Saturday 23 January 2021

Guess it’s easier to disrupt education than to ban private parties

This column first appeared in Malta Today

For those who thought ushering in a new year meant that everything would be any different at the stroke of midnight, I hate to break it to you but, it’s more like a deja vu.

In fact, it’s pretty much like a tedious, never-ending Groundhog Day. In the first week of 2021, we are still hotly debating the same issues and at the top of the list is whether all schools should go back to online learning after the alarming (but totally to be expected) spike in cases.

As parents, teachers, the unions and politicians continued to accuse each other, our attention was briefly diverted to the unbelievable scenes emerging from Capitol Hill in Washington DC as Trump supporters were simply allowed to walk into the building while Congress was in session and wreak havoc.  It was like one of those popular memes had come to life: “2020 – well, that was a strange year; 2021 – hold my beer”.

I do not intend to waste any more column space on that deranged man in the White House whose days are (mercifully) numbered except to say: this is why the way a leader behaves and speaks is so crucial and should never be tolerated as ‘amusing’, or dismissed as ‘just talk’.  The sight of so many brainwashed people in one place is always a scary thing to behold. 

But back to Malta’s education quandary. The reason we are back to where we started last year is twofold: first, the Education Ministry has never taken the concept of online learning in state schools seriously enough to really make it work.  If there had been a willingness to implement it in the same way that Church and independent schools did, I’m sure they would have found a way to avert the strike and all the ill will it has stirred up.  And secondly, this is what happens when the Government is too reluctant to really clamp down on private parties and mixing of households over the festive season by issuing a legal notice to ban them.  All over social media there has been a chorus of “we told you so”, and yet over at Castille Robert Abela seems to be living in his own little cocoon of protected bliss, perhaps closing his eyes and dreaming of the next summer jaunt on his boat.  

Was he really that afraid of upsetting a few Gozitan property owners who would not have made enough money by renting out their properties to groups of people over New Year’s?  Was he in fear that supermarkets might be furious with him because their shelves would not be swept clean of goodies since so many people organised private parties at home?  The stats speak for themselves, with 245 of the positive cases from last week being specifically traced to household clusters, while 77 were social gatherings.  But I guess it’s easier to disrupt education than to ban private parties. As Charmaine Gauci rightly pointed out, what happens in schools is a reflection of what is happening in the community, so I wonder how many of those now demanding for schools to close are the same people who ignored all the advice against social gatherings and were among the 25,000 who crossed over to party in Gozo? On the other hand, it bears repeating that “recommendations” and appealing to people’s sense of responsibility has clearly not worked, especially among the younger demographic: it didn’t work before and it is not working now.    

Closing schools should be absolutely the last measure, and really all this could have been avoided if Abela had bit the bullet and really shown himself to be a good leader who takes tough, but necessary decisions at the opportune time in a time of crisis, rather than crossing his fingers and hoping for the best. Instead, like an overly indulgent but useless Papa, he let the kids eat all the candy until they made themselves sick, and now just sits by as they retch and gag and complain of a tummy ache, while whining because they can’t go out to play with their friends. 

Transparency and honesty are still in short supply (in bold)

Whether it is the vaccination roll out or trying to discover what Ian Borg is up to these days with his nefarious plans to ruin Malta’s environment once and for all, a common theme can be spotted throughout.  Why can’t politicians just be straight up and honest with us about what is happening, rather than us having to badger them for details, or finding out through other means?  In the case of the vaccine, what was promised and the rate with which the inoculation programme is being carried out are two very different things. It was like pulling teeth to finally get Minister Fearne to admit that the roll out would be slower than originally announced because it depended on how many doses of the vaccine arrive in Malta. By the first week, only 1,400 people had been inoculated. 

“We have the capacity to give up to 10,000 doses a day, we have the logistics in place. But that isn’t the amount that’s arriving, and from those that do arrive, we also save the second dose to be given to the patient some three weeks later”, he was quoted as saying.

This has also completely pushed back the timeframes for each age group and now we are told that it will take until the beginning of summer to achieve herd immunity. If Fearne had just said so, and acknowledged that maybe he was too hasty with his pronouncements and overly optimistic predictions, I’m sure eventually all would have been forgiven.  A little humility can go a long way. What the electorate hates most of all, however, is being lied to or deceived, especially in such a situation. 

For someone like Transport Minister Ian Borg, however, deception is too mild a word. It is only thanks to the tireless work of environmental NGOs and activists that we are learning what he is really up to.  To put it briefly, none of it is really related to the huge billboards he keeps spending taxpayers’ money on to tell us that Infrastructure Malta is building “better roads for you”.  Just ask the farmers in Qormi/Mrieħel whose land is being snatched away from them, as vividly described by columnist Wayne Flask in his latest piece: “All those who had the misfortune of visiting IM’s headquarters in search of information about their own property will tell you stories of wanton arrogance, with executives using petty COVID-related excuses to avoid meetings and a barrage of diversionary parley. In one instance, a resident asked the reason for the proposed flyover. An IM architect bumbled a few statements before letting go of the fact that “there are the towers now…”

The plans to build a flyover also tried to drag the Bicycle Advocacy Group ‘Rota’ into the fray by using cycling lanes as a pretext.  The group issued a statement saying that “… it has unfortunately become clear that Infrastructure Malta is only using cycling infrastructure as a pretext to take up more land for road widening without considering the needs of the users for this infrastructure.  As the image below shows, there is enough space to create safe cycling infrastructure without taking up additional land.” 

Inevitably, when such big projects are involved which go expressly against the wishes of the general public, the question is, who is making money out of it?  As pointed out by activist and op-ed columnist Claire Bonello: “Infrastructure Malta is quite partial to the direct orders procedure with more than €9 million in direct orders to various road builders being dished out during the first six months of this year alone, giving rise to questions about state aid and preferential treatment.”

We’re in a new year and it really is more of the same, and it will continue to be the same unless more people join the fight to save Malta’s precious agricultural land. For, one day you might wake up and it will be the area you live in which Ian Borg has set his sights on next.

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