Anything, even caution, can be dangerous in excess

Neither the Prime Minister nor the health authorities can possibly afford to inflict another embarrassing fiasco upon themselves, of the kind we experienced just a few months ago

If each year tells a different story, 2020 and 2021 seem - for the present – to be almost centuries apart.

Both those years were dominated by the same COVID-19 pandemic; but our experience of that crisis proved to be very different. At the early stages of the first local epidemic, the Maltese government managed, for a time, to not only keep the spread of disease under control; but also to bring down its active cases down to zero by June.

At the same time, however, the government incurred criticism for throwing all caution to the wind, and hastily re-opening for the tourism season against all expert advice. And the warnings proved all-too painfully correct, too. We succumbed to a second, far deadlier wave in the summer; and much the same happened again after the Christmas season; effectively forcing an abrupt change of policy, after daily cases averaged out at over 400 last March.

So far, however, the experience ever since has been in the opposite direction; and public reactions to the crisis also seem to have been curiously reversed.

Today, the same government is under fire (at least, from certain sectors) for going about things the opposite way: exercising ‘too much caution’, perhaps… when faced with statistics that strongly suggest that Malta has managed the pandemic well over the past few months; and that – not withstanding the fear of new variants – there is considerably more optimism, even among medical experts, than last year.

Clearly, Prime Minister Robert Abela has learnt from the mistakes of his earlier handling of the crisis. The restrictions introduced by his government – on the instructions of the Superintendence of Public Health – as well as the caution expressed by the highest government authorities throughout the period, seem to have paid off. And the swift rollout of the vaccine, coupled with the eventual gradual lifting of controls, proved to be a success story.

New cases are down to nil or single figures; hospitalisations have been zeroed, and active cases are diminishing. Now - much more than last June – government might be justified in pronouncing ‘Victory’ in the war on COVID-19.

Yet it hasn’t done so this year; even if it has a lot more cause to be optimistic. And within this improving context, it is only understandable that the authorities would adopt a very cautious approach when lifting the restrictions any further.

Neither the Prime Minister, nor the health authorities, can possibly afford to inflict another embarrassing fiasco upon themselves, of the kind we experienced just a few months ago.

There is, however, an important factor that was missing from last year’s picture: the vaccine. With fully vaccinated people now surpassing the 60% mark of all those aged 16 and over, Malta’s coverage is among the highest in the world.

This vindicates the authorities themselves, who have argued time and again that the vaccine is indeed the solution, and that it is working. But this has also fostered a sense of optimism – possibly, even a false sense of security. Now that the practical benefits are indeed being felt, people may justly feel confused as to the reluctance to phase out restrictions, once and for all.

And after more than a year of living abnormally, they are clearly justified in wanting to get on with their social life, as soon as possible.

But for many – especially those who earn a living in the arts, culture and entertainment industry – there is more at stake than just the return of social life as it was before. To many people, it also signifies a return of their livelihood.

One can only empathize with artists who are clamouring for a return of large events: even if these are carried out with strict safety protocols in place.

These people, who are often overlooked as economic operators, have seen their incomes vanish over the past year; and they are fully justified to feel angry over the limit of 100 attendees imposed on outdoor events, when these can return in July.

There is also incongruence between the austere limit of 100 and weddings, where 300 guests can be seated, and the illegal partying witnessed in the St Philip’s Band Club over the weekend… or, for that matter, on public beaches.

And there is also some genuine resentment, in the perception that government is – for obvious political reasons - reluctant to relax rules for smaller events and establishments… while retaining them for mass-events such as the ‘village festa’.

For reasons already outlined, one cannot blame the authorities for being excessively cautious; but neither can one point an accusing finger at artists for being riled up. The health authorities must continue discussions with the industry to determine the best way forward, that capitalises on the success of the vaccination programme, while keeping all options open.

After all, it would be surreal to keep the artistic industry shut down, or in a non-viable state, at a time when vaccinations are high… and while bars, band clubs and beach lidos go on functioning as if there is no tomorrow.