There’s only one enemy: Covid-19

But if we all really do want an exit from the present crisis: we must also – as we did 70 years ago – learn to put aside our personal interests, in defence of the common good

Ever since the pandemic began in March 2020, there has always been a tendency to describe the onslaught of COVID-19 in terms of a ‘war’.

And as Malta approaches the 70th anniversary of Operation Pedestal - or the ‘Santa Marija Convoy’, as it is better known locally – it remains a valid metaphor for the present situation.

Then as now, the relevant authorities - which, in 1942, might have been the War Command Centre; but today, include the Maltese government, and the Superintendence of Public health today – enacted emergency measures, in order to safeguard the countryagainst ‘enemy action’.

But while the Maltese people, by all accounts, responded well to the challenges of a real war, 70 years ago… there is now a growing tendency – which, if it existed at all during wartime, was not very widespread – to automatically ‘question’ such measures: if not discredit them completely.

Just like in wartime, this sort of ‘resistance to the national war effort’ (at a time, it must be said, when other people are making sacrifices to sustain morale) will invariably be interpreted as a form of ‘treachery’, on the part of the nay-sayers.

This may also explain the sheer outpour of public anger – often bordering on open hostility - when a sizeable crowd (of around 250 people) engaged in a public protest against the vaccination process… and which took place in clear defiance of all the health and safety regulations.

At a certain level, this is understandable. Indeed, the protest itself was irresponsible for a wide number of reasons: not least, because such displays only perpetuate the myth that the vaccination process is itself a fraud (if not a global conspiracy)… and this can only serve to discourage others from getting vaccinated; which, in turn, would only make the population more – and not less – susceptible to successive waves in future.

But while it is reasonable – necessary, even – to counter such protests with rational arguments: it is not very helpful to automatically denounce all people who participate in them as ‘traitors’, either.

Admittedly, last Sunday’s crowd did not do it itself any favours: by giving so much prominence to figures who are known to be Fascists, Holocaust-deniers, conspiracists and libertarians. It only adds to the perception that ‘anti-vaxxers’ are ultimately a coalition of entitled individualists, who feel comfortable living in a world where people are simply left to die.

But while there undeniably those whose scepticism is rooted only in some weird belief, that has no real lace in any serious scientific discussion… it doesn’t follow that all those who have doubts about the vaccine – or any other aspect of the measures against Covid - are motivated by the same outlandish concerns.

Nor should we be so quick to dispense with the ‘right to protest’, either. Even if their concerns are unfounded – and one cannot judge so easily – those protestors certainly have a Constitutionally enshrined right to express their views. From this perspective, it is futile to keep repeating the old mantra, that one ‘requires a police permit to protest’.

That may indeed be the case at law; but it is a law that will fall at the first hurdle, if it is ever challenged in the European Court of Human Rights.

As things stand, the only realistic objection that can be raised about Sunday’s protest, is that it infringed the minimum social distancing measures. That places it roughly in the same category as the recent celebrations in Hamrun, or last year’s ‘mass-events’. In all such cases, the law must be equally applicable: and the ‘right to protest’ – universal though it may be - does not exempt gatherings from those legal obligations.

This leaves us only with the protestors’ message to contend with: effectively, that the ‘vaccines don’t work’; and that the health restrictions constitute a ‘violation of citizen’s rights’.

The former seems to defy all known scientific data; and also, the evidence of our own eyes: which, especially over e last few months alone suggest the very opposite: that vaccines do work. They do reduce hospitalisations; and there are numbers to prove this.

Besides, some of the restrictions those protestors complain about – ironically - can only be lifted when most of the population are vaccinated.

But the other argument, about the erosion of human rights, is slightly harder to counter. The risk of a new biological frontier between a ‘vaccinated north’ and an ‘unvaccinated south’ is certainly a major concern. And there is clearly a point to the argument that – by, for instance, introducing ‘vaccine passports’ – the State would be openly, and undisguisedly, discriminating against a segment of society.

This, however, takes us back to the wartime analogy (with all its imperfections). There comes a point when the rights of the few starting threatening the survival chances of the many. We are not, admittedly, as close to that point, as we may have been had we responded in like fashion to World War Two.

But if we all really do want an exit from the present crisis: we must also – as we did 70 years ago – learn to put aside our personal interests, in defence of the common good.