Health decisions should be taken for health reasons

All this is naturally very encouraging news: but it also warrants a dose of extra caution. One level, the decline in new cases suggests that Malta’s strategy to contain the spread of this virus is indeed paying dividends

Last week, Health Minister Chris Fearne cautiously remarked that ‘health restrictions may be lifted in the coming weeks’, if the rate of infection remains low.

Nonetheless, he warned that any return to a state of normality will be gradual, with the health authorities monitoring the situation every step of the way, and reimplementing certain measures if necessary. 

“As long as the numbers remain low then we can look at removing some measures. However, if, once we remove a measure, we see that the numbers start increasing rapidly, then we would have to impose it again.”

Fearne’s cautious optimism coincided with an apparent lull in the severity of the local COVID-19 epidemic. Following an alarming spike of 50 new cases in the first week of April, we are once again back to the usual pattern of single-digit figures: a downward trend that has persisted since then, with the number of full recoveries now exceeding that of new infections for the first time.

All this is naturally very encouraging news: but it also warrants a dose of extra caution. One level, the decline in new cases suggests that Malta’s strategy to contain the spread of this virus is indeed paying dividends.

The policy of enforced social distancing, combined with restrictions on commercial and social activities, has clearly prevented our healthcare facilities from being overwhelmed by a sudden exponential increase in cases – as has happened, with tragic consequences, in so many other countries.

But slowing down the rate of contagion is not the same thing as eradicating the virus from Malta altogether. And there are no indications, at present, that Malta will be entirely ‘COVID-19 free’ any time in the near future... still less, ‘in the coming weeks’.

This implies that Dr Fearne’s proposition (though it remains as yet conceptual) comes at a very delicate moment in the development of this emergency. Any false move made today, could still have potentially catastrophic consequences further down the line.

Besides: our success, to date, is attributable to the very same policies Dr Fearne suggests might soon be lifted. So by ‘easing out’ those restrictive measures prematurely, we may just be postponing the anticipated health crisis, instead of avoiding it altogether.

Having said this, the cost of maintaining our current health policies indefinitely cannot be overlooked, either. Even if Malta is widely expected to weather the storm better than other European economies, the fact remains that a country cannot continue in a state of virtual lockdown forever. Already there is pressure from some sectors to ‘speed up’ the process of returning, as closely as possible, to normality.

But while such pressure is certainly understandable, in a context where many jobs have already been lost, and thousands more are in jeopardy... it cannot be considered as appropriate material to base any decision on public health.

Nor are economic issues the only factor.

As the weather improves with the onset of summer, government will soon be under pressure from the general public to start lifting restrictions (indeed this is in a sense already happening... with people still being fined in large numbers for ignoring the health Department’ regulations against gathering in groups of more than three.)

To be fair to Health Minister Chris Fearne, there is nothing to suggest that his optimism may in any way be influenced by such factors. There are, after all, valid health reasons to consider changing our current policies... not least, the fact that long periods of isolation will also come at a high cost in terms of mental health.

It must also be noted that Fearne’s suggestion also came on the same day that the World Health Organisation announced it will be presenting a set of six guidelines to countries for an ‘exit strategy’ for Europe: suggesting that the aim to phase out restrictions is not just a whim to placate the growing concerns of the population... but rather, a strategy endorsed by international health authorities.

But as we have already seen in the case of the decision to open the Spring hunting season – or to allow construction to continue unabated, while other businesses were forced to close - pressure can be (and very often is) applied on government in decisions such as this.

Nonetheless, Dr Fearne has so far justifiably earned the trust of the Maltese people at this delicate time, and proven that the country’s healthcare sector is in very good hands.

This newspaper shares that assessment, and is therefore convinced that – whatever the final decision maybe – it will be taken on the basis of Malta’s public health needs: and not for the sake of any other consideration.