Politicians, give way to the experts on COVID-19 spike

Malta’s re-opening of the economy was at best haphazard, and did not enforce proper health measures across the board: once again illustrating our national epidemic of unfairness

As opinions collide over the government’s handling of the current COVID-19 resurgence, it is inevitable that attempts are now being made to ‘politicise’ the situation. 

Critics of the government are accused of deliberately ignoring, or minimising, the economic aspect of the problem; the doctors’ union MAM has in particular been accused of harming the national interest by declaring industrial action. 

This is, however, a misleading picture. While concerns about government’s approach certainly do exist, the reality is that everybody involved in this debate – including the medical associations – understands that a delicate balancing act does have to be performed between safeguarding economic interests, and protecting public health. 

This newspaper has never opposed the re-opening of the Maltese economy. The media industry is itself intimately linked to so many other industries, and therefore understands the shorthand of business: people need work and disposable income to maintain sustainable levels of quality of life, and businesses need to survive and retain earnings for innovation and investment. 

But the haste with which certain economic sectors were re-opened leaves no doubt that Malta’s “post-COVID” strategy has backfired. We are now at levels of infection similar to those in April, at the height of the soft lockdown; and yet no public health emergency is being declared.

This is simply outrageous, and the longer politicians take to heed the decisions of experts, the closer we are getting to, once again, another lock-down that will only punish the economy further. 

Somewhere along the line, Malta was performing well with a strategy that seemed to heed the advice of our scientists. The soft lockdown was a successful strategy that allowed us to reach almost a new social pact of remote working, agreed wage cuts and reduced working hours: making necessary sacrifices in order to safeguard the community’s health.

Now, by way of contrast, we are suffering the consequences of Robert Abela’s affinity with populist concerns. All throughout the initial months of the COVID pandemic, his language all too often betrayed his main concerns: that of incurring the displeasure of those who would be locked up at home, and denied the pleasures of the normality we had left behind. 

And when, suddenly, COVID cases were down to a trickle, Abela’s triumphalism appeared to carry a note of self-vindication: arguing that the situation would have been worse had he not resisted implorations for stricter restrictions – and even mocking the prospects of a secondary wave in one of his political party transmissions; only to later try to offload the increase in cases by attributing it to an increase in migrant rescues.

It was clear, from the start of the loosening of restrictions, that mixed messages were the order of the day: mixed messages that can trace their origins to the strained political evaluation of the pandemic’s effect on Malta by Abela and his erstwhile leadership rival, the deputy PM and health minister Chris Fearne.

This conflict has seriously contaminated the scientific advice that should have been guiding Malta’s gradual re-opening of the economy. At a crucial time in which scientists’ warnings, from across all the fora of doctors and medical associations, should have been guiding our national decisions, we saw politicians taking centre-stage instead: hailing a “Maltese summer” of mass tourism and brain-addled entertainment, that has now been marred by a spike in cases.

This raises further questions. Can the Public Health Superintendent explain why the risk assessments on COVID-19 have been withheld from the press and the public? Why is a national emergency not being declared now, despite the average of 45 new cases a day? And why are we risking that schools do not re-open, with deleterious consequences for thousands of children and their parents, apart from the added conflict between decision-makers and teachers unions?

The Prime Minister has to face up to his responsibility on this matter. Malta’s re-opening of the economy was at best haphazard, and did not enforce proper health measures across the board: once again illustrating our national epidemic of unfairness.

No clear policy on face-masks and social distancing was enforced, at once creating a gulf between those with a sense of community and those who either chose to ignore the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, or worse, stood to profit from unrestrictive economic re-opening. 
The consequences are of national importance; therefore, a public inquiry is now in order to establish responsibilities on the way Malta’s COVID-19 strategy has so far been handled (or rather, mishandled). 

Above all, however, it is now time for politicians and business lobbies to take a step back, and instead support front-liners and health authorities. And the only way to achieve this, is to restore full powers to the public health superintendent, by once again declaring a public health emergency.