[ANALYSIS] Robert Abela’s five COVID-19 blunders

Robert Abela can’t be blamed for relaxing rules and reopening Malta for businesses following a successful COVID-19 strategy. But while he can take the credit for keeping the pandemic in check, the second wave and record cases pulled the ground from under his feet. Where did he get it wrong? asks JAMES DEBONO

Prime Minister Robert Abela
Prime Minister Robert Abela

1. Abela downplayed risk of second wave

Robert Abela’s greatest mistake was to ignore experts’ advice that the virus was still lurking, waiting for the first opportunity to strike back and gave the impression that the war had already been won. “Waves are found in the sea, there’s no need to strike up public fear of a second wave,” he said in May when announcing a lifting of restrictions.

Addressing the party’s general conference on 26 June he invited people to enjoy the Summer. “I had expressed my determination that people would enjoy the summer – and many said that we did not know what we were doing then,” he told the party faithful at an extraordinary general conference at the Rialto Theatre in Cospicua. “And I kept my word with you,” he added to a roaring applause.

Yet Chris Barbara, an eminent virologist and part of the team leading Malta’s successful COVID-19 fightback, had already warned in May that the virus “will seize every opportunity we create for it to spread.” Prophetically he warned that “this is surely not the time to organise street parties or to celebrate in this way, as we will be creating more opportunities for the virus to spread” and that “now is the time to be even more careful than ever by keeping physical distance, avoiding groups, using sanitizer to wash hands and wearing facemasks.”

Had the government heeded his advice by stopping mass gatherings, parties and feast marches, the situation may not have degenerated as much as it did.

2. He overplayed the immigration card

By closing the ports during the first pandemic emergency at the risk of endangering lives, Abela raised expectations that he can stop immigrant boats from reaching Malta.

But he was also aware that he could not suspend international obligations indefinitely. That did not stop him from further sabre-rattling with the EU over immigrants who were inhumanely detained on a Captain Morgan boat in April. But this decision also backfired, after Abela was snubbed by the EU and forced to bring the migrants to shore.

Yet despite these setbacks Abela continued playing the immigration card, by suggesting that Malta’s high numbers are attributable to immigrants coming by boat. On 3 August, when asked to comment on whether there was a relationship between the spike in positive cases and a number of large-scale parties and gatherings, Abela said he disagreed with attributing the surge in new cases to mass events, as just under half of the numbers were rescued migrants who were being kept in isolation and did not mix within the community.

The problem for Abela is that his blame game has even backfired among immigrant-bashers who blame him for taking in more migrants despite all his bluster.

To add insult to injury the decision to quarantine immigrants on boats will mean that migrants will become another source of revenue for the fat cats bidding for their quarantine on the high seas.

3. He backtracked without apologising

Muscat excelled in the art of backtracking and recognising his own mistakes as he did in 2015, when he described his pushback threat in 2013 as a “mistake”. In May 2019, Muscat apologised for controversial remarks on foreign workers, saying that “his vision was for foreign workers to toil in the sun instead of the Maltese” was “insensitive”. But Abela remained aloof, refusing to take any blame for handling of the second COVID-19 emergency during which the number of active cases shot up from just three cases in July, to over 600 cases a month later.

Unlike Muscat, Abela failed to realise that a carefully crafted apology can go a long way in defusing criticism. Instead, Abela’s stubborn refusal to accept some blame for the situation betrays his aloofness from the suffering of thousands of old people who were expected to go on lockdown, and who are now angry that his encouragement to people to enjoy the summer has practically nullified their sacrifice.

4. He was too keen on appeasing the big lobbies

The problem with the latest restrictions is that these hit hard on small businesses, like bar owners, who are now more likely to blame big party organisers and the hotel lobby for spoiling their recovery. They may be keen to point out that had Abela not succumbed to these lobbies and restricted travel to tourists with COVID-free certificates, and had he kept restrictions on mass gatherings in place, we might well be in a much better situation than we are now. While one has to acknowledge that Abela was in a tight spot, facing mass lay-offs if business remained grounded, he may have discovered that his rush to lift restrictions has now left everybody worse off.

In short, he may well have taken a gamble, which failed to pay off. Moreover, by not publishing the risk assessments which accompanied the lifting of measures, Abela is leaving people in doubt whether he was really following expert advice.

One major problem for Abela is that he know finds himself politically damaged by his association with MHRA boss Tony Zahra, who had branded COVID-19 cautiousness as ‘Project Fear’, or Fortina boss Michael Zammit Tabona, who recently called on government to decrease the number of swab tests, which he blamed for the spike in COVID-19 figures.

5. He went on holiday when people wanted reassurance

Political leaders are expected to provide leadership in their country’s moment of need. Being here and leading the fightback is the least one would expect from a sitting Prime Minister in a country anxious about a spike in new cases.

He is also expected to lead by example, and one may argue that non-essential travel is in itself a risky activity which is at best avoided. But as Malta registered its highest ever batch of COVID-19 cases – 72 – Robert Abela was at the Marina di Ragusa in Sicily, where he enjoys boating weekends on his personal boat. Save for his quick return on Sunday to address Labour audiences on One TV, Robert Abela was officially on holiday from the 11 August, during the same days which saw record numbers of new cases.

To add insult to injury, last  Saturday, the PM was pictured in Ragusa, Sicily doing spinning classes, as Malta suffered its highest ever increase in COVID-19 cases. Abela’s nonchalance was contrasted with the resignation of Ireland’s national tourism authority, Michael Cawley, after Catherine Martin, the Irish tourism minister, expressed disappointment that Cawley had not acted in solidarity with the industry by flying to Italy when “tourism and hospitality have suffered significant losses since the start of this pandemic”.

When Chris Fearne shrugged off questions on Abela’s holiday while announcing new restrictions on businesses, that rubbed more salt in the wound. Not only did Fearne refrain from defending the indefensible… but he could not help laughing the questions off while saying “If you keep asking the same questions, you will receive the same answers,” on questions unrelated to COVID-19.

Abela’s absence from that momentous press conference further boosted the stature of his leadership rival, who was there to face the music and reassure the public in the country’s moment of need.