[ANALYSIS] Leadership in the time of coronavirus as Malta gets pushed to the brink

People expect strong and effective leadership during a time of crisis. How are our leaders faring? JAMES DEBONO asks

Charmaine Gauci: The trusted face of public healthcare
Charmaine Gauci: The trusted face of public healthcare

In a time of collective anxiety triggered by a fear of the unknown, people expect strong effective leadership and an end to partisan bickering.

While some people are prone to speculation and panic on the social media, overall the latest crisis has also reinforced the trust in medical authorities and science.

In this scenario politicians are expected to present evidence-based solutions and strategies.

The looming economic crisis also weighs in on political choices, raising fears that these may condition the response to a health emergency and actually reinforcing the role of the state in the economy, with the private sector keen on ‘assistance’ as the risks are increasingly ‘socialised’. How are our leaders faring in the wake of this unprecedented crisis?

Prime Minister Robert Abela
Prime Minister Robert Abela

Robert Abela: Facing an unprecedented test

Robert Abela’s leadership skills have been immediately tested by a crisis in which he is expected to offer both reassurance and an ability to take decisions under stress, while facing calls for ‘assistance’ to soften the economic and social impact of the COVID-19 outbreak.

After initial signs of indecision over stopping flights from Italy and closing schools, Abela adopted a gradual step-by-step and incremental approach, which led to a partial lockdown, which has so far proved effective in containing the spread of the virus through local transmissions even if the situation moved to a new level on Monday when the first three local transmissions were reported.

This step-by-step approach also helps in preparing society for the possibility of more draconian response to local transmissions.

In many cases society finds itself preceding government action, with more bars and restaurants closing down before an official ban. Reassuringly, these decisions have been informed by advice of health authorities. Still, some decisions may have been better implemented, as was the case of tourists who were quarantined upon entry, in the absence of any warning before they left.

The decision not to go for a total lockdown now could backfire if local transmissions spiral out of control. Still, this decision is informed by expert opinion, which suggests that an early lockdown may well be premature and even lead to a secondary spike in infections increasing the stress on public hospitals.

But Abela’s comparison of a lockdown with a house arrest may not have been the best choice of words to warm up people to what may well become a public health necessity.

Abela also has to fight the perception that he is too conditioned by economic considerations, and that he fears what the coronavirus could do to the Labour government’s positive economic track record. His socialist credentials will be tested by the choices necessary to both address legitimate demands from business for assistance to safeguard jobs, but also to address the plight of categories of workers, especially those in precarious working conditions – particularly migrants, part-timers and single parents – who are likely to be the first to face the axe, being dumped as disposable tools.

This is especially the case of laid-off workers who still have to pay exorbitant rents.

On Monday Abela did show a sense of leadership by telling business leaders who have benefitted from economic growth in the past years, that workers in the lowest economic brackets should not take brunt of crisis. But Abela has to match these words with concrete measures.

The bold financial package announced yesterday strengthened his leadership credentials as it gave some relief not just to struggling businesses but also to workers and the most vulnerable. It affirmed the role of the state in insuring its citizens in a time of need. One major advantage for Abela is that he starts the crisis with a surplus, but conflicting pressures on how to distribute it in the hour of need, will test his statesmanship.

The idea of presenting a mini-budget to address the situation would be a positive step. And while Abela may sound reassuring to business in auguring a return to business-as-usual after the crisis, he may well be downplaying the long-term repercussions on an economic model, which is increasingly vulnerable to global risks ranging from financial crisis to biological threats.

Despite some initial dilly-dallying and several hiccups, Abela seems to be performing well under stress.

Chris Fearne: The safe pair of hands in a crisis

Deputy Leader and Health Minister Chris Fearne
Deputy Leader and Health Minister Chris Fearne

Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Chris Fearne has offered a taste of the no-nonsense style of leadership he promised in the Labour leadership contest.

The crisis has cemented his crucial role in the government after his leadership hopes were frustrated just a few weeks ago.

He had a crucial role in anchoring the government’s health response in sound scientific opinion, coming across in press conferences as a safe pair of hands. Being himself a paediatrician with a valuable track record in the health sector, he also gives legitimacy to the government’s decisions and has thus been a valuable asset for Abela.

He has also risen above petty politics, showing a sense of collegiality and loyalty towards the new PM in a time of national emergency. The crisis has confirmed that Fearne remains an important peg in the labour leadership.

Charmaine Gauci: The trusted face of public healthcare

Superintendent for public health Charmaine Gauci
Superintendent for public health Charmaine Gauci

Charmaine Gauci, the superintendent for public health, has distinguished herself as the reassuring face of Malta’s front-line health defence. Her assertive and calm delivery gave the country an institutional reference point, something which was lacking in other times of crisis like the one ushered by the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. In her daily briefings she also had a key role in addressing public concerns and creating a firewall against misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Her non-political role as a public health professional is a breath of fresh air for a country where politicians appropriate most of the airtime. Gauci has also distinguished herself for confidently answering questions from the media in a professional way, acting as a trailblazer for other public officials in other sectors.

Adrian Delia: The risk of politicising the issue

PN leader Adrian Delia has walked on a tight-rope between offering his cooperation and scoring partisan points. While his calls for greater involvement of the Opposition in the national response to the crisis are justified, he has also jumped the gun by advocating an immediate lockdown without presenting a strong scientific justification.

Opposition Leader Adrian Delia
Opposition Leader Adrian Delia

He has also been too keen in endorsing demands by business lobbies, professional bodies and trade unions, without presenting a coherent plan and appearing contradictory.

One valid criticism by Delia is that the privatisation of public hospitals under Muscat has deprived the country of valuable bed space in St Luke’s Hospital to meet an emergency.

The greatest risk for Delia is that of being perceived as someone who is politicising the crisis for political gain, something which is unforgivable in a time of crisis. At the same time he has not been so vocal in voicing the concerns of invisible minorities like precarious workers who are facing the axe. Delia also lacks a strong and vocal health spokesperson with Stephen Spiteri lacking in stature in comparison to Chris Fearne.

One way to address these shortcomings would be for Delia to go into listening mode, meeting stakeholders and voicing their concerns in a more coherent way, without jumping the gun. The appointment of a ‘team’ including both MPs and experts would be a step in the right direction for an opposition, which is still struggling to find a balance between constructive criticism and extending a hand of cooperation.