An interview that raises more questions than answers

As with the scapegoating of migrants, this also comes across as a way of deflecting blame for failure: this time, his failure to make good on his earlier promise to end the migration arrivals once and for all

Robert Abela may have only been Malta’s prime minister for eight months, but his short stint has so far proven to be very eventful.

Coming on the back of a political crisis that rocked government in December, Abela has had to deal with the outbreak of a global pandemic in what is arguably the fiercest baptism of fire ever experienced by an incoming Maltese prime minister.

As such, it would be unreasonable and unfair to expect Abela’s handing of the crisis to be beyond all criticism or reproach.

All the same, his reaction to the recent upsurge in COVID-19 cases – which has pushed Malta back to roughly the same figures experienced in April, at the height of the first wave – raised a number of questions about the government’s strategy and overall approach.

The first, and perhaps most worrying, is whether Abela himself may be in denial over the causes of the present situation. Contrary to the claims he made during an interview with his own party TV station, the recent surge was largely brought about as a result of the decisions and policies of his own administration.

In that interview, Abela insisted the numbers shot up because of the arrival of rescued migrants who tested positive for COVID-19; and which, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, must be included in Malta’s list of active cases.

However, the Prime Minister failed to point out that from the 199 active cases recorded until Monday (these increased to 215 yesterday), only 88 were migrants who arrived last week.

The rest were largely local transmission, with the bulk attributable to a hotel pool party, the Santa Venera feast and a Paceville cluster.

Although the infected migrants may pose a strain on the country’s health resources if they require hospitalisation, they are the least problematic in terms of contagion, because they were kept in isolation and quarantine from the moment they stepped onto Maltese land.

The same cannot be said for other clusters identified over the past two weeks, in particular, those associated with mass events, at a time when Abela himself was urging a ‘return to normality’ as quickly as possible.

From this perspective, the true cause of the recent spike has a lot less to do with immigration, than with the failure of government’s own re-opening strategy.

And while it might be unfair to cast the blame uniquely on the government itself – for there is, after all, no tried-and-tested method for entirely preventing a second wave – it is both dishonest and irresponsible to scapegoat a vulnerable minority group for one’s own shortcomings, especially, at a time when there are already high levels of racial tension in the country.

But perhaps the biggest shortcoming is that the prime minister’s interview raised more questions than it answered. Among the first things Abela said, in fact, was that he ‘listens to’ and ‘shares’ the people’s concerns on immigration.

What he might not realise, however, is that many of those concerns can be traced to expectations that Robert Abela had raised himself: specifically, with his promise back at the height of the pandemic that “we will not allow migrants into Malta; we cannot guarantee their rescue.”

With those words now coming back to haunt him, Abela’s response was to simply reassure people that their concerns about migration were also his… without indicating how the government would address them.

Again, it would be unrealistic to expect the prime minister of Malta to unilaterally hit upon a ‘solution’ to the entire immigration crisis and yet - from the perspective of those whose idea of a ‘solution’ is, ultimately, a total halt to migrant arrivals - that is precisely what Robert Abela boldly declared he would do only two months ago.

Today, however, he is relaying an altogether different message: arguing that his hands are tied by ‘international treaties and laws’ – including, incidentally, the Geneva Refugees Convention of 1956, as well as the Universal Charter of Human Rights – and then playing the victim card, by reminding of the time when he himself, as well as members of the AFM, were recently under investigation.

As with the scapegoating of migrants, this also comes across as a way of deflecting blame for failure: this time, his failure to make good on his earlier promise to end the migration arrivals once and for all.

And the last thing the country needs, at this stage, is a Prime Minister blaming migrants for his own failures.