A time for civic responsibility

Somehow, then, we must strive to rediscover the qualities that saw us through those dark times so effectively. We did it 70 years ago; and now we are called upon to do it again

By now, there can be no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic represents the single greatest threat to this country since the Second World War. As with any war scenario, the people of Malta must wake up to the fact that each and every one of us has a direct responsibility to aid the war effort in any way we can.

The latest information provided by the Public Health Department – which may change by the time this is printed – confirms that the COVID-19 virus has begun to be transmitted locally.

All local transmission to date were what Health Minister Chris Fearne described as ‘first-generation’ cases: in the sense that the virus was contracted directly from people who had recently been abroad. Nonetheless, on the basis of other countries’ experience we have to assume that second-generation infections will also start occurring, as they have everywhere else.

This heralds a new phase in Malta’s efforts to cope with the crisis: with the focus shifting from containment, to mitigation.  And this changes the reality we live in in two ways: one, it is now certain that a percentage of the population will be infected in the near future; two, the extent of this percentage – and with it, the mortality rate – will depend entirely on how well we live up to our civic responsibilities today.

That includes a responsibility to change the lifestyle we are used to – and make many painful sacrifices – for the sake of the more vulnerable among us.

At this point, it is necessary that we all understand the nature of the threat. For the vast majority (around 85%) of those who will be infected, the symptoms will not be life-threatening… indeed, in some cases they will not even be particularly serious.

But we know from now that an estimated 15% of those infected will develop serious complications; and many of them will require urgent hospitalisation. The challenge therefore, is not just to protect ourselves (especially our most vulnerable) from contagion as much as possible; but also to ensure that its spread of this virus is slow enough for the number of serious cases never to overwhelm our health services at any one time.

This knowledge has been in the public domain for over a week; yet there is evidence that people are still not taking the situation with the seriousness it deserves. On Monday – when the first local transmissions were announced – Prime Minister Robert Abela announced the immediate closure of bars, restaurants, clubs, gyms and other similar establishments.

On one hand, it was a response to the first local transmissions; but the measure was also necessitated because people were simply ignoring previous health warnings to avoid crowded places.

The fact that Paceville, and other entertainment hubs, remained busy and crowded until yesterday, suggests that many people still think that they can carry on with their lifestyles regardless… until government orders otherwise.

This is not only foolish – for viruses do not need any official measures to be in place, before infecting people – but also deeply irresponsible. While 85% of the population may have little to physically fear from becoming infected themselves… their behaviour could still mean the difference between life and death for others.

Simply put, we have now entered a phase of social distancing – i.e., the minimisation of human contact to the bare minimum, with all precautions taken against contagion (i.e., following the advice and instructions of the health authorities to the letter) – whether government imposes it by law, or not. It is a civic duty that we all owe to ourselves and to each other, if we want to survive this ordeal with the least loss possible.

On the plus side, the challenge is not beyond our national capabilities, either. Comparisons with World War II may be odious, but they do remind us of a time when Malta was renowned for its spirit of gallantry, as well as its extraordinary resilience in the face of adversity. Inauspiciously, however, our chances of success now depend on two factors that are not, at the best of times, our nation’s strong points: discipline, and social co-operation.

Somehow, then, we must strive to rediscover the qualities that saw us through those dark times so effectively. We did it 70 years ago; and now we are called upon to do it again.