[ANALYSIS] Return to normality? Robert Abela’s greatest gamble

If the easing of COVID-19 measures pays off, Robert Abela will emerge politically stronger as the man who steered the country through an unprecedented crisis. If not, he could end up with egg on his face. COVID-19 was his baptism of fire: how has he fared so far? JAMES DEBONO asks

Health Minister Chris Fearne (left) with Prime Minister Robert Abela (centre) and Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci (right)
Health Minister Chris Fearne (left) with Prime Minister Robert Abela (centre) and Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci (right)

The results speak for themselves. Malta’s robust health system, and the measured and staggered response has so far proved to be effective in containing the COVID-19 outbreak.

The new prime minister, Robert Abela, can take credit for presiding over a collective effort which united the nation. He also managed to convey optimism in a testing time for the nation. Now he seems even more confident in steering the country back to a sense of normality.

However, the crisis has also exposed some questionable character traits. Abela’s long-winded introductions to COVID-19 announcements gives the impression that he is still struggling to affirm his leadership. The sheer length of his speeches increases the risk of sending mixed messages on a very delicate topic that often results in a lack of focus.

This has amplified the contrast with the more sober and cautious approach of his deputy, health minister Chris Fearne, raising doubt on who of the two speaks more like a PM and who still speaks like a party leader. But the balancing act between the two politicians may well have consolidated Labour’s hold over different segments of the electorate.

In addition, by roping Fearne and Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci in his speech to the nation on Monday, Abela insured himself against any future backlash if the easing of restrictions results in an increase of COVID-19 cases. For now, both Gauci and Fearne have invested their professional and political capital in an exit strategy. Still, out of respect for Gauci’s presence, Abela could have assumed a more statesman-like demeanour and avoid spending nearly 15 minutes replying to a question on the use of social media by his ministers, which he turned in to an opportunity to give a more partisan twist to the event.

While Abela still manages to inspire a degree of confidence, in the past days he has also shown signs of being gaffe-prone. His dismissive tone on the risk of a second wave by saying that the only waves are those in the sea, generated a Trumpian frisson in his tone. Indeed it was a declaration that goes against scientific evidence and the views of his own deputy PM who repeatedly hinted that more restrictive measures may be re-introduced in autumn if Malta is hit by a second wave.

Mixed messages

His optimism may have also sent a mixed message to people who may have felt more empowered to go out and party upon hearing Abela’s optimistic and ‘celebratory’ speeches. This may not have been Abela’s intention but he may have showed a lack of awareness on the effect of his words on the population. While experts warn of the risk of COVID-19 waiting for the first opportunity to strike again, Abela’s speeches suggest that the war has already been won.

His populist side raised its head in the way he scored political points by stirring a nationalist passion in his stand-off with the EU over migration, in which migrants are stranded on a Captain Morgan boat, as pawns in a game played mostly to a local audience. On this Abela offered a distraction to those suffering from hardship… even though he made it a point to repeatedly thank third-country nationals for joining the collective national effort, perhaps a strategic after-thought.

The power of hope

Like Joseph Muscat before him, Abela knows that people prefer uplifting politicians to doomsday prophets. Surely enough his optimistic message resonates among various sectors in society, including businesses who want to return to making money, but also among deprived segments of the population who suffer isolation more than those who at least can enjoy the comforts of an affluent life, which make lockdown bearable for the middle class.

Still in the past days, he may have raised expectations one notch more than necessary at the risk of undoing weeks of sacrifices and hard work. Despite his denials of being forced to choose between health and the economy, he may well be under intense pressure to avoid an economic collapse, which would rip to shreds his predecessor’s legacy, which comes with obligations to business lobbies.

Abela himself is aware that his legacy will be undone if the virus raises its head again. That is why despite the impression he gives in his speeches, so far he remains on the same boat of Charmaine Gauci and Chris Fearne, staggering the easing of measures in a way which suggests that the government is still testing the ground and is not bent on rushing towards a quick return to normality.

Moreover, the easing of restrictions is being implemented in the knowledge that airports remain closed. Ironically, this relaxation actually depends on maintaining the greater restriction on tourism, which one of Malta’s main lobbies wants lifted. For now, the government seems keen on placating businesses by temporarily allowing restaurants to put more outside tables, at the risk of further undermining pedestrian rights. Neither would Abela suspend sun-bed concessions for this summer, a measure that would free more space at popular beaches and actually making social distancing easier.

Ultimately, if the easing of measures does not contribute to an increase in infections, Abela may emerge a stronger and more popular leader. But if Malta is really hit by a second wave, he risks overplaying his hand with his recent declarations – that second wave can easily become a major wipe-out.

Sure enough, the increase in numbers in the past days, although partly attributable to the increase in swabs, has already raised concern on whether the government is moving too fast. This would be a nightmare scenario for Abela, as the resurgence of the health crisis would drive Malta deeper in to recession. By hoping for the best, Abela is taking a calculated risk informed by expert opinion, knowing that prolonging the lockdown would spell a political and economic disaster. In the end, Abela may be doing what any politician in his position would do. Maybe he could do it more elegantly and with a more careful choice of words.

Back to business

The decision to ease restrictions has surely raised hope among small businesses brought to a standstill by the virus. Abigail Mamo from the Chamber for SMEs describes it as a “slow return to a sense of normality”, which have came in place after weeks of consultation.

“We should not rush. Every decision needs the approval of the health authorities and we should continue to proceed in this way.”

However, the Chamber is also calling for vigilance to ensure that health regulations are strictly adhered to.

Nevertheless, the return to normality is not a straightforward process. Mamo said a number of retail outlets are not finding it viable to open again due to the costs involved in a situation of lower demand. She says the situation will improve as more sectors reopen. “It is true that the first batch of retail outlets which have re-opened have found it very hard to operate. Some found out that they had re-opened for nothing. However, their hardship will be reduced as more sectors re-open. This is because the economy is a chain linking all the rings of the chain together. It is a time for patience and commitment.”

When asked whether a planned allowance for more outside tables would impinge on pedestrian rights Mamo said the balance had to be based on mutual respect. “We should be flexible and understand each other. We do not wish to create inconveniences to pedestrians. But we can be more flexible for a limited timeframe… Just as subsidies for different sectors are temporary, this measure will also serve for a limited number of time. After COVID-19 the situation must revert to what it was before.”