‘Open for business’: but at what cost to public health?

It is manifestly unfair that, while people are expected to maintain social distancing rules in small places and where only a few people gather such as shops, or even Mass large gatherings such as parties and festas continue being given the green light

News of a spike in COVID-19 cases over the weekend mostly in connection with a hotel party attended by over 300 people the previous week; but also featuring a small number of imported cases should serve as a stark reminder that the dangers of this global pandemic, while apparently in decline, are still far from over.  

The 14 new cases registered on Saturday once again take Malta’s active cases back up to double digits: effectively, this means we are back at the same figures experienced in early April... i.e., before a sudden, even higher spike of 52 cases in a single day.  

There is, however, a significant difference: in early April, the health regulations imposed by the authorities in March were still in full force. Today, restrictions on mass gatherings have been lifted; as has the closure of the airport and harbours.  

On the positive side, the number of new cases is not particularly high by previous standards; and as past experience has already taught us, what counts is not so much the size of the individual spike, but the all-important ‘R-factor’: i.e., the rate at which infection spreads within the community, which remains relatively low.  

As such, one does have to be cautious when interpreting the figures, in the interests of avoiding any unnecessary panic or anxiety.  

All the same, however: it is not ’alarmist’ to argue that we must be just as vigilant against and ready for a second wave today, as we were at the height of the first onset of the pandemic.  

And yet with the exception of the country’s health authorities, which are taking the matter with the utmost seriousness this does not seem to be the case right now.  

On the contrary: while other countries facing a resurgence seem to be backtracking on their own decisions to ease measures, Prime Minister Robert Abela insisted last Sunday that we are ‘open for business’, and will remain ‘open for business’... just minutes before Health Minister Chris Fearne hinted that restrictions may have to be re-imposed.  

This is, to a degree, understandable. Even the health authorities themselves have conceded, the answer to a possible health emergency cannot be to shut down the economy completely: for the simple reason that, under those circumstances, the cure may prove more harmful than the disease.  

There is, however, a difference between ‘balancing health with the needs of the economy’... and disregarding the former entirely, in favour of the latter. 
From this perspective, government would be wise to heed the warnings of so many medical associations and health professionals, who have united to “strongly and publicly call on the government to revoke all permits for mass events.”  

The health professionals noted with “grave concern” the recent spike in COVID cases, resulting in part from the organisation of mass events.  

“In the weeks to come there are several such events planned, that will bring together tens of thousands of revellers, in a context where mitigation measures are difficult to implement,” the associations said.  

But apart from the immediate health considerations, there are also questions of basic social justice at stake. In the absence of any mandatory measures, it how falls to individuals and organisations to decide whether or not to restrict their own activities to avoid further spread of the virus.  

The Radisson hotel, for instance, has commendably cancelled future repetitions of last weekend’s ‘Takeover’ parties; while other establishments have similarly placed imposed restrictions on their own planned mass-gatherings.  

But this also creates an automatic non-level playing field, whereby other entities may seek to capitalise on the situation by seeking to fill the entertainment void themselves.  

There have even been (admittedly few) voices within the entertainment argument arguing in favour of a ‘free-for-all’ approach: as though fears of renewed cases were somehow ‘exaggerated’, when compared to the importance of party-organisers going about their business as usual.  

On top of parties and live concerts, we have to also factor in other events where large groups of people tend to mingle in public, with little 
in the way of health precautions: for instances, festas, processions and other forms of street celebrations.  

It is manifestly unfair that, while people are expected to maintain social distancing rules in small places and where only a few people gather such as shops, or even Mass large gatherings such as parties and festas continue being given the green light.  

If nothing else, it makes it that much harder to resist the notion that while government pays lip service to health considerations the business lobbies, as usual, prove too powerful to refuse.