Elections in the time of Omicron

Omicron does little to deter the erection of billboards all over the island (or stuffing our mailboxes with junk-mail, etc.). And there are also tried-and-tested ways of staging live televised debates, without breaking social distancing regulations

File photo
File photo

Imagine (just for the heck of it) that we were all watching an episode of that classic quiz show, ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’

The following question pops up on the screen:

“As the New Year begins: what would you say is the single number one cause for public concern in Malta right now?” (And yes, I know it’s not exactly a legitimate quiz-show question – too subjective, no single answer, etc. – BUT….  just run along with it for now, will you?)

These, on the other hand, are the four possible answers to choose from:

A) Omicron

B) An impending recession, on account of the global effects of the pandemic;

C) The fact that an election will somehow have to be held, slap-bang in the middle of a national health emergency, by next June at the latest (more of which in a sec); and lastly…

D) David Thake’s tax returns.

Hmmm. Tough one, isn’t it? No wonder so many people go crashing out of that quiz-show, on the very first (and easiest) round of questions…

Because it all ultimately depends on who’s doing the answering; and, more specifically… WHEN.

Ask that same question out in the streets today…  and there can be no doubt about it whatsoever. The above options are actually listed out, in the precise order of their current priority status. Overwhelmingly, the Omicron variant has polevaulted directly to the Number One spot: closely followed by fears of an imminent (and seemingly unavoidable) economic crisis.

As for the rest, however… well, it’s up to you where to slot them in, really. My own choice for Number Three, for instance: I’ll admit it’s probably quite far down the list, right now (though something tells me that it will shoot right up to surface, in no time at all…)

But David Thake’s tax returns? In all seriousness, though: is there even a single Maltese citizen out there – apart from David Thake himself, of course… oh, and also Ian Castaldi Paris… not to mention the long-suffering Standards Commissioner George Hyzler, who has YET AGAIN been drafted into action (and on New Year’s Eve, too. I mean, give the guy a break, will you?)… and…

… Oh, alright: maybe there are a few random thousand people out there (mostly social media trolls) who genuinely consider David Thake’s tax issues to be some kind of ‘major news event’.

But from the perspective of just about everybody else: it is the equivalent of arguing over ‘whose turn it is to stand watch on board the Titanic’… after the ship has already collided with the iceberg, and is slowly starting to sink.

Ah, but then again: that tells us more about the present climate, than about the issue at hand.   I have no intention of wading into the nitty-gritty of David Thake’s VAT payment history – that’s George Hyzler’s job now (which reminds me: is there such a thing as a ‘Hardest Worker of the Year Award’ in Malta? If so: no prizes for guessing 2021’s winner…).

But I can certainly appreciate how – placed in the context of Malta’s greylisting; and the Opposition’s claim to be the only party with the ‘credibility’ to solve our reputation issues, etc. – a story like that would, in ordinary times, be much higher up the news relevance charts.

In fact, the only reason that Malta’s social media circuit hasn’t already exploded with commentary about it, is precisely because Thake’s tax problems have been overshadowed – nay, trampled underfoot – by the onset of a much graver concern named ‘Omicron’.

So – even if just to inject a small note of optimism, in what has otherwise been the ‘unhappiest’ start possible to a ‘New Year’ - we can, at least, be just a tiny bit grateful to this ghastly Covid variant, over one small thing. It has certainly helped us get our national priorities straight, for a change….

Right: enough about taxation for now… for there are still those other three options to tackle (we haven’t actually answered the original question yet, remember?)

I won’t bother with the first two, for now – there are, after all, far better-placed people to comment about Omicron itself; or our national effort to stave off a recession, and all the rest...

Instead, I will limit myself to what was previously the undisputed, number one ‘Topic of National Concern’ par excellence. Yep, that’s right, folks: the next election… which is scheduled (on paper, at least) to take place any time between now, and the beginning of next summer.

Admittedly, that timeframe does give us a small window of opportunity to avoid the worst of the present spike. For there is a fair chance that (as happened between March and June last year) the numbers will stabilize – or at least, become more manageable - by the time the election is held.

But there is also an equally reasonable chance that… um… they won’t. And besides: the Constitution also imposes limits to how long the call itself can be delayed. The very latest Robert Abela can announce the election date – and thus kick off a six-week campaign - is the second week of April.

So unless the current crisis is somehow brought to heel by that date… and also factoring in the possibility of a second Omicron wave by then (or, for that matter, the emergence of a whole new variant)…

Ooh, I don’t know. How would a situation like that actually pan out in practice, anyway?

There are, I suppose, a few random aspects which would not be affected one tiny bit. After all, Omicron does little to deter the erection of billboards all over the island (or stuffing our mailboxes with junk-mail, etc.). And there are also tried-and-tested ways of staging live televised debates, without breaking social distancing regulations.

Mass meetings, on the other hand – and even ‘not-so-mass meetings’, of the variety we are now more used to - would naturally have to go. But that, in itself, does nothing to seriously disrupt an election: still less, to prevent one from happening at all. (Indeed, it may even prove a blessing in disguise: at least, for a certain political that would now struggle to fill up even a phone-booth… let alone, the Fosos.)

Matters do become slightly more complicated, though, when it comes to the counting process. It goes without saying that all the usual crowd-gathering (and Perspex-banging) fracas would have to be… let’s say, ‘restrained’. And on paper, it shouldn’t be too difficult, either. It is, after all, an indoor location; the process itself can be filmed (or digitally-streamed) live; and we can certainly rearrange the seating configuration, to ensure that the counters themselves are properly distanced, etc.

It is, in a nutshell, all perfectly ‘doable’.

Nonetheless, we are still left with two (rather important) ingredients of any General Election, that simply cannot be made to fit into any scenario involving COVID-19, Omicron… or any other nationwide viral epidemic, for that matter.

The less critical one concerns the celebrations that will invariably follow: and in a situation where one party (you’ll never guess which) looks poised to win by a huge majority… under normal circumstances, we would be looking at literally tens of thousands of people, gathering uncontrollably in huge numbers, all over the entire country.

To the best of my knowledge, there is simply no way – technological, or otherwise - to prevent that from occurring: regardless how high the rate of transmission may be, at the time. (Let’s face it: you can’t even impose martial law… because the AFM would be outnumbered almost literally 300 to 1).

The most you can do is simply hope that fear of contagion would be enough of a deterrent, in and of itself. But if past experience is anything to go by – a certain Santa Venera festa here springs to mind – it’s not exactly likely, is it?

But it’s the second ingredient that worries me a whole lot more. Voting. Has anyone even paused to consider how Election Day itself would pan out, in a situation where (like today) over a thousand new cases are reported on a daily basis?

Even taking into account a possibly lower turnout than usual… the vast majority, of some 360,000 registered voters, will still have to be physically present in (or outside) the same polling stations: all coming and going at different times, yes… but all queueing (and converging) in the same space, on the same day, for much, MUCH longer than is normally enough to transmit the disease…

Leaving aside that the post-electoral spike, under those circumstances, would make even last year’s Christmas nightmare look like a microscopic little blip… there are no technological solutions to this one, either.

Not because such solutions do not actually exist: indeed, there are plenty. We could, for instance, very easily have had the foresight to change our electoral system - to allow for online voting, for instance – but the fact remains that: a) we never did; and b) we probably never will, either... because that would necessitate a two-thirds majority in Parliament, and…

… well, we’d have a much better chance of actually solving the entire Omicron crisis ourselves – right now, as we speak - than of ever reaching that kind of agreement in practice (still less, by mid-April at the very latest).

So… what more can I say, folks? As far as I can see, there is every likelihood that – after all the hype and controversy of 2021 - we might end up not even having an election in 2022… AT ALL.

And on that hugely optimistic note: Happy New Year, folks!