200 days of COVID: From excellence to shambles?

LONG READ | From an orderly and effective response that saw active cases dropping to three, to a general loss of control in the face of a second wave that saw cases rise to over 600, what did we learn from our collective response to COVID-19 asks JAMES DEBONO

A look into Malta's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic
A look into Malta's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic

The Maltese complied with the rules in an orderly fashion in the face of a deadly virus.

Their behaviour during the partial lockdown belied a reputation for a lax attitude towards enforcement. The Maltese public health system proved resilient and efficient, boasting the third largest number of swabs in the EU, and one of the highest in the world. As more were swabbed, more infected people were isolated, thanks to contact-tracing. Malta appeared close to becoming COVID-free by mid-July when only three active cases were recorded.

Leadership

Political and civic leadership was effective in the initial response, but lacking in the ‘re-opening’ phase which was full of mixed messages from the highest authorities.

Malta’s compliance and resilience during the first wave came in the wake of strong leadership, with the government and health authorities sending a clear message to the population to practice social distancing and for the elderly to stay put in lockdown. Daily briefs by Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci, united the nation in a common sense of purpose while health workers were saluted from balconies in a collective show of appreciation.

Daily briefs by Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci united the nation in a common sense of purpose
Daily briefs by Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci united the nation in a common sense of purpose

Restrictions were also imposed and subsequently lifted in an orderly way, with the government rejecting calls for a total lockdown except for over 65s and the closure of shops, bars, restaurants and gyms.

These restrictions were accompanied by financial assistance to the worst-hit sectors and a basic income of €800 for those who had lost their job.

But as summer approached, in a misguided attempt to boost consumer confidence and rescue the tourism industry, Prime Minister Robert Abela dismissed the risk of a second wave with his ill-advised ‘sea waves’ comment.

Robert Abela dismissed the risk of a second wave with his ill-advised comment that the only waves he was seeing were in the sea
Robert Abela dismissed the risk of a second wave with his ill-advised comment that the only waves he was seeing were in the sea

It seemed the strategy had paid off as cases decreased even after the reopening of retail shops, bars, restaurants and the airport. But just as the country had managed to reduce active cases to three, the collective guard was lowered.

Not only were mass gatherings and parties allowed but rules on the wearing of masks on buses were not even enforced. The stoppage of Gauci’s daily bulletins eliminated an important, non-partisan point of reference. And suddenly the priority shifted from containing the virus to kick-starting the economy: the consequence was a spike in cases.

Onto the second wave

Increased spending on health services and ventilators, meant Malta is now more prepared than in March to meet any escalation of the crisis in winter. The downside is that schools will be reopening at a moment when the virus is rearing its ugly head again.

Over-65s made the greatest sacrifices during the first wave and are now taking the brunt of a second wave unleashed by partygoers. As the only category forced into total lockdown, they were more prone to mental health issues and loneliness. They also took the brunt in terms of deaths.

The elderly were asked to stay inside during the first wave
The elderly were asked to stay inside during the first wave

But COVID-19 weakened the solidarity between the riskier, younger generation and the risk-averse older generations. The second wave was triggered by mass gatherings attended by younger people, who constituted the bulk of positive cases in August. That ended up threatening residents in old people’s homes who accounted for 51 cases of the record 105 cases reported on Wednesday.

The opening of schools risks further exacerbating generational tensions, especially if more grandparents are exposed to infected nephews due to their role as child-minders while parents are working.

Moreover, the deaths of elderly people were often coupled with references to ‘underlying conditions’, which perpetuates the cruel perception that COVID-19 mainly only impacts people who would have passed away anyway.

Economic padding

The kitty left by Malta’s economic growth in times of plenty saved the island but also exposed Malta’s economic vulnerabilities and inequalities.

The country’s dependence on tourism and the multiplier effect of its disposable ‘reserve army’ of foreign workers at the top and bottom end of the labour market, was exposed in the past months.

Air travel was reopened in July but tourism remains the economic sector worst hit by the pandemic
Air travel was reopened in July but tourism remains the economic sector worst hit by the pandemic

The rush to reopen the country to tourism and entertainment places, triggered by pressures from the industry itself, has practically undone the sacrifices made in the first three months and put at risk the rest of the economy at risk. The crisis exposed a rift between business lobbies who petitioned for a swift return to normality, dubbing calls for caution as ‘project fear’.

But the economy in other sectors showed signs of resilience, with many employers wisely choosing to safeguard their employees’ jobs. While large segment of workers – especially those in public employment – were largely spared from a drop in income, the crisis increased the precariousness of workers in the private sector, especially those who have to pay exorbitant rents.

Inequalities: the exposed and exposed-nots

COVID-19 exposed inequalities between those who can insulate themselves and those who are exposed. Calls for stricter lockdown measures and opposition to the lifting of restrictions or reopening of schools exposed a fault-line between those living in spacious, comfortable homes, digitally connected to schools and offices; and those whose jobs force them to stay out, who can’t afford to leave children unattended, and whose homes lack the comforts that make lockdown bearable.

Opening up the economy to safeguard jobs and businesses also exposed front-liners like medics, health workers and teachers to greater and possibly lethal dangers. In this scenario, trade unions only feebly made the case for a more widespread use of teleworking. But unions in different sectors did not unite in support of front-liners’ calls for caution and restraint.

Disposable foreigners and nervous natives

The chasm between disposable and exposed foreigners and increasingly nervous natives has grown. But hundreds of migrant workers were on the frontline: sanitising hospitals, nursing, collecting rubbish, delivering food and driving buses and taxis. Their underpaid work was more indispensable than ever.

Others toiling in sectors like tourism were the first to feel the crunch. And irregular migrants living in open centres or in shared flats were more exposed to the virus due to the sheer impossibility of maintaining social distance.

Construction sites also served as a fertile ground for the spread of the disease. Yet despite this contribution to the economy, foreigners were more easily perceived as a threat and possible source of disease. This made the Maltese even more insensitive to the plight of immigrants, who were left at sea as the Maltese government took a hard-line stance with the EU to stop their entry when ports were closed.

Subsequently Abela even tried to blame the spike in cases at the start of the second wave on a number of boat arrivals which included infected people.

The Experts

Prof. Carmel Borg - Department of Education Studies, University of Malta

Prof. Carmel Borg: The pandemic amplified pre-COVID inequalities
Prof. Carmel Borg: The pandemic amplified pre-COVID inequalities

The pandemic amplified pre-COVID inequalities. Several pre-COVID studies have shown that reduced instructional time, a feature of the educational provision in COVID times, lowers academic achievement. The phenomenon of learning loss has been evidenced by studies measuring regression after the summer recess. Such research not only highlights general educational loss through reduced educational interaction, but also illustrates how reduced instructional time mostly affects children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Such children have fewer school-relevant educational opportunities outside the formal education system.

In the past 200 days, children living in privileged, well-equipped, economically resourceful and socially connected families were generally well served at home.

Willing and available parents, with a high level of education, were helping their children with learning. Some used their economic potential to support their children with private tuition. Many were in a position to provide their children with the hardware, software and internet speed required to maximise virtual learning. When necessary, they used their social networking to further resource their children’s education.

As illustrated by pre-COVID research on parental engagement in education, spending most of the time at home, with their educationally endowed and committed parents, significantly helped the children’s cognitive development.

Privileged home environments contrast sharply with home ecologies characterised by precarious living. COVID hit hardest those families living close to the poverty line. Such families were impacted by: job loss; severe reduction in working hours; and the shrinking of the informal economy, an important lifeline for a sector of the population which is living precariously.

Health issues, which could not be addressed because of limited income, poor nutrition, crowded spaces, digital deprivation, social ghettoization, lack of contact with significant adults outside the home, and possible early leaving from school in an attempt to contribute economically to the family’s lost income, constitute some of the social realties that impacted the educational fortunes of underprivileged children, widening the educational gap in the process.

Evidence also suggests that disadvantaged children were hit hardest by the uneven online provision. Students who were receiving low quality remote learning, poor home help and reduced support services should be expected to show signs of academic stagnation when assessed for learning.

Dr Michael Briguglio - Sociologist and senior lecturer at the University of Malta

Dr Michael Briguglio: The world of employment is facing changes
Dr Michael Briguglio: The world of employment is facing changes

Whilst COVID-19 has had various, uneven impacts on Maltese society, it would be preposterous to reduce social change to any singular determining factor.

One can look into the impacts of a social phenomenon like COVID-19 and how it relates to other phenomena: for example, industries such as tourism are facing uncertainty, and public finances are constantly under pressure to make up for the crisis. At the same time, Malta’s dependency on construction seems to be as influential as ever.

The world of employment is facing changes: workers who lost their jobs, others who are adjusting themselves to digital methods, and new challenges for the work-life balance. In turn, this dovetails with sectors such as education and with existing social factors such as class, gender and social status.

For there is a difference between a worker on contract in a sector facing precariousness, with another worker with job security. If one factors in other considerations, such as social integration, diversity, demographic change and caring responsibilities, the equation becomes even more complex, where people share commonalities (for example COVID-driven anxieties) and particularities (for example one’s specific family/household situation).

The reproduction of salient Maltese cultural characteristics can be observed too: a sense of community when facing national challenges, a lack of planning and enforcement in certain policy aspects, personalized and factionalized politics, and the resilience of the consumerist identity in a car-driven society.

Each and every one of us faces an extra COVID-influenced layer of daily dilemmas and choices in a society of opportunities and risks. We may have more questions than answers. In a social reality made up of plural truths and identities, the challenges of recognising and trusting governance processes and the evidence-based knowledge becomes ever more complex.

Upcoming conflicting school opening challenges and vaccine narratives may be two cases in point.

Dr Maria Pisani - Senior lecturer, Faculty of Social Wellbeing - University of Malta, spokesperson Integra Foundation

Dr Maria Pisani: COVID-19 introduced itself to Malta in the form of racism
Dr Maria Pisani: COVID-19 introduced itself to Malta in the form of racism

COVID-19 introduced itself to Malta in the form of racism. ‘Chinese looking’ individuals were marked as carriers of disease. The scapegoating then turned to ‘Italians’ who were also confronted with hostility and isolation. It was only a matter of time before African asylum seekers were demarcated as a threat.

Decades of political scapegoating and inadequate reception facilities paved the way for more institutional violence and the violation of international human rights law. The strategy receives fairly widespread support, hardly surprising given the decades of racialised nationalistic politics stoking fear and resentment.

The scapegoating of the migrant has become an established response to any perceived threat to Malta and ‘Malteseness’. And so the economy minister’s ‘citizens first’ response can hardly be described as a shock. His declaration that “charity begins at home” and that all foreign workers would have to leave or be deported was xenophobic, ill-advised and irresponsible, but not surprising. The next day he was forced to apologize, his remarks were not only deeply offensive, but potentially may have produced a bigger threat to the Maltese economy than the virus itself.

Lessons, it seems, are not absorbed easily, and the government was forced to make another U-turn on the distribution of vouchers for everyone living and working in Malta.

The Maltese economy, the health system and frontline response all depend on migrant workers, including care workers, nurses, doctors, refuse workers, agricultural workers, drivers, sanitation workers. For those of us living in Malta – migrant and citizen, our recovery primarily depends on the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine team: a team made up of migrants from around the world, in another part of the world.

Sadly, this reality is not widely acknowledged or understood.

The virus has demonstrated our complex inter-relatedness, our interdependence, and our shared vulnerability. Our lives – both citizen and migrant – are defined by globalization: this includes health risks and opportunities. COVID-19 continues to pose a threat to our health and wellbeing, particularly the most vulnerable members of our society. Rapid social, cultural and economic change has contributed to a sense of anxiety and insecurity in Malta.

These sentiments, which may be justified, were further stoked by the pandemic, and are manifest in a visceral fear of the ‘stranger’. Propagating this fear is a cheap and dangerous short-term political strategy that will result in more pain and social division.

The situation calls for political honesty, maturity and a shift away from an insular, ‘citizen first’ approach that is out of sync with our contemporary globalised reality: ‘our’ recovery will be the consequence of global health interdependence, and the varied and critical contribution migrants make to our collective and individual wellbeing. 

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