‘Who is government trying to fool?’

There will be no ‘Team Malta’ high-fives if our country’s leaders expect us to ignore the fact that, of the top 40 days in which Malta recorded its highest COVID infection rates, 37 took place in January and February 2021

A Favourite Channel caller-in’s justified rant, that went viral on social media this week, captures perfectly the spirit of a society that is exasperated at mealy-mouthed politicians attempting to play down the shortcomings of Malta’s COVID-19 strategy.

“Who are you trying to fool?” the female caller, a self-declared Labour voter, told Labour MP Silvio Parnis. And she was right: at a time of such alarming COVID infection rates, Prime Minister Robert Abela can hardly expect to be taken seriously when declaring ‘battles won over COVID’; or predicting a ‘return to normality’, when statistics clearly point in the opposite direction.

Nonetheless, there was a time when those claims were justified. Without a doubt, the government did reap the fruits of an effective health strategy during the first wave: which, in 2020, managed to not contain infection rates – reducing the caseload to zero by June – but also paved the way for an incremental lifting of measures ever since.

Recent experience has even vindicated the government’s choice not to go for a total lockdown, as initially proposed by the Opposition. And the trust placed in Abela’s administration, back then, was also reflected in political polls and surveys.

Indeed, in a time of crisis people tend to look up to their leaders to offer them a sense of security: last April, Abela enjoyed a record trust rating of 62%. This year, however, he will surely be looking at far more depressed numbers.

The reason is simple: the government is seen as having ‘taken its eye off the ball’, when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was evident, way back in January, that a soft lockdown was necessary to control the rise in infections from the post-Christmas festivities. Back then, the country was already aware of the risk of COVID variants seeping into the system.

But it hadn’t happened yet. In those early days, the country could afford a reasonable, soft lockdown that could control public gatherings; and also enforce a much-abused system that permitted people to freely congregate in bars.

Likewise, there can be no real doubt that the recent explosion in COVID-19 cases is in part attributable to government’s failure to take such precautions, against the advice of leading medical experts.

Instead, triumphalism over the arrival of the COVID vaccine – indeed a feather in the cap of both Chris Fearne and Robert Abela – seemed to have fed the notion that we could go all-in, once the entire nation waited for its double-jabs.

In reality, however, it appears that this misplaced confidence only allowed us to lower our guard. Robert Abela’s tone-deaf attitude towards the might of the coronavirus; his lack of sobriety, before an adversary whose lasting effects could outlive the time we reach herd immunity, have been noted time and again.

In brief, it is useless to adopt the role of a bringer of good news, when what is really needed is a healthy dose of political realism.

From this perspective, even the government’s predictable cant, about the Opposition ‘politicising’ the pandemic, rings hollow. Like it or not, this pandemic IS political. Much like the oft-quoted slogan “the personal is political”, the deaths from COVID-19, and the people’s expectations that public health demands should trump politicians’ vain hopes for a ‘return to normality’, are very much political considerations.

No matter what kind of COVID-populist slogan is dreamt up by the Labour administration, there will be no ‘Team Malta’ high-fives if our country’s leaders expect us to ignore the fact that, of the top 40 days in which Malta recorded its highest COVID infection rates, 37 took place in January and February 2021.

The personal experiences of people who lost their loved ones to COVID; who were unable to be by their side at their moment of need; who can only imagine the loneliness of their sick relatives as they had no choice but to die alone; and the people who will be struggling with the effects of long COVID… all these factors are indeed part of the political management of this pandemic.

The government cannot therefore expect us to only show gratitude towards its economic management, without also questioning its latest decisions on the pandemic. And yes: perhaps it does look like a thankless job to a prime minister whose first 365 days in power have tested him in truly unprecedented ways.

But the public has also grown restless at the contradictions of a public health strategy that refuses to invoke emergency powers, even at a point when daily cases are averaging at over 200.  And it is not just random TV callers-in who are now asking: ‘Who are you trying to fool’?