This column first appeared in Malta Today
I think after three months of uncertainty, fear and anxiety we can allow ourselves to feel a bit optimistic, especially as the statistics this week have remained low. Speaking for myself, being constantly pessimistic and morose is very bad for my psyche, because it just makes me spiral into an even worse frame of mind.
This is why I can perfectly understand those who prefer to post positive things, or who, better yet, have gone off social media altogether. If it helps you to not be inundated by a constant barrage of news (whether accurate or fake), then you have made the best possible decision to keep yourself mentally healthy. The daily dose of snideness and sarcasm has also been pretty hard to stomach, and if it were not for my work I would have been tempted to say sayonara to FB as well.
But despite its flaws and the visceral hatred it inexplicably unleashes, social media still has its uses, and it often serves to provide anyone who works in the media with nuggets of valuable information, especially when it comes to the zeitgeist. Having said that, while the assorted online platforms have helped to keep us in touch, nothing can replace actually talking to people in person (even if it is from 2 metres away).
Coming out of our homes and gradually re-integrating also felt surreal, like emerging with eyes blinking out of a bunker after weeks in (semi) captivity. The first cappuccino, my first tennis game, the first lunch at a restaurant, my first hair appointment – like many others, I started notching up a series of firsts with a sense of wonder and renewed appreciation. Most of all, I realised that the chance to reconnect socially with friends was something which I had greatly missed. There is something very organic about talking, but especially listening, attuned to the non-verbal cues and the unfiltered, easy way we let ourselves speak when it is a close circle of friends (we obediently kept our social distance, I promise, Prof Gauci).
The one common thread, I soon realised, is that there was no common thread. Each one of us has lived through this very strange experience differently, depending on the composition of our household, how badly affected we were financially, whether we or those close to us were high risk, and so many other variables. One’s character also had a lot to do with it as well, speaking volumes about how people handle adversity and setbacks, how well they adjust to change, and whether they could cope with a situation which was completely and utterly not in their control. The need for self care and knowing when to cut off from things which were making us unhappy and stressed, was something which was crucial in this bizarre few months we have just lived through.
There was another recurring factor: I have realised that some people find it extremely difficult to put themselves in the shoes of others. (I’m not saying I have never been guilty of this as I constantly have to remind myself not to make hasty assumptions). If a situation does not effect them, there are those who are unable to empathise at all, and are simply ready to come out, with all guns blazing, to shoot down anything and anyone who dares suggest otherwise. So, for example, those who are still demanding that the airport should remain closed seem completely oblivious to the fact that a whole sector has been wiped out, jeopardising not only people’s livelihoods but the entire future of tourism, one of our major industries. It is easy to be cavalier about tourism or any private enterprise which depends on outside market forces, when one’s own paycheque is guaranteed, no matter what.
Of course, the other side of the coin holds true as well. It is easy to be cavalier about letting tourists start trickling back in, when you or your relatives are not high risk and you do not live with the constant fear that transmission of the virus through the community will start to increase once again.
The decision to open child care centres on Friday is another case in point. Some parents had no choice but to send them, because with everyone being told to go back to work, only a few were given the option to continue working from home (talk about a wasted opportunity). Others felt that it was time to let their children socialise again, because if it was not natural for us adults to be cut off from our friends, it was even more unnatural for children. From what I can gather, the majority decided not to send their children for now, a perfectly valid choice as well, especially if they have other family members to fall back on. Because of this, the groups of children who attended were indeed small, so that worked itself out automatically, while from what I was told, the protocols are being carefully followed. With summer schools opening in July, the same quandary will be facing a lot of parents, as they assess the possible risks and take their decision, and that’s OK too.
What Is not OK is the judgement, the holier than thou self-righteousness, because you cannot possibly know what that family has been through during the partial lockdown.
Some baked bread, completed DIY projects and delighted in being cosily at home, describing it as a luxury they could only dream about in their previous hectic lives. For others it has been nothing short of a nightmare because too much was thrown at them which they could not juggle.
Let us be honest and admit having small children with you 24/7 is far from easy.
Then there were those who developed cabin fever, unable to settle into those endless days which merged into one another like some Twilight Zone episode, with nothing to break up the monotony of the relentless sameness of each day. In fact, I find I have to remind myself that now I have to look at my calendar to make sure I don’t miss appointments because I had become so used to having no appointments at all.
Those with small family-run businesses had their own nightmares to contend with; first they spent 3 months with no revenue coming in and now they have to comply with the new mitigation measures in order to be allowed to re-open. Not only have they had to incur additional expenses, but in the case of restaurants, they have had to cut 50% of their covers, further reducing their possible income. Some shops and catering establishments are contemplating closing down for good, while others have already done so.
Those who were having kittens because restaurants, hairdressers and other non-essential services re-opened seemed to completely overlook the fact that yet another sector of the economy was facing a grim future. The many statuses I saw to the tune of, “politicians are choosing the economy over health” were missing the very salient point that Malta was going to have to start to re-open eventually, especially since our excellent, not to mention free, health care system had risen to the occasion and proved without a shadow of a doubt that it could cope.
Which brings me back to the airport: I hope people realise that we must bite the bullet. So whether we open on 1 July or later, we will have to open one day, and not only because of incoming tourism. One must bear in mind that there are not only people who wish to travel for leisure, but who need to travel for business, and more poignantly, to see their families once again. There are so many Maltese people who have relatives living in another country while there are an equal number of foreign residents who yearn to visit their relatives back home. Of course, I understand that this is a scary prospect and it is easy to take the road of least resistance and simply say: keep our borders closed.
But is it realistic? Hardly. Should we still be careful according to the risk assessments issued by the Health Authorities? Absolutely.
As we tentatively inch our way back into the lifestyles we left behind way back in February, there are other things which we used to take so naively for granted, which are still question marks. Large-scale entertainment events, from outdoor concerts to indoor theatrical productions cannot be held yet. All those involved in the Performing Arts and event planning are facing a questionable future. Couples who have postponed their wedding, once, twice, and even three times, still do not know if the day they had been planning for years will ever materialise. Some have simply got married quietly now and saved the big reception for some future date to celebrate properly with family and friends. Meanwhile the entire wedding industry, which also provides so many jobs, has been put on hold.
The next big decision will be the opening of the scholastic year in September with teachers, parents and students all weighing in with their point of view, especially when it comes to those children who have fallen behind through no fault of their own. Let’s just hope that everyone can approach the issue by not only seeing it from their own selfish perspective. We could all use a little more empathy right now.