Looking beyond the immediate crisis

This is ultimately a crisis; and as with all the past crises Malta has had to endure, our ability to overcome it will depend how responsibly we behave today

On Friday, Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci announced three new cases of the COVID-19 virus – all imported from overseas – bringing the total number of local infections to 12.

This number may well have risen by today; and does not take into account the possibility of other cases that have not, so far, been detected. Nonetheless - for the moment, at least - local health authorities seem to be coping with the caseload; and while there is no guarantee that this good fortune will persist, it does suggest that the immediate medical crisis is under control,  for now.

How long it remains that way, however, is also down to how well the nation responds to the crisis. It is therefore imperative that people pay heed to the instructions given by the health authorities: among others, by limiting exposure to others to the barest minimum possible, and observing personal hygiene procedures – especially washing of hands with soap – at all times.

But unfortunately, this crisis goes beyond the immediate health risks to vulnerable persons. Malta is now facing an economic disaster of the kind that will require a clear policy strategy to address. The shock to Malta’s business-as-usual environment has, in fact, been immense. Earlier this week, the Association of Catering Establishments reported a significant and alarming drop in sales for restaurants and bars, as well as mass cancellations of events.

Meanwhile, the closure of flights to several countries has already had devastating affects on the hospitality industry: making the prospect of mass layoffs likely, if not inevitable.

As with the 2008 financial crisis, businesses will need to be bailed out: which may extend to state aid for national companies, but also relief measures for private enterprises.

At a higher level, banks have also introduced mitigatory measures for this unprecedented trade shock. HSBC for example introduced short-term capital repayment holidays for businesses facing loss of business, as well as fee-free short-term working capital for those with cash flow problems, and a waiver of business fees on commercial services.

But government must also devise a way of offering private companies relief on VAT and social security payments due to the cash-flow problems they will almost certainly endure. If there was a time of national emergency where the posterity fund from the IIP is necessary, surely it is now.

Meanwhile we also have to talk about compassion and solidarity, especially for workers who do not have safety nets that allow them to take time off work or do telework; or to have people take care of their children while not in school.

Above all, we must be vigilant against those who would profiteer from the emergency. Such is the fear of a breakdown in social relations that the Chamber of Commerce itself has called on businesses to exercise “maximum ethical standards in pricing of basic need products.” President David Xuereb said that at a time of national pressure on all aspects of life, the business community has an important role to play, to act responsibly towards patrons with the highest ethical standards.

And indeed there is no doubt that at such a time of heightened demand, “the rules of the market can easily provide for a price-increase”. This is why the Malta Chamber is encouraging operators in the supply chain to also act responsibly.

Elsewhere, we face problems on Maltese social media, with cruel reactions from commenters being disparaging of people who hail from ‘red zone’ countries, and malicious demonisation of the victims of this unfortunate epidemic. Like the virus itself, the scale of misinformation must also be battled.

Indeed, both Twitter and Facebook have now outlined proactive measures to ensure that their users are guided towards accurate sources of information, and that the conversation is not hijacked by those looking to spread fear. Twitter is halting auto-suggest results which are likely to direct individuals to non-credible coronavirus content. Facebook is undertaking similar measures, with third-party fact-checking teams monitoring the related conversation and flagging inaccurate posts. Facebook says that it will also remove content with false claims or conspiracy theories which have been flagged by health authorities as potentially causing harm to people who believe them.

As with the spread of the virus, the success of these measures depends on the responsibility of the people using these social media networks. This is ultimately a crisis; and as with all the past crises Malta has had to endure, our ability to overcome it will depend how responsibly we behave today.