A time for preparation, not celebration

We need to have a plan B which is firmly in place to cater for possible second wave: including a widespread campaign to encourage people to take the influenza jab, and making school attendance conditional on immunisation

Monday’s mass celebration by supporters of Floriana FC - declared winners of this year’s Premier League by the Malta Football Association – also served as a timely reminder of the dangers of lowering our guard vis-à-vis the COVID-19 epidemic.

While their cause for celebration may be understandable (this was Floriana’s first championship win in 27 years), it is hard to condone the wholesale disregard for health and safety measures: both by the supporters themselves, but also by the police, whose headquarters is situated just three streets away from the Floriana Granaries.

People are right to question the effectiveness of social distancing regulations that only seem to apply to small groups…  yet which seem to be totally ignored in the face of a spontaneous celebration attended by hundreds (if not thousands), with little or no precautions against infection.

In the long run, this can only undermine public confidence in the national effort against COVID-19:  especially at a time when government is relaxing restrictions with a view to re-igniting the economy.

While it is important to acknowledge Malta's success in keeping the virus in check so far, the population must remain in a mind frame of prudence and caution.  It will only become more difficult to reimpose social distancing measures if we became too lax during the summer months. As Dr Hans Kluge, director for the WHO European region, delivered a stark warning to countries beginning to ease their lockdown restrictions, now is the "time for preparation, not celebration."

With the easing of lockdown measures and the lifting of restrictions, we have also been reminded that the first concern of many people is not necessarily health, but also a return to the daily routines we are accustomed to: meals at restaurants, our regular appointments with the hair-dresser… things which may appear trivial, but which are nonetheless important when it comes to maintaining a generally positive aspect on life.

Even the medical community - which is certainly less than enthusiastic about the political push towards a relaxation of the soft lockdown – has acknowledged this. Virologist Chris Barbara has declared that re-opening restaurants and hairdressers will provide more opportunities for the COVID-19 virus to spread; but he has acknowledged the need to strike a balance between economy and health, calling on the general public not to let down their guard at this sensitive moment.

It is for this reason, however, that the transition back to ‘normal’ social interaction must be well-managed strategically. Barbara’s words are crucial to heed, at this stage: “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.”

This is the kind of mentality with which the Maltese must be equipped as we head into a summer of uncertainty, where a dampened economy will be accompanied by a state of languor – a not entirely unwelcome soporific summer with less tourism and less mass gatherings.

 Yet, even as we start the summer season, the next challenge is already upon us: the start of a new scholastic year in September and October. Malta has to get its act in order now by preparing for the way in which Maltese students and pupils will return to some form of non-remote schooling, especially as more parents are called in back to their workplaces.

 As Prof. Sandro Caruana said in an interview last Sunday, “there is much planning that needs to be done […] the measures and precautions that ought to be taken must, first and foremost, be geared towards safeguarding the health of all students and educators. And there should first be a campaign to inform the general public, especially students, educators and parents.”

Additionally, the reopening of schools will coincide with the start of the influenza season, a period in which the demand for the regular influenza vaccine will undoubtedly skyrocket (if not become a mandatory requirement) in the absence of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Coupled with growing pressure to reopen the national airport - something which is already happening in other Mediterranean destinations, and which will sooner or later become a necessity for our country’s economic survival – the situation calls for a comprehensive national strategy on how to successfully emerge from partial lockdown.

We need to have a plan B which is firmly in place to cater for possible second wave: including a widespread campaign to encourage people to take the influenza jab, and making school attendance conditional on immunisation.  

The good news is that we start this process at an advantage; having already gone through a steep learning curve, with very positive results.  The bad news, however, is that there are already indications that we are lowering our guard: and if this trend persists, it may undo all the good work done so far in keeping our country healthy and safe.

More in Editorial