Time to consider a soft lockdown

While a full lockdown may be counterproductive at this stage, it may make sense to encourage people to work from home, reintroduce measures against group gatherings, and extend the ban on bars to restaurants: at least, until cases start declining substantially

There is no other way to look at it: Malta has now entered a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic; and the same strategies we used in the past, can no longer be expected to work today.

Among those strategies was a rigorous method of contact-tracing, which aimed to identify and isolate carriers to prevent the virus from spreading.

As virologist Chris Barbara had aptly summed it up: “the more people you swab now, the less cases of COVID-19 you will have in the next weeks, simply because you would have removed more infected fish from the pool, which would otherwise have infected more fish.

When someone is found positive, you would not have just caught one person in the net, you would have caught all the potentially infected persons in his or her circle. The more people you isolate, the less infected fish there are swimming in the pool. In this way the numbers start decreasing.”

Thanks to the efficiency of this system, Malta had become practically COVID-free by June last year. But it only worked in a context of a partial lockdown, of the kind introduced between March and June 2020 when infections were low.

In a context where people have returned back to their normal pre-pandemic life, and the virus itself – which now takes more contagious forms – has spread so extensively throughout the community, that success can no longer be emulated.

This is why a soft lockdown, which would reduce the chance of contact with infected people, now has to be seriously considered. It could have saved the summer, had the lockdown started in the immediate post-Christmastime, when expectations of any sort of tourism trickle are at their lowest anyway.

While one has to recognize pandemic fatigue, and the economic realities of those who can’t even afford to be quarantined, we must also acknowledge that the post-December strategy – which, with the exception of bars, has seen Malta practically returning to normality – is clearly not working

Admittedly, the success of the vaccination programme does shine a little light at the end of the tunnel; but this is even more reason to be cautious. Other EU countries like Germany had in fact opted to go for a lockdown at the start of their vaccination process, to ensure that the logistical task of vaccinating people is not derailed by a spike in cases: which creates logistical problems of its own.

It is also true that, so far, Malta’s robust healthcare system has been resilient and has never been overwhelmed; but with cases crossing the 300 threshold, the risk of being overrun cannot be underestimated.

At the same time the vaccination programme itself offers the kind of hope which may make people more willing to make one final sacrifice. Rather than talking about rushing towards normality, we should be taking a step back to ensure that we can slowly emerge from this crisis without sacrificing more human life.

The one thing we certainly cannot afford is a situation where our health care system is over-stretched with new cases: diverting resources away from the vaccination drive, at this crucial stage.

Moreover, we have also the lessons of the March-June experience to learn from. Unlike this time last year, we are equipped with a far greater understanding of how this virus spreads – and also, of the dangers of ‘long-Covid’ – so our approach to a second lockdown does not have to be a leap in the dark.

For example: the absence of transmission between children in schools suggests that, at this stage, closing schools may not be necessarily beneficial, especially in view that teachers are being vaccinated.

But some things are also clear: social gatherings in private homes, and the continued congregation of people in restaurants, are also contributing to the spread, raising questions about our own collective responsibility.

It is unacceptable therefore, in COVID times, to see people have the time of their life in restaurants: which are more akin to the bars that have already been shut down.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Robert Abela – who, in his attempts to restore optimism, has often made misguided comments in the past – now appears to have sobered up: declaring that, in the face of the latest spike, he would be following the advice of health authorities. This passes the baton over to Charmaine Gauci, to step up her act and restore national confidence in our pandemic strategy. It is the health authorities which should now come up with a plan of actions and targeted measures: which the government has pre-emptively bound itself to implement and enforce.

While a full lockdown may be counterproductive at this stage, it may make sense to encourage people to work from home, reintroduce measures against group gatherings, and extend the ban on bars to restaurants: at least, until cases start declining substantially. And to preclude new variants entering Malta, the temporary closure of the airport should also be considered.

This would, no doubt, come at an economic cost; but – apart from the human cost, which should be our top priority – the economic cost of a prolonged crisis, with no end in sight would now doubt be greater still.

Ultimately, it is far better to make sacrifices now, than to simply wade from crisis to crisis.