Abela must translate his 'enforcement' warnings into action

The only way the spread will be curbed is through a communal effort in which everyone pulls the same rope

If a picture speaks a thousand words, the photograph of Prime Minister Robert Abela addressing tourism operators about the importance of enforcing COVID-19 restrictions – while being the only one around the table to not wear a face-mask – speaks volumes about the current situation in Malta.

On one level, at least, Abela certainly is right: with the number of active cases now at 881, and the 44th death recorded today, the need for enforcement of COVID regulations is becoming ever more blatant and paramount.

To be fair, the situation is by no means unique to Malta. But as all other countries impose stricter measures, to contain a second wave of the novel coronavirus, Malta alone seems not to be reacting to the recent spike in cases and deaths.

And while it remains debatable whether the response should be a complete lockdown – which would be crippling for the economy, but also harmful to the nation’s mental health - it is nonetheless clear that our response cannot be inaction, either.

The authorities must be seen to be doing something to curb the spread of coronavirus: and this, quite frankly, is not happening at the moment.

Even if the health authorities themselves, at both local and international level, seem to be sending out mixed messages on the subject, there are still a few basic precautions that could easily be taken.

It remains unclear, for instance, why government is so reluctant to declare a second health emergency, of the kind it originally declared in March: when the number of cases amounted to a mere handful.

Such an initiative would empower the health authorities to issue emergency legislation; and if this was considered necessary to prevent the spread of the virus when it was still at an early stage… one struggles to comprehend why it is not considered a priority today, when an average of 90 cases a day are now being reported.

Moreover, on Monday MAM president Martin Balzan suggested that we could at least start enforcing rules on wearing facemasks. In fact, in many instances, people are failing to wear facemasks or shields when in shops or in public buildings. Many shop owners themselves seem to turn a blind eye: perhaps reluctant to turn away customers, even if they do not wear face protection.

A cursory visit to Valletta in the evenings would highlight the lack of enforcement of social distancing rules at bars, with crowds gathering in confined spaces irrespective of rules in place. This in turn suggests that we cannot simply rely on public co-operation, in the absence of rules and regulations.

So while Dr Abela clearly has a point, when he argues that “people should become more responsible”, the fact remains that people cannot be expected to impose strict discipline on themselves.

This is where proper enforcement - of the kind that the Prime Minister himself insists upon from the tourism sector – becomes important. But where is the enforcement he talks about? Where are the patrols and inspections to ensure that rules are being adhered to? Not to mention the fines that need to be handed out on the spot where necessary (as, indeed, fines were handed out towards the beginning of the crisis)?

If the government is reluctant to introduce stricter measures - guided by political, populist reasoning, and under pressure from powerful lobbies - the least it could do is make sure that the very basic of the rules currently in place are enforced. At minimum, the use of facemasks or shields should be made mandatory everywhere, including at work.

Nonetheless, the success of any new measure will have to continue depending on public co-operation. People are growing increasingly worried at the spike in active cases and deaths, but the public too should do its part in combating Covid-19.

The only way the spread will be curbed is through a communal effort in which everyone pulls the same rope. Here, the example set by government is of paramount importance; but if the Prime Minister himself refuses to wear a mask – even when stressing the importance of health measures in public – what chance can there be of widespread acceptance of such measures by everybody else?

This is why the government cannot limit its interventions only to talking about the need for enforcement. It needs to lead by example, and take whatever action is needed to truly protect the nation’s health.