There is more than just ‘productivity’ at stake here

If the health authorities expect us to continue relying on the vaccine for our protection – as they rightly should – they have to also provide some tangible benefit for those who actually take it

A statement issued by the Malta Chamber of Commerce, raises issues that go far beyond the primary concerns outlined by that organisation.

As representatives of Malta’s business sector, the Chamber is naturally worried that some of the health measures recently put into place – especially, that fully vaccinated people are put into 14-day mandatory quarantine, when they are only secondary contacts of confirmed cases – may have an impact on local business productivity.

Once again, this prompted predictable accusations, from some quarters, that the Chamber was ‘putting its own economy interests before national health’.

But while the reaction may be understandable – it is, after all, the same argument that was used against re-opening the economy too quickly last year – the reality is that such measures may end up impacting more than just local businesses.

The entire success of the vaccination programme itself may be at stake, too.

At its core, the Chamber’s argument is rooted in the principle that there has to be a form of tangible ‘advantage’ in getting oneself vaccinated in the first place.

In this case, they argue that fully-vaccinated employees should not be forced into a two-week lockdown, because of a secondary (and therefore remote) chance of having contracted the virus.

For as Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci herself recently confirmed, there is scientific evidence to suggest that fully vaccinated people are less likely to carry asymptomatic infection or transmit the virus to others; and with 81% of the adult population now vaccinated, the spread of the disease poses a less immediate danger of overrunning our health system.

This in itself attests to the success of the vaccination programme so far. Not only is the rate of transmission of COVID-19 lower among those who are vaccinated; but so is the severity of the symptoms. According to the rolling 7-day average issued by the Health Authorities, the daily new hospital admissions for COVID-19 remains below 0.8% of the total active cases. 

And yet, in terms of actual infections, we are already back at the sort of daily caseload we last experienced in March this year: when there was a full-blown national health emergency.

From this perspective, there is certainly some merit to the argument that the current measures are indeed a little superfluous, given that, despite the rising number of cases, there is no real cause for alarm.

Of course, this may all change in future.  But whether such changes are for the better or worse, depends to a large degree on the continued success of the vaccination programme in months and years to come.

Despite Malta’s extraordinarily successful roll-out in 2021, just under 20% remain of the population remains unvaccinated. This is why the Health Authorities are so keen on promoting the efficacy of the vaccines themselves: not just so that the uptake remains equally high among today’s unvaccinated population; but also so that – when the time comes to administer boosters; and when the vaccine itself has to be renewed (depending, naturally, on which vaccination was taken) – the process will run just as smoothly again.

But there is no guarantee that 2020’s success will be repeated in future. Like the rest of the world, Malta cannot rest on the laurels of its past achievements.

And here is where the Chamber may have inadvertently placed its finger squarely on a potential future problem. 

Soon enough, we will have to once again persuade an enormous percentage of the entire country to place their trust the vaccination programme, as they have done over the last few months.

But if there is no practical distinction at all, between how vaccinated and unvaccinated people are impacted by public health decisions… it follows that more and more people will ask themselves why they even bothered getting vaccinated in the first place.

As the Chamber put it: “On one hand employers are being asked to encourage their employees to get vaccinated; when on the other hand, the authorities are not treating fully vaccinated employees any differently from those who are still refusing to be vaccinated…”

The same reasoning applies just as much to other spheres apart from employment. People in the arts circuit are likewise asking themselves why so many restrictions are being placed, at public events, even on vaccinated attendees.

Naturally, it is entirely understandable that the authorities would continue insisting on the use of face-masks, hand-sanitisers, and limiting the number of public gatherings to only 150.

But to also insist on a mandatory PCR test for all children – regardless whether vaccinated or not – attending a recent open-air theatrical performance, which otherwise met all the other restrictions: that is – as the Chamber’s statement put it, in another context – ‘most unreasonable’.

Under such circumstances, vaccination fatigue is likely to eventually set in sooner rather than later; just as ‘Covid-fatigue’ has arguably set in already.

So if the health authorities expect us to continue relying on the vaccine for our protection – as they rightly should – they have to also provide some tangible benefit for those who actually take it.