COVID-19 also reminded us of what is truly important

The coronavirus pandemic is a reminder of how public goods and services must never be passed on to private providers, no matter how tempting the meagre improvements in ‘efficiency’, or one-off revenue gains

Looking back, there can be no doubt that 2020 was a tumultuous year. Having begun with the inelegant collapse of the Joseph Muscat administration, the years now looks likely to close on yet another note of political scandal and upheaval: attesting, perhaps, to how much work still needs to be done, to address the institutional rot that has plunged Malta into such deep political crisis in recent years.

And yet, when future historians one day evaluate 2020, they will not likely pay very much attention to such matters. In Malta, as in the rest of the word, 2020 will no doubt be remembered as the ‘Year of the COVID-19 Pandemic’: for the catastrophic effects of this disease – not just in terms of health; but also economically, as well as its impact on our social life (and with it, our mental health) – have also forced us all to turn our attention away from our everyday concerns, to confront a common threat that is wreaking untold havoc with our ordinary way of life.

By the same token, COVID-19 has also forced us to reassess our own priorities: both as individuals, and as a nation. It cannot escape notice, for instance, that the world’s best hope is now encapsulated in a vaccine produced by medical professions: and not in any ‘political’ solution.

Much the same could be said for Malta’s relative success in keeping the pandemic under control: when push came to shove, we relied on the advice of the country’s medical authorities – and on the dedication and functionality of our national health service – far more than on the strategic decisions of government.

And they both delivered. Malta’s experience under the COVID-19 pandemic has, in fact, underscored the sheer importance of public service, more than ever before. Perhaps for the first time in its post-independence history, the unified forces of Malta’s national health service became the singular, most important reference point for the nation’s collective wellbeing – both healthwise, and economically.

Much of Malta’s survival depended not only on having an economic life-support in place, but also on a well-funded, and respect national health service able to take the load of the pandemic. And it is an experience such as this that reminds the Maltese why the country’s welfare programme, its pensions, and the health service are such crucial markers of our wellbeing and human development.

This is a nation whose tax money has built important guarantors of social wellbeing: as well as producing an army of medical front-liners thanks to its free university education. Little of that can be achieved in a private setting, where costs and profits dictate the rationale of whether somebody is cared for or not.

But this is why the COVID-19 pandemic is also a reminder of how such public goods and services must never be passed on to private providers: no matter how tempting the meagre improvements in ‘efficiency’, or one-off revenue gains.

A similar lesson applies to our educators, too. Time and time again, this newspaper has called for better salaries and resources for teachers: on the basis that, if we want a higher standard of education tomorrow, we should start by valuing educators more today.

The meagre remuneration offered to teachers only reflects the generally low esteem in which they are regarded. And yet, under COVID-19 we clearly saw the importance of schools, and the role of teachers in keeping our children educated (and also attended to) in times of crisis. As with nurses and doctors, we should therefore clearly recognise the full debt society owes to this profession.

Yet equally clearly, the increase in demands and expectations on teachers was not matched by an increase in appreciation, respect and monetary compensation. Current wages do not match the level of responsibility teachers are expected to shoulder. And there is also the issue of respect; and for this, there is no monetary solution.

Meanwhile there is another aspect of healthcare that is also, in certain respects, being ‘outsourced’ through the initiative of private individuals, co-ops and foundations: and that is mental healthcare.

If any statistic is a sign of the times for the pandemic, it might be this – Richmond Foundation received 2,900 calls for help this year through their designated helpline: with anxiety and depressive symptoms the most frequently brought up topics. On top of this, the foundation offered 4,220 hours of therapy, and 143 sessions of brief intervention over the past months.

We therefore need to take stock of the effects of the pandemic on young people: apart from the elderly, the vulnerable and the socially isolated. Ironically, it may have taken a deadly global pandemic, to remind us of what is truly important.