This column first appeared in Malta Today
*since this was written the number of cases has now gone up to 9
“Unlike natural disasters, whose destruction is concentrated in a limited area over a period of days, and illnesses, which have devastating effects but are limited to individuals and their families, infectious disease has the terrifying power to disrupt everyday life on a global scale, overwhelming public and private resources and bringing trade and transportation to a grinding halt. In today’s world, it’s easier than ever to move people, animals, and materials around the planet, but the same advances that make modern infrastructure so efficient have made epidemics and even pandemics nearly inevitable. And as outbreaks of Ebola, MERS, yellow fever, and Zika have demonstrated, we are woefully underprepared to deal with the fallout.”
Despite what you may be thinking, the above paragraph was not written this week, but is the blurb taken from a book published in 2017 entitled The Deadliest Enemy…our war against killer germs written by infectious diseases expert Michael Osterholm and writer Mark Olshake. Among other things, the book accurately predicated the outbreak of a virus from China, the Coronavirus, which we are facing today.
I am not quoting from this book to add to any more fears or anxiety, but because we have come to a stage which is not only going to test our medical resources and our doctors and nurses on the frontline, but more crucially, it is going to be the ultimate test of how we act in a crisis.
When it was still sweeping through China, Covid-19 was a curious phenomena and seemed very far away. We glared a bit at Chinese people and made lame jokes about Chinese food and fretted about not receiving our online purchases from that continent. We marvelled at how they shut down whole cities, imposed draconian quarantines, used electronic surveillance and built hospitals overnight, but still…it all seemed so far away.
But then it snuck into Europe undetected through Italy, which was completely unprepared because, according to one report, it coincided with the peak of seasonal influenza and patients with symptoms were being treated accordingly. By the time doctors realised they were dealing with the highly contagious Coronavirus, the chain of transmission had spread. Within days, the number of cases and the death toll multiplied so rapidly it seemed surreal. In less than a month, Italy has gone from having only three cases of the coronavirus to having the highest number of cases and deaths outside of China.
Suddenly, the mood shifted. Covid-19 was right next door and too close for comfort. Now, it was no longer the Chinese who were the “enemy” but the Italians..and boy are there a lot of them around, hadn’t you noticed? It doesn’t take much for xenophobia to kick in at times like this, but kick in it did. We always need to find a scapegoat, someone to blame and someone to target so that we can channel our fears towards something or someone tangible rather than a mysterious virus no one can see.
When the first few infected cases, a man and his daughter were discovered in Malta, social media went into an ugly, hyaena-like frenzy when the identity of the 16-year-old girl was revealed. Unsubstantiated claims which went viral were made that she had broken her quarantine and it was like a tsunami of hate had been unleashed. Is this what we become in a crisis? Do we need to turn so savage and primitive to the extent that the girl was even receiving death threats? It was bound to enter Malta at some point, and if it was not through this family it would have been through another, even our own or someone we know.
The virus has launched itself against a world which is self-absorbed and often egotistic, which grabs everything on the supermarket shelves and leaves nothing for others, and which is determined to keep on socialising and travelling despite Government warnings. Like the me ne frega attitude of many Italians, in Malta we didn’t want our lifestyles disturbed, we brushed off the idea of self-quarantine as being for “other people” and we still want to party and get drunk at mass events (as long as we stick to the ridiculous, arbitrary, indoor crowd limit of 750).
Many families, ignoring all advice, were determined to go ahead with their vacations to the popular North Italian region during the Carnival holidays and now look what happened. The latest directives have imposed mandatory quarantine for anyone returning from any part of Italy from 26 February onwards. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand what will come next: we are now at seven infected cases* and there will be many more as the incubation period elapses.
The “it will never happen to me syndrome” has exposed the selfishness running through our society which does not appreciate or even care that this particular virus attacks those who are elderly and those with low immune systems because of a chronic disease.
Now, we need to re-adjust our attitudes and our ‘me first’ mantra. Until the authorities announce a national lockdown (all data seems to be pointing to this being the best course of action), we can still practice social distancing where possible, as many are already doing by cancelling events. Think of how you might be affecting others who are vulnerable, before insisting that your life should not change.
If we cannot re-discover our ability to become a helping community it will not be the virus which will endanger us but our lack of empathy.
To this end, the press conferences being held by the authorities are doing a great dis-service to the large foreign community on the island who cannot understand Maltese. This is no time for quibbling about which language is more important or about misplaced nationalistic pride. In a national health emergency, communication has to be direct and clear in both Maltese and English simultaneously, ideally through the use of running subtitles while the speaker is addressing the press.
Everyone living here needs to help each other by conveying correct information because what affects one person, affects us all.