Tuesday 26 May 2020

And just like that…everything has changed

This column first appeared in Malta Today

*The Health Directorate has since instructed shops not to use disposable gloves as they spread more germs

On Saturday 7 March my sister and I attended the Malta Music Awards, which we enjoyed. We talked about planning a Sunday lunch with the rest of the family for the following weekend and were discussing which restaurant to go to.  We would be in touch we said, and then decide. 

Fast forward two weeks later and it is hard to believe that we were so nonchalant about something so ordinary like “eating at a restaurant”. 

The Sunday lunch never happened of course, because that very day, 7 March, the first cases of Coronavirus in Malta were announced. Since then, each day brings new restrictive measures. Many have had to adjust to working from home and parents have probably never been more appreciative of teachers than they are now. The latest gag on FB is that if scientists don’t discover a cure for the virus, then parents will.

It’s funny how quickly one gets used to things. We are already accustomed to living in a surreal limbo where the days seem to merge with one another in one big blur, because it is easy to forget what day it is when appointments and other activities which used to mark our calendars have all been cancelled.  Is it Monday? It could actually be Wednesday…who knows? We go shopping and put on disposable gloves* automatically as if we have always done so.  Seeing someone wearing a medical mask no longer startles me.  

It has been two weeks of regular press conferences and updates, as the number of cases gradually increases. Overnight, the most famous face in Malta has suddenly become that of Supt of Public Health Prof Charmaine Gauci, whose soothing voice and composure have been calming our jangled nerves even as she looks more worn-out and exhausted with each passing day.  She has the unenviable task of giving us the new figures but manages to do it without raising any undue alarm. Another comforting voice is that of Health Minister Chris Fearne; his press conferences are always no nonsense and shorn of any patting-ourselves-on-the-back partisan politics, just giving us the facts and much-needed reassurance that everything is going to be OK. Maybe it was meant to be that he was not elected Labour Party leader and, by extension, Prime Minister, because he is exactly where he is supposed to be at this delicate, crucial time.  

After a shaky start, Prime Minister Robert Abela has slowly but surely improved his addresses to the public, perhaps belatedly realising that this is no time to brag about Labour but to be a real statesman and say what needs to be said. When he spoke sternly about the need for people to be disciplined and to obey instructions because this was not a school holiday and no time for caravans and picnics, I raised my palms in an “Amen”.  He has been criticised for describing a total lockdown as being comparable to a “house arrest” but is he really that far off with this description?  I don’t think so, judging by the martial law being imposed in other countries, and the reason he keeps saying it is because clearly, some are still not getting it, as we saw on Thursday during the public holiday when people still persisted in going out in groups.  

What part of ‘highly contagious’ and dangerous to the elderly and those with a low immune system are people unable to understand?   Some seniors also need to be rapped on the knuckles for their persistence in huddling together in village squares, much to the exasperation of their families, when they should be indoors.  Nanna and Nannu need to be grounded, for their own good.

Our lives have completely changed and we have adapted, as human beings do, made more palatable by the fact that this is a global experience being shared by millions. Lockdown and social distancing have become part of our vocabulary – who would have thought this a mere two weeks ago?  It feels like it has always been like this. The human touch has been reduced as much as possible, handshakes and our Mediterranean pecks on the cheeks have disappeared and we look at strangers with suspicion and fear. We cannot visit our elderly relatives who are in homes – they too have had to adjust to the reality of Skype calls and FaceTime while carers have moved in with them to minimise contagion.  Contagion, another strange word, which has leapt from the movie screens and inserted itself into real life. 

We watch Italian news and are stunned by how our neighbours have been devastated by this unseen virus.

Anxiety levels are high for a lot of people not only because of what might happen to our health, but because of what has already happened to our economy.  For while the former is obviously more important, we cannot deny that the latter is the lynchpin to our quality of life.  It was essential to impose travel bans and to shut down the restaurants and bars, but it should have been obvious that when you pull the plug suddenly on two major industries, the whole pyramid of ancillary industries will crash, much like a game of Jenga when the blocks all come tumbling down.  Many small businesses shut down voluntarily to avoid social contact and those who offer some kind of service as sole traders have seen their business being extinguished overnight.  Any business which depends on tourism (and the list is endless) has been wiped out, just like that.  

In a mere two weeks, Malta, went from a bustling, thriving country to one where we are all going have to re-think our lives. For many people, everything we once took for granted, a steady income, dining out every weekend, hopping on a plane every chance we get, and constantly, shopping, shopping, shopping for things we don’t really need is going to be remembered as how we used to live “before”.  For those at the bottom of the ladder, who are not as privileged, their worry is how they are going to buy food.  Those who have savings will have to dig into them, those who have nothing and cannot buy groceries/pay rent need financial assistance immediately. 

If we are to pull through this on the economic front, the harsh truth is that everyone has to sacrifice something – a notion which those of our generation and older are used to, but which may be anathema to those who are younger.  They grew up in a different Malta and have no idea what it means not to have it all.  In order to protect people’s livelihoods, the Government needs to do much more for small family businesses and individuals who are self-employed – the financial package rolled out last week addresses some issues, but has not done enough for this important sector.  They have taken out loans, taken risks and poured their energies into creating something of their own; they did not take the job-for life road of all those who work with the public sector, who do not have to worry where their next paycheque is coming from. These people cannot be overlooked because whole families will be financially crippled. 

Meanwhile we have an obligation to shop local and support small businesses. Buy your needs from them whenever you can, by ordering over the phone or shopping online the way we have been blithely shopping online with foreign companies for so long.  Each time we help each other by spending our money here, we are making it possible for everyone to survive. More than ever, businesses also need to adapt in the long-term and figure out ways to accommodate customers, and not the other way round.  Many private companies and Government services have switched to online to serve the public – you see, it was not so difficult to do after all. 

On the other hand, I am still waiting to see Malta’s million (or billion?) aires give something back to society.  You, who have made your money on the backs of the little people, by paying them the bare minimum, by exploiting them every chance you get and wringing them dry, where is your contribution?  Corporate social responsibility is not just a nice little staged photo opportunity which you issue as a press release to stroke your own ego and salve your conscience, it is also protecting your staff and not laying them off at this critical time.  

And hello, banks? How about you put a moratorium on loans and mortgages for a few months to give people peace of mind? It would also be nice to see those who have been given consultancies and so-called “person of trust” positions at eye-watering salaries give some of our taxes back. They can easily put one month’s whopping salary in a solidarity fund for those who have lost their income, under the auspices of the President. The rest of the country will follow suit as I’m sure those who have a secure income, will contribute. This is where we show our mettle and our much-vaunted generosity.

It has never been as apparent as it is now that we were living in a frenzied madhouse, always on the go, always rushing from one place to another, barely interacting with our own families as everyone dashed in and out of the door because there was always somewhere they had to be. It took something like a virus, a Force Majeure to bring us face to face with ourselves, to listen to the quiet, to slow down and just stop for a minute.  The traffic has stopped, and so have most of the accidents, while the air quality has improved immensely. At this point in time, when we have been forced to change our daily rhythm, it is important to take stock and ask, do we like what kind of nation we had become? 

Like most other countries, Malta has been brought to its knees. It has to be pointed out that the wild economic boom which so many bragged about was never destined to last. What goes up so terrifyingly fast, will ultimately go down even faster.  It was not sustainable, as many of us kept pointing out over and over, and it would only take one thing to go wrong for the whole edifice to collapse like a soufflé. We just never imagined it would be brought down by a virus. No country did.

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