This article first appeared on Malta Today
I always find it highly ironic that when we should obediently follow directions (like sheep) for our own safety and to make life more pleasant for everyone, we don’t, and yet when we should be independent thinkers and even rebellious (for example when it comes to partisan politics) we are like bleating sheep.
For example, if there is one instance when we should simply ‘go with the flow’ by following signs and instructions, it is definitely during mass events. After weeks of publicity and promotion, the V18 celebrations, predictably, drew thousands of people to the capital city, so the crowds which surged into Valletta were to be expected. From what I have heard, the public enjoyed the various shows and the atmosphere, however the problems started when people began ignoring the signs indicating which way to go in order to reach the next show, and simply decided to go whichever way they pleased. In what can only be described as bloody-minded behaviour, some started going the wrong way, against the direction of the crowd, so inevitably much pushing, shoving and of course, copious swearing, ensued.
These scenarios tend to unfold because there seems to be a refusal to read signs. Signs are very helpful in crowded situations, they can tell you where to go, where to exit, where not to go – especially when the only thing you can see in front of you is the back of someone’s head and bodies are pressing in on you from either side.
This is precisely what makes me anxious about such mass events, and in Malta, where being in a crowd tends to bring out the worst in people, I’m always afraid of a stampede if something goes wrong. All it takes is for panic to break out over a real or imagined occurrence and it would be bedlam. Let us not forget that is what caused the collapse of that glass staircase at the Paceville nightclub, as youngsters rushed to get out from just the one exit. That night there were people trampled underfoot, and several who were badly injured, but luckily no fatalities.
Luck keeps smiling down on us (for now), because thankfully, no injuries were reported on Saturday either, but that does not mean we can keep organizing these huge events, packing people in like sardines in confined spaces without any contingency plans. Again, I am relying on information from those who went, but I was told that the marshalls that were present were there just to answer any questions, whereas what is needed at these large-scale events are people hired specifically for crowd control, who can keep the public moving in the right direction and above all, to ensure that no ill-mannered bullies cause trouble by shoving anyone who gets in their way. The marshalls would also need to be trained in case an emergency breaks out and people have to be evacuated quickly from the area. You simply cannot have tens of thousands of people milling about without some kind of crowd control, as that is sheer madness, especially with a short-tempered population with no inclination or desire to follow the rules.
Apparently, the chaos really reached its peak when it came to boarding the buses. When you encourage everyone to use public transport, you need to make damn sure that there are plenty of buses on hand, and rope in every single means of transport you can find, if need be. To be fair, I was told the ferry service between Sliema and Valletta was quite good, but the queues were understandably, and inevitably, long.
Did I say queue? Forgive me, I realise this word is not in our dictionary. In fact, literally, there is no Maltese word for ‘queue’. But more than that, the concept is something so elusive, so intangible and so alien that if you had to shout ‘please form a queue’ on a megaphone in some public area where people are shuffling sideways and width ways, and any which way, except in a line, I guarantee that 90% of those present would look at you and say, ‘huh?’
This inability to form a queue or wait one’s turn is something which has always exasperated me. Maybe it’s a rebellious, defiant streak which refuses to obey authority. Mostly, however, it is because not enough people are taught from the time they are children, that they need to wait. Which is why you get fellow customers hovering by your elbow at a shop counter, completely ignoring you and handing over the money to the cashier for their purchase even though you were there before them. It is also explains why people who were trying to get on a bus on Saturday evening almost came to blows. Maybe the only real way to ensure people don’t just ram their way through in any given situation, completely heedless of the others who were already waiting, is to use a ticket system everywhere we go, like at a busy cheese counter.
Meanwhile, I suggest that “get in line, wait your turn, first come, first served” should be mantras taught to children from the time they are tiny.