planet, to give us a much clearer picture of how it actually spreads.

Ironically, Chris Fearne even admitted as much, in the same press conference: when he argued that scientific opinion is constantly being updated, all the time… and that it was his job to keep abreast with the latest information.

The same Fearne cannot therefore also argue that: ‘we’re doing well, because those early apocalyptic predictions did not materialise’. Still less can Abela argue – in his passionate defence of Charmaine Gauci - that: ‘if it is wasn’t for the work and commitment of the Superintendence of Public Health, we would today be experiencing tens of thousands of deaths…”

No, sorry, that’s not true at all. If we are not currently experiencing ‘2,000 deaths in two weeks’, as predicted last March… it is only because those initial estimates were (understandably enough, given how little we knew at the time) way, way off target.

Meanwhile, the latest scientific data gives us much more realistic figures with which to compare our own… and, well, the results were recorded in that Top 10 list, above.

That is the reality against which the success of our efforts has to be measured. In other words, the writing is clearly visible on the wall; and - like Belshazzar of old – it seems we have been ‘weighed in the scales, and have been found wanting’.

As for the other argument – i.e., that the success of our vaccination programme counterbalances our failure to contain the spread – this seems to contradict not only the latest scientific data; but also the Health Ministry’s own website… which includes, inter alia, the following warning about the COVID-19 vaccines:

“So far we know that the vaccines are highly effective at preventing symptomatic cases of COVID-19. We do not yet have data to indicate whether the vaccine prevents asymptomatic or mild COVID-19.

It may be the case that vaccinated people can still get asymptomatic COVID-19 and pass it to others.”

The Health Minister should therefore also know that – no matter how successful the roll-out, compared to other countries - vaccination, on its own, is not going to successfully prevent the virus from spreading in the short term… not, at least, before around 70% of the entire population has been fully vaccinated (which, at the current rate, is not expected before October).

And besides: if those fears turn out to be warranted – and vaccinated people, though unaffected themselves, can still transmit the virus to others – then it may be even be counter-productive to promote an as-yet incomplete vaccination programme as a ‘solution’ to the problem.

Paradoxically, it may turn out to be the very opposite.

Our very success in that department may even have contributed to the recent spike in new cases: for it comes at a time when a small percentage has already been inoculated; and – thanks in no small part to government’s misplaced optimism, and its repeated message that ‘we are winning the war on COVID-10’ – may be unwittingly transmitting the disease to the non-vaccinated, under the dangerous illusion that they themselves are ‘COVID-free’.

With hindsight, we can also perceive that this same illusion may have underpinned Robert Abela’s other, ill-fated claim: that we would start seeing ‘a return to normality’ in March.

Abela, too, seems to have laboured under the belief that the early stages of the vaccination programme would, in itself, bring about a drop in cases… even though there was never any scientific evidence to back this up; and, in any case, his own government’s website had warned us all to the contrary.

All the same however: none of this actually disproves the government’s preferred hypothesis that… yes, actually: it may be possible to safeguard both ‘lives’ and ‘livelihoods’ in the fight against this pandemic.

Nor does it suggest that we should abandon that hope altogether. For one thing, it remains in our collective interest to ensure that the ‘cure’ doesn’t turn out to be ‘worse than the disease’.

And for another: while the earlier COVID-19 predictions turned out to have been slightly exaggerated… the same cannot (yet) be said about how the pandemic is likely to ravage the global economy.

Also around exactly a year ago - in March 2020 - a leading economist had warned that: “55,000 people could potentially be laid off or experience drastic reductions in their salaries: 33% of all persons employed in the private sector (164,436), and 26% of all gainfully employed in Malta (212,046).” And unfortunately, this is not a scenario we can write off quite so easily.

What it does all add up to, however, is that – always assuming that it is, ultimately, possible to safeguard both ‘lives’ and ‘livelihoods’ - we haven’t figured out exactly how to do that in practice… yet.

Naturally, I’m not a medical expert myself – still less an economist – so I can’t come up with a workable formula, either.

But the necessary expertise does exist in Malta – in abundance, too – and one other earlier suggestion was, in fact, to set up a ‘COVID-19 task force’: composed of virologists, pathologists, economists, industry stakeholders, and so on, and so forth, and so fifth.

You do not, however, need to be an expert in any of those departments, to accurately predict that we will not ‘protect both lives and livelihoods’ by: a) minimising the extent of the actual problem; b) distorting statistics to suit a political agenda; and c) disregarding the combined professional advice of the country’s entire medical establishment.

So if Robert Abela does want to one day look back, and genuinely claim that he really did do the best he possibly could, under the circumstances… well, that possibility still exists.

But he will have to change his national COVID-19 strategy… fast.