No time to lower our guard

To insist on more mass-events now – at a point where only a tiny fraction of the population has been vaccinated; and when more potent variants of the virus have been detected in Malta – is to simply invite a successive wave with open arms

Despite a recent spike in cases per day – and a seemingly unrelenting dily death toll - not all the news related to the COVID-19 pandemic has been bad.

The vaccination programme is certainly progressing at a steady rate. Malta has been ranked as having one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe, with 3.7 people vaccinated per 100 people, ahead of Denmark, Ireland, Lithuania and Spain.

Vaccinations against coronavirus started just after Christmas; with medical frontliners, residential homes for the elderly, carers and people aged 85 and over, being given priority. Information released last week by the health authorities shows that until Wednesday afternoon, Malta had administered 44,598 doses, of which 12,928 were second doses.

Health minister Chris Fearne has even claimed that the rollout is in fact weeks ahead of schedule. Malta will achieve its target of administering 50,000 COVID-19 vaccines by Sunday: a full two weeks ahead of the original deadline

But while this is all welcome news, the success must not divert our attention from our end goal. Nor should it be allowed to instil a sense of false security among the population.

With Covid-fatigue at an all-time high, and the number of daily registered cases averaging around 120, this is a time for renewed vigilance and enforcement.

Our collective experience, over the past year, should have been enough to convince us all of the need to remain vigilant; yet recent reports of Hamrun Spartans FC supporters’ behaviour – first in an impromptu street celebration after beating Valletta at the end of January; and laterm celebrating their victory over Birkirkara in a crowded bar – suggests that we have learnt little from the recent past.

Many were not wearing masks and clearly violated social distancing rules: a situation we had also seen towards the beginning of the crisis, almost exactly a year ago. This raises the question of how many waves we are willing to endure, before convincing ourselves that waves are not, after all, ‘only found in the sea.

What is clear is that there are evident signs of COVID-19 fatigue setting in: not just among rowdy football supporters, but also among the public at large.

Following the street celebrations by Hamrun Spartans supporters, Malta’s football fan base Southend Core condemned the behaviour, but implied it might have been prevented, had the football ground been open for supporters.

This was because there would have been more organisation and control, it argued. It questioned what difference there was between stadia and political meetings in villages, or between people seated in an outdoor venue and people seated in closed theatres.

But the answer is the same for all those examples: they constitute large gatherings of people, in circumstances which encourage the risk of greater transmission in the community.

This is not, of course, to minimise the concerns expressed by Southend Core: concerns which apply equally to other activities involving mass-gatherings… parties, theatre, cinema, and the arts in general.

Local football leagues, it said, were nearing a delicate stage; and there is a real risk of spontaneous celebrations, if stadiums continue to remain closed. And as the spate of private parties also illustrated, over the festive season: these tensions are being felt across the board.

But this is all the more reason to avoid such events, at all costs… at least, until the long-term effects of the vaccination programme begin to be felt. The excesses of Christmas – and now possibly Carnival, too - can also be seen to have contributed directly to a second wave.

To insist on more mass-events now – at a point where only a tiny fraction of the population has been vaccinated; and when more potent variants of the virus have been detected in Malta – is to simply invite a successive wave with open arms.

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

This is, however, not the time to lower our guard. It seems we are on the last lap of the race against COVID- 19; and the last thing we should risk doing, at this delicate stage, is undo the good work carried out by health officials– not to mention all the hardships, sacrifices and losses we have had to endure - over the past year.