Risking on COVID-19 could be economically lethal

Just as a total lockdown could not have been the answer to Malta’s health emergency, a total return to the ‘business as usual’ approach, at this delicate stage, could also have dire consequences: not just on public health, but ironically even on the economy itself

From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic last March, it was clear that Malta – like all other countries – would have to face a delicate balancing act between safeguarding the country’s economic interests, and protecting public health.

It was equally clear that this would not be an easy task. The restrictions imposed in March/April have already taken their toll, as evidenced by the deficit figures for January-June published yesterday.

Briefly put, a sharp decline in tax revenue and an extraordinary increase in expenditure, prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, have left a €900 million deficit in public finances.

From this perspective, government had little choice but to ease restrictions – and in particular, to re-open the airport – in a bid to avert the mass-layoffs in several sectors, including tourism.

But just as a total lockdown could not have been the answer to Malta’s health emergency, a total return to the ‘business as usual’ approach, at this delicate stage, could also have dire consequences: not just on public health, but ironically even on the economy itself.

At the time of writing, there are at least four large, internationally-promoted parties planned for the imminent future: and doctors have already warned that the convergence of tens of thousands of party-goers from several European destinations – including some of the worst-hit regions – can only be interpreted as an open invitation for a second, more serious COVID-19 wave.

However, the government stopped short of heeding calls for an outright ban on large activities. Instead, Health Minister Chris Fearne announced that only festa marches were being banned, with new measures introduced to limit the number of people attending mass events.

This is, at best, a short-sighted strategy: for the economic advantages posed by these events – which in any case would only benefit a handful of entrepreneurs – would clearly be outweighed by the exponential risk of a second outbreak overrunning our health service: i.e., the one thing all  our past restrictions and measures were designed to avoid.

But risking Malta’s COVID-19 status at this stage could also prove lethal for the Maltese economy for other reasons. How, for instance, will schools be affected in September?

If a second wave results in children unable to go back to school at the end of summer, Malta’s government can expect to have a parental rebellion on its hands: one that will also be fuelled by the discontent of small business owners and commuting employees.

Under the current circumstances, government would be wise to revisit its strategy for a post COVID-19 ‘return to normality’. Malta cannot afford to risk what it has managed to safeguard so far, just to appease one particular business lobby… still less, when the consequences of this approach can only hurt the economy, more than help it.


The PN’s identity crisis

Whatever the outcome of this weekend’s General Council, the fundamental question faced by the PN has to less to do with the identity of its leader, than with its own entire ideological raison d’etre.

There can be no doubt that a strong, charismatic leader can indeed bring unity to a divided party – as was the case with Eddie Fenech Adami in the 1970s – but the reality is that the PN’s problems pre-date its current leadership issues by several years.

Its vote base has in fact been shrinking since 2004, when the party received its first major drubbing in the first MEP elections. But despite the implosion, the party has not so far lost its diversity.

For while the PN’s total numbers have shrunk, it still remains a coalition of social liberals, conservatives, upper middle-class voters, working class voters, tribalists and reformists. This unlikely combination is an inheritance of Fenech Adami’s successful strategy which weaponised strong and unifying battle-cries: democracy in the 1980s and Europe in the 1990s and 2000s, to hold together different groups of voters.

This diversity has not vanished in the PN cohort. But the various types of PN voters now find themselves swimming in a smaller and murkier pool.

As such, the PN should avail of the ongoing internal debate to also discuss ideological alternatives to the status quo. One possibly successful template could be that of a modern, centrist party: building an identity based on clear rules guaranteeing fairness and respect in every aspect of life.

This could translate the party’s anti-corruption stance in to one which is more in synch with everyday problems faced by citizens.

The PN can also distinguish itself from the more bullish style adopted by Labour leaders, by opting for a ‘bridge-builder’ as leader: someone capable of appealing to the sensibilities of moderates in both liberal and conservative camps.

Either way, a change in leadership, on its own, will not be enough for the PN to overcome its present difficulties: not, at least, without any corresponding effort to once again imbue that party with what it needs most: a sense of purpose.