When disaster strikes...

Clearly, we need to conduct a thorough systems-check of all factors involved in coping with a national emergency. It would be wise not to wait for such an emergency to happen again.

(Cartoon by Mikiel Galea)
(Cartoon by Mikiel Galea)

Perhaps inevitably, the tragic accident which cost two people their lives on Monday, and landed no fewer than 50 in hospital (at least six in critical condition), has prompted a barrage of unanswered questions.

It is proverbially too easy to be ‘wise’ after an event. Sadly, however, it is nonetheless true that the shocking incident seems to follow a pattern that is repeated all-too frequently in Malta (though rarely with such severe consequences).

There is plenty of statistical evidence that Malta’s roads are becoming less safe. In 2016, the European Transport Safety Council report revealed that Malta registered the largest increase in road deaths, with fatalities doubling over the previous year. Malta was also one of the only two EU countries to have registered a higher number of road deaths when compared to 2010; and local data confirms that this trend is consistent.

None of this may directly be relevant to Monday’s accident... though this will have to be established by the magisterial inquiry... but the fact remains that accidents, of all kinds, are undeniably on the increase. Without even entering into detail regarding this latest example, it would not be amiss to query whether, and to what extent, Malta’s traffic regulatory framework needs to be improved to make our roads safer.

Naturally, however, one cannot ignore the details completely. It is far too early to ascertain what culpability, if any, is to be assigned, and to whom. But we must also question how the casualty levels came to be so extraordinarily high.

As things stand, the facts are as follows: two persons died and a further six are in a critical condition after an open double-decker bus they were on drove into and/or under low-lying tree branches, on the Valletta Road in Zurrieq. All the passengers (including, naturally, all the casualties) were tourists. All 50 of them needed some form of medical assistance... stretching the country’s emergency services to their limits. Twelve of the injured were children: two of them are in critical condition.

The bus was part of a sight-seeing service operated through a local franchise, by City Sightseeing. Its driver, 24, has been arrested.

It can be seen, even at a glance, that the ramifications go well beyond road safety issues. Apart from a tragedy in itself, the occurrence also spells out the worst form of publicity imaginable, in terms of our reputation as a safe tourist destination. Malta may boast a very low incidence of violent crime, when compared to other countries. However, this advantage can only be offset by other existing dangers.

Again, one must be careful not to jump to any conclusions regarding this particular case: but time and again we have been confronted by a general insufficiency in health and safety standards across the board. The unacceptably high number of deaths on our roads, coupled with frequent cases where laxity in OHS standards causes injury or death – one recent example would be the collapse of a glass railing on a Paceville nightclub staircase, causing dozens of injuries – point broadly in one direction.

We do not take public health and safety standards anywhere near seriously enough, for an island that tries to entice tourists to a ‘safe destination’.

For these and other reasons, it is imperative that an exhaustive inquiry establish precisely what happened, why it happened, and who is responsible. Speculation at this stage, is hopelessly counter-productive. It has been claimed that the tree branches were lower because of gale force winds that hit Malta on Sunday. Others argue the 24-year-old driver lost control of the bus. But all this is pure conjecture... facts, not guesswork, are what is needed at this stage. If nothing else, we owe it to the victims and their families to establish the truth and to make sure it does not happen again.

One other question also arises, as it does after every tragic accident or catastrophe that occurs... and which has (mercifully) not yet been put to the test. Is Malta prepared to handle a large-scale medical emergency?

Although unaccountably high by the usual standards of traffic accidents, the casualty level in Monday’s calamity cannot be compared to large-scale catastrophes such as earthquakes, tsunamis... or even terrorist attacks or hijacks, such as the one which left more than 60 dead in 1986.

It would appear that Malta’s emergency services were equipped to handle the fall-out... although, with over 50 sudden admissions, Mater Dei had to issue warnings asking people to avoid the Emergency Department. We have a rough indication, therefore, of the uppermost limit of our capability to deal with a full-blown medical emergency. It was enough for this particular case... but clearly not enough for anything on a larger scale.

Moreover, it was reported that some emergency services – ambulances, fire trucks, fire engines, cranes, etc – found it difficult to reach the spot of the incident for various reasons. Are there any contingency plans to clear the roads of traffic to allow access in such cases?

Clearly, we need to conduct a thorough systems-check of all factors involved in coping with a national emergency. It would be wise not to wait for such an emergency to happen again.