Half-baked measures don’t work

Ideally – as this newspaper has time and again insisted - our national approach should be determined by a committee of experts, representing all the relevant (medical and non-medical) fields

It is too early to tell if the new government restrictions, introduced last week, will have any noticeable effect in curbing the spread of COVID-19. Given that the disease itself has an incubation period of anywhere up to 14 days, it will be at least a few weeks before the picture becomes any clearer.

What we do know, however, is that – week on week – the average for daily new cases has consistently increased over the past two months. Recent data provided by the European Centre for Disease Control suggests that Malta – along with most of the EU’s 27 other states – has experienced significant increases in terms of contagions, hospitalisations and deaths over the past two weeks alone.

For reasons already mentioned, the latest figures alone cannot be interpreted as a failure of government’s approach since last Monday.

But – coupled with the success rate we experienced earlier, when there were much more restrictive measures in force - it does raise questions about the government’s current approach.

In their own response to the worsening crisis, countries such as France, Germany, Belgium, Austria and the UK have all announced national lockdowns, while numerous other countries have introduced regional lockdowns and/or stricter measures to combat the coronavirus.

In France, for instance, people are allowed to leave their home only to go to work (and even then, only if they cannot work from home), to buy essential goods, seek medical help or to exercise for one hour a day.

In Germany, new restrictions include closures of cinemas, theatres, gyms, pools and saunas, as well as restaurants and bars, except for takeaway; while social contacts are limited to two households with a maximum of 10 people.

Italy has even divided its own territory into red, orange and green zones. The red zones - the areas with the highest level of infections - will have to close all bars, restaurants and most shops, including hairdressers and beauticians.

Whether any of these measures are suitable for the local scenario, is, of course, debatable. But considering that Germany’s rate of infection spread stands at 5.6 cases per 100,000 inhabitants – only marginally higher than Malta’s, at 5.4 – one can only question why our approach to the same problem has differed so radically.

For instance: while a recent American study established that the likeliest places to contract COVID-19 are ‘bars, restaurants (especially indoors), and gyms’… Malta has only opted to close bars and kazini: and even then, initially only after 11 pm.

Meanwhile, the decision to shut down all bars until December, has only cast the spotlight on a separate problem: due to Malta’s licensing regime for catering establishments, many restaurants are in fact licensed as bars, and/or vice versa.

Apart from injecting a dose of uncertainty to the mix, this is leading to unnecessary stress and anxiety. Closing an eye at the fact that the entire policy seems discriminatory anyway - why only bars and kazini, but not gyms, hairdressers, etc.? – these misunderstandings also contribute to the perception of a government that is groping about blindly in the dark.

Apart from this erratic approach to the problem, there also remains the issue of enforcement. Over last weekend in particular, with Halloween thrown into the mix, people could still be seen in popular night-time destinations, crowding bars and tables, ignoring all measures imposed.

Yet in a recent case, the police fined two bathers at Ghar Lapsi for ‘not wearing a mask’ – though they were alone at the beach, and just emerging from the sea at the time.

These inconsistencies have been met with entirely justified public anger. Even if the perception is misplaced, people will interpret such incidents as the result of a government that is intent on continuing to try and protect business and the economy: while introducing token measures to try and appease the growing anger of the masses.

And the public is growing ever more agitated at what it perceives as a lack of attention to their health and safety. Since March, when the pandemic broke out, we were told time and time again that Malta was ‘following closely what other countries was doing’. And yet, the failure to do so now, when most other countries are imposing complete lockdowns, is leaving many people flustered and bewildered.

Ideally – as this newspaper has time and again insisted - our national approach should be determined by a committee of experts, representing all the relevant (medical and non-medical) fields. For the alternative is to adopt an inexpert approach… and that, rightly or wrongly, is the impression the government is giving at the moment.