Christmas should not be an excuse to lower our guard

Given that Christmas is precisely a time when extended families converge for celebrations at private residences, it should go without saying that this year’s celebrations should be conducted with the maximum caution possible

Earlier this week, Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci delivered a stark warning to families preparing to celebrate Christmas this year. 

“I appeal to those who are planning a family lunch, please remain with your own household," she said during her weekly briefing.  

"If you invite people outside of your household, there is a risk of transmission. At a table, it is difficult to maintain social distance, and at a meal you will remove your mask, and if there is alcohol it might be harder to continue following the measures.” 

Given that the rate of new infections is currently averaging out at around 120 cases a day, this warning should really be considered almost superfluous. Our collective experience, over the past year, should have been enough to convince us all of the need to remain vigilant: especially during a festive season which (traditionally) tends to involve parties, mass-events, and large family gatherings. 

And yet, Dr Gauci’s warning was very far from unnecessary: for the reality – not just in Malta, but in all countries that have borne the brunt of the pandemic – is that there are clear signs of COVID-19 fatigue setting in. 

The United States, for instance, has just experienced a significant spike in both contagions and fatalities, just a few weeks after the celebration of Thanksgiving. This fact, alone, should alert us all to the dangers of a repeat performance, unless the need for precaution is taken more seriously at a national level. 

Moreover, there are indications that many continue to flout the emergency regulations, despite consistent warnings by the health authorities.  People continue to be seen without wearing masks on a daily; or wearing hem in an improper way, that nullifies the (already limited) protection they may offer against further spread of the disease. 

This would be worrying, even without the added factor of a holiday season in which people tend, as a rule, to throw caution to the wind anyway. Meanwhile, it also bears mentioning that the highest rate of spread continues to occur among family clusters. 

From the cases discovered on Friday, for instance, 19 cases were family members of previously known cases, 14 were contacts of positive work colleagues, eight were from direct contact with positive cases, and two were from social gatherings with other positive cases. 

This suggests that one is likelier to contract COVID-19 from a family member, than virtually any other source. And given that Christmas is precisely a time when extended families converge for celebrations at private residences, it should go without saying that this year’s celebrations should be conducted with the maximum caution possible. 

And yet, it remains highly debatable whether even this simple, self-evident warning will be enough to avoid a renewed spike. Ironically, part of the danger is also fuelled by the very same experience: after so many months of limited social contact- coupled with high levels of stress and anxiety – there may now be additional pressure piling up to celebrate this year’s festivities with even greater abandon than usual.  

This is particularly true of New Year’s Eve: which will no doubt assume greater significance this year, as it also represents the ‘end of 2020’ – a global ‘Annus Horribilis’, if there ever was one – and the start of a new year that should also see the arrival of a vaccine (and with it, renewed hope of an end to the crisis). 

But while there certainly is good cause to look forward to a new beginning… the end of 2020, in itself, does not necessarily mean the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Indeed, there is every reason to fear the opposite. This was, in effect, the substance of another warning: this time from the Small Business Chamber (GRTU), which has expressed concern at a number of clandestine parties – some rumoured to be catering for groups of over 100 people – that will take place over the festive season. 

One does not need to be a virologist to predict that such an eventuality will radically increase the scope for the virus to spread like wildfire through the community.   

Ultimately, then, Dr Gauci’s warning – though it shouldn’t really even be needed in the first place – was both timely and critically important. This is certainly no time to be lowering our guard. The last thing we need, at this delicate juncture, is to undo all the good work carried out by our health officials over the past year– not to mention all the hardships and sacrifices we have had to endure – all for the sake of a few hours of mindless entertainment.