Monday 24 January 2022

Getting things done? More like getting us drowned

This column first appeared in Malta Today

If you survived Thursday’s severe rainstorm without any mishaps, count yourself lucky. People had to be rescued from their stalled cars as the rainwater gushed past, vehicles were swept away, walls collapsed, homes were flooded, and rain poured in from apertures …not to mention the countless license plates lost. There were so many of the latter that Transport Malta has even offered to replace them for free.

To be fair, it rained almost as much in a few hours as it usually does in a month and the island is not prepared for such heavy, non-stop torrential rains. But therein lies the crux of the problem: why is that year in, year out, we are never prepared? The line between reality and satire became blurred as people snapped photos of billboards, ironically surrounded by the flooded roads, informing us that €400 million had been spent on new infrastructure. But no one is laughing because that visual is our taxes literally going down the drain. How can it be that no spare change was found to provide culverts, gutters and other mitigating measures for the overflow of rainwater?

Photos doing the rounds of all the usual low lying areas showed scenes which are not only a repetition of previous bad storms, but if possible, the flooding has become even worse. The roads beneath the much-vaunted Marsa flyovers especially should have been adequately built for such an emergency but instead they became a river. The meme which immediately popped up was that Ian Borg is suggesting a new marina there. It doesn’t help that construction and roadworks are never-ending and that we have pulled out too many trees and developed so many agricultural areas that, put simply, there is nowhere for the water to go. Thunderstorms at this time of year are to be expected, and the weather forecast had predicted it accurately so where is the planning by those responsible to make sure that construction debris is covered, and those plastic barriers are not left to their own devices to float along the roads, causing possible accidents?

Of course, there are always going to be incidents during such a storm which cannot be avoided. Despite warning people not to go out, not everyone has the option not to go to work, so inevitably, there were stranded drivers. The civil protection department and the army were out in full force and did an incredible job, responding to over 250 calls for assistance. What perhaps should have been done is to ask people not to take out their black bags and just hold on to them for another few days because apart from all the usual debris, we had floating rivers of garbage as well.

The aftermath of Thursday’s storm left a lot of damage and a lot of questions about why, despite the millions spent and the snappy hashtag about #gettingthingsdone, this overbuilt island still has no contingency infrastructure for such weather. The icing on the cake was that Ian Borg tried to blame the chaos on climate change rather than the abysmally designed roads he is always boasting about. And if he is so aware that we are going to be facing more extreme storms like this, he should stop insisting on uprooting trees for wider roads and concentrate on making our existing roads safe instead…before we all drown.

People with sound values are not necessarily ‘religious’

One of the trailers for The House of Gucci film features Lady Gaga in the leading role, making the sign of the cross, and whispering in a husky Italian accent, “the father, the son and the House of Gucci”.

It’s probably a sacrilegious gesture for those who are truly devout, but one which invariably makes me laugh because it epitomises the dichotomy which exists between the criminal underworld of the Italian mob and their version of Catholicism. We have seen this before in series such as The Sopranos, where Tony could cold-bloodedly kill off rival gangsters one minute and then casually attend a family christening the next.

Of course, the parallels with Malta are too in your face to ignore. We have all heard about criminals and those found guilty of corruption who, with a completely straight face, pull out the religion card. In one notorious case, we even had a corrupt member of the judiciary testifying while piously clutching rosary beads (remember the trial of disgraced Chief of Justice Noel Arrigo, anyone?).

So when I read that a Eurobarometer survey had placed the Maltese in the top five of the ‘most religious’ in Europe, you have to forgive me for my snort of cynical disbelief. I guess it all depends what people mean when they describe themselves as ‘religious’ or saying that religion is important in their lives. A graph showed the values of the Maltese compared with those of the rest of the EU but I’m afraid I found these rather vague since they referred to wide-ranging statements such as the independence of the judiciary, gender equality, freedom of movement and whether Government should support vulnerable citizens.

Personally, my interpretation of ‘values’ concerns other more nitty gritty issues which colour the way we behave and treat others (especially when no one is looking). The photo of a Bolt deliveryman, soaked to the skin on his motorbike, who stopped to help a woman stranded in her car during Thursday’s torrential downpour, to me is the definition of someone with good values – is he Christian, Catholic, Muslim or a believer of any other religion? Who cares? He saw someone who needed help and he helped her. Later, the woman described that many others had likewise come to her rescue, restoring her faith in humanity, which is often so sorely dented because bad news tends to make the headlines more.

My own disenchantment with our Catholic religion stems from the fact that there is often such a huge discrepancy between the way some people beat their chests and profess to be so very, very “good” and the reality of their true personalities. I know their hypocrisy should not really affect my own relationship with organised religion, but I’m afraid it does. I have been to too many religious ceremonies, rituals and traditions which we have had drummed into our heads as part of the Catholic faith and with which we have been indoctrinated since birth, where my brain starts questioning how much of it is genuine rather than something we do “because that is what everyone does”. If you truly believe in the meaning of the symbolism and can appreciate the age-old pageantry, it can be a wonderful thing, and there have been times when I have found the religious rites to be quite moving and meaningful. After all, the deep roots of Catholicism are ingrained in our cultural identity. But, unfortunately, there have been other times when I have become too distracted by the hypocrisy of those participating in the rites and it just ruins the whole thing for me.

There is also another aspect to this: people often confuse being religious with a belief in God (or a superior being) – again it is possible to believe in God without subscribing to the tenets of any one religion. It is also possible to have unshakeable morals without identifying yourself as being of a particular faith, something some Maltese people can never quite grasp because they still adhere to the adage that Catholicism is the only ‘true’ faith and everyone else is a heathen (or as we say, mażun). As the old joke goes, when St Peter is asked what is on the other side of a dividing wall in heaven, he says, ‘oh that is where we put all the Maltese, because they think they’re the only ones up here’.

If we as a nation are as truly ’religious’ as that EU survey makes us out to be, we would not hear of any swindling landlords, employers who treat their staff like slave labour or people who cheat, lie and steal at any given opportunity. With our human failings and foibles we are, I’m afraid no better (and no worse) than any other nation, so maybe we should just stop pretending otherwise.

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