Malta’s leaders must present united front on COVID-19

Unless Abela and Fearne are on the same page, we fear conflicting messages will undermine the national effort required by citizens to toe the line for all of us to stay safe, and indoors

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Are Malta’s Prime Minister Robert Abela and his deputy/health minister Chris Fearne on the same footing in the fight against COVID-19? We hope so.

On Thursday, Fearne issued clear, strict directives that elderly citizens aged over 65 were to go in lockdown. The rationale was clearly understandable. These people, especially those with underlying ailments and so-called comorbidities, are the most susceptible to the coronavirus. A surge in elderly patients requiring intensive medical care would bring about a huge stress on our health services, currently preparing for the worst.

They have been told to stay inside, so as to ensure their maximum protection, a more regimented isolation for those who live with them, and to prevent the more devastating spread of the fast coronavirus contagion. Indeed, with the mortality rate for over-75s at around 20%, it made all the more sense for a lockdown for senior citizens to be put into place with the necessary safeguards.

Yet on Friday, Robert Abela appeared to be singing from a different hymn sheet. Hot on the heels of a series of exemptions, the tone of Fearne’s and Prof. Charmaine Gauci’s previous implorations for a lockdown were softened. This time, Abela announced, on primetime TVM, that the lockdown was not the ‘house arrest’ it originally implied; exemptions for relatives living with them – for shopping chores and medical visits, even walks outside - were allowed. The lockdown was over merely 24 hours after it was announced.

Understandably, the government is under pressure. It faces the challenge of how to deal with the economic ramifications of a shutdown of Malta’s multitude of small businesses. Industry wants it to spend more and avoid the brusque wrath of recession once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. This newspaper has clearly gone on record supporting the extension of wage subsidies that keeps people on companies’ and firms’ books, and assists businesses to re-enter the cycle and be ready to bounce back after the lockdown.

It is also facing a crucial task of enforcing the continued running of government services and rule of law in an unprecedented scenario of remote-control decision-making. On Saturday, the Planning Authority announced it will carry out issuing development permits, via video-conferencing. How the rowdy public meetings of Malta’s most contentious of regulators will pan out is yet to be seen, given the financial impact of such decisions and the importance of civil society activists in tempering this process.

In a move which many will see as an appeasement to Malta’s construction lobby, the PA will also be extending development permits by three years. Supporters will claim it prevents Malta from turning into more of a construction site than it already is, by conceding that 2020 permits that have not yet seen ground-breaking activity will still be valid in years to come. Objectors will once again see Labour’s marriage to the developers’ lobby as part of the lasting legacy of this administration.

Earlier in the week, the hunters and trappers of Malta requested that the government bypasses the Ornis Committee – a stakeholders’ consultative committee made of government ornithologists, hunters and conservationists – to derogate from the EU’s ban on spring hunting and opening the season in April.

It is not so much about whether one has an opinion on hunting or not. What we see here are self-interest groups who, despite the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic on our health and financial resources, are seeking concessions that fly in the face of decency. They seek to exploit the panic with which our legislators are caught up in, to obtain concessions that allow them to profit from the situation: if not now, later.

It is this kind of mentality that endangers a country that is at war with an invisible enemy. While our health services battle with a destructive virus that will kill people we all know, and while small businesses struggle to keep families earning or give workers peace of mind that they will not be unemployed… self-interest groups want concessions that undermine the logic of a lockdown.

Do Malta’s leaders recognise that the economy is indeed on a war footing, and that minds have to be focused on the COVID-19 effort? Are we going to realise the severity of COVID-19 to our country’s health and serenity once people around us start to die?

Unless Abela and Fearne are on the same page, we fear conflicting messages will undermine the national effort required by citizens to toe the line for all of us to stay safe, and indoors.

Stop the piecemeal tactics. Get on the same page. Stay focused. The health effort is the main front right now.