[WATCH] Valletta ghost town: how the coronavirus killed the city

The coronavirus has changed the way we live, as Kurt Sansone finds out when he walks the desolate streets of Malta’s capital Valletta, built to withstand the enemy but is now trying to beat the enemy within

Empty chairs and tables at Valletta's Pjazza Regina
Empty chairs and tables at Valletta's Pjazza Regina
Valletta Ghost Town: How the coronavirus killed the city

Valletta’s streets are ominously empty, the silence broken occasionally by chirping birds oblivious to what is happening and the indistinct chatter of the few people around.

Blank faces, people throwing their arms in the air and salutations from a distance, all wondering how this came to be and how it will all end.

Social distancing measures have included restrictions on the opening of some shops
Social distancing measures have included restrictions on the opening of some shops
Shops that are still open are controlling the number of customers inside their premises at any one time
Shops that are still open are controlling the number of customers inside their premises at any one time
Others have posted makeshift messages, urging people to wash their hands
Others have posted makeshift messages, urging people to wash their hands

On the hour the church bells toll, marking time that seems to roll on in slow motion. Shop signs inform people they are shut because of new restrictions, others tell people to queue outside.

Restaurant chairs and tables outside are empty. Bustling food outlets have transformed into takeaways as they adapt to a new reality.

The scene is surreal. Valletta during the day as it used to be once at night – empty, silent, devoid of life.

Valletta's Freedom Square: empty and eerie
Valletta's Freedom Square: empty and eerie
Valletta's Republic Street: People appear to have obeyed the instructions by the health authorities to stay home
Valletta's Republic Street: People appear to have obeyed the instructions by the health authorities to stay home

At one point a siren sounds across the city, an ominous reminder of the wartime air raids that sent people scurrying into the damp shelters hewn into the city’s bastions.

Today, that siren symbolises the war we face in the fight against an invisible microbe that has shaken the foundations of our existence.

I walked the streets of Valletta, a day after the government issued the order forcing restaurants, bars, clubs, lotto booths and other establishments to close.

It was an eerie experience, unlike the Valletta I knew from the time when I worked there.

“It’s been like this for almost a week now,” one shop owner sitting on a stool outside his outlet told me.

He recounts what his 90-year-old father told him the previous day: ‘Not even during the big war was Valletta like this because after the bombs we used to go out and play on the rubble.’

I continue walking up the street. A salesgirl keeps herself busy by cleaning the shop window. With no custom, there is little else to do.

Valletta's Merchant Street: Usually busy with diners, the chairs and tables are now empty
Valletta's Merchant Street: Usually busy with diners, the chairs and tables are now empty
Valletta's St George's Square: The pigeons have claimed the square and the fountain all for themselves
Valletta's St George's Square: The pigeons have claimed the square and the fountain all for themselves

A few metres down, an old-school friend is packing up the outside structure of his restaurant. “I’ve had to stop 30 workers. Sales have stopped and one of the restaurants doing take-away only sold €180 yesterday. How can I sustain 30 more workers, myself and pay the rents with €180?”

Up Republic Street, I meet Equality Parliamentary Secretary Rosianne Cutajar. We stop to talk, keeping one metre of distance between us.

“This social distancing is a strange feeling,” she tells me. “With us politicians it’s normal to have people come up to you, shake your hands or tap you on the back… but now you can see people who are hesitant, keep their distance… it’s so unnatural for us with a Mediterranean disposition,” she says.

The coronavirus has changed the way we live. It has transformed the streets of our towns. It will leave a deep social and economic scar.

Meanwhile, a church bell marks time, once again. The statue of Jean Parisot De Valette stands tall in an empty square. This is not the Valletta he envisaged.

Built to withstand the enemy, the city has to contend with beating the enemy within.

And yet, hope is the last thing to die as people pray for this to end soon with the least damage possible to health and with the fewest social and economic consequences.

 

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