A cautious, disciplined re-opening

Any rushed re-opening would be ill-advised; as is any consideration of the re-opening of travel corridors for the time being

Malta’s success in managing the COVID-19 pandemic so far has been admirable.

From a health perspective, the profuse testing, contact-tracing and isolation of patients and people exposed to the virus has helped contain the numbers and limit to damage.

But more than two months after restrictions changed our way of life, people are now having to deal with the economic damage. Loss of income is a reality that cannot be ignored, either.

At the same time, isolation fatigue is also creeping in; and this is the precursor to reckless behaviour, unless kept in check through controlled pressure release.

This is why the transition out of partial lockdown needs to be handled with extreme care. From a purely scientific point of view, the best remedy would be to maintain the lockdown until a vaccine is found. But even scientists would acknowledge that this is unrealistic.

As virologist Dr Chris Barbara said, from “a strictly a medical point of view”, his advice would have been not to reopen these activities at all. But given the economic cost of the lockdown, he instead recommended a cautious approach to reopening. “This is a time for greater, not less discipline… the easing of restrictions on economic activities like restaurants and hairdressers has to be accompanied by even greater vigilance and adherence to social distancing rules.”

Even the Medical Association of Malta (MAM) has expressed concern about the easing of restrictions. It said that while it appreciated the government’s effort to gradually relaunch the economy, it felt that the serious medical risks arising from such measures could only be prevented by honest unbiased information and strict discipline on hygiene, social distancing, as well as “vigorously enforced fines.”

Hence the importance of a gradual, disciplined re-opening of the economy and social activities. The operative word there is gradual, so that the health authorities will be in a position to evaluate any change and its impact on the spread of contagion.

Any rushed re-opening would be ill-advised; as is any consideration of the re-opening of travel corridors for the time being. This would introduce a big unknown variable into the equation, at a time when the country would still be getting to grips with the re-opening of restaurants, hairdressers and other services.

The second key word is discipline. People have to be given the chance to earn an income again, and to socialise; but they should do so within clearly defined protocols that must be enforced.

But this applies to the authorities, as much as to the general public. Within this context, it remains imperative that the authorities speak one language that is clear, realistic, not over-dramatic, but without minimising the threat of COVID-19 (which is still here, and will remain present for the foreseeable future).

This is why Prime Minister Robert Abela’s over-enthusiasm, when announcing that more restrictions will be lifted, was misplaced. Being positive is good to maintain spirits; but over-enthusiasm may give people a false sense of security that things are back to normal. They are not.

Likewise, Abela’s reaction to fears of a second wave of infections was childish. The Prime Minister can’t be serious with his comment that ‘the only waves he sees are those in the sea’; when his public health officials are expressly speaking of a second wave of infections.

Abela cannot advocate a gradual, careful and studied re-opening, while allowing his over-enthusiasm to colour the debate on how best to come out of this situation.

He must also start curating better the time he extends during press conferences. His overlong introductions, or the well-timed, choreographed and long-winded digressions he accords himself (a case in point was Monday’s unending explanation of his ministers’ social media spending) have to be curtailed for the sake of viewers’ attention-span, and the need to have all media houses ask their questions.

Now that we are resuming some semblance of normality, the Prime Minister and his ministers should start conducting press conferences with journalists physically present (always respecting social distancing rules).

One question he can expect to face is whether his enthusiasm for lifting restrictions is attributable to the touted €11 million per day bill the government is currently footing for the pandemic’s soft lockdown. If so, the government might be handing over the poisoned chalice of COVID-19 infection to the citizenry to deal with, rather than absorb the risk itself by keeping people under soft lockdown with part of their incomes guaranteed.

This, too, is why sobriety, an emphasis on discipline and enforcement, and most of all clarity are important, at a time when people are as confused as they are scared.

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