Sunday 29 November 2020

No, Covid does not have to steal Christmas

This column first appeared in Malta Today

I have seen too many posts lamenting that “Christmas is cancelled” and predicting all sorts of doom and gloom scenarios and scenes straight out of Charles Dickens with everyone going around muttering “Bah Humbug!” 

I don’t get it though. 

Why should the need to be a bit more careful, by keeping our traditional Sunday lunch to a limited number and not mingling in crowds mean that this special occasion has to be banished from our calendars?  Unlike the grinch, the virus does not have to steal Christmas as long as we adjust our expectations.

I realise that a lot of this is coming from the fact that many cannot imagine Christmas without inviting the entire clan over. In Maltese we have the saying, ir -razza u r-radika, whichliterally means the whole race and family tree. But surely, for just this once, we can all stick to our nuclear family and households (which means the people who live with you) rather than exposing those who are high risk to possible contagion?  It does not mean we cannot decorate our homes, cook the usual Christmas fare, exchange presents and wish each other well.  It just has to be done in small doses, rather than indulging in meals which last for four hours with 30 people seated around the table in a closed room with no ventilation.  The latter, in this Covid-19 year, is a recipe for disaster as we can see from the daily stats where the spread of the virus between members of the same extended family continues to be persistently high.   

After all, we are not exactly a country which spends many months without seeing any of our relatives as happens in large countries where people pack their bags and “go home for Christmas” travelling miles by car or train, or even taking a plane to go back to their family home.  Here, quite a number of families meet up every Sunday for lunch, and on a daily basis, daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, pop into each other’s homes all the time, especially if there is child-minding involved.  It is not uncommon for everyone from the same family to live very close by in the same town/village. Summers are spent at the beach together, or at a Gozo farmhouse or other weekend getaways.  So when the Health Minister came out with his statement for us to “forget Christmas gatherings at home” and the predictable outcry ensued, I’m afraid it made me rather exasperated.   

It is clear that many have learned nothing from these surreal months we have lived through and why a large number of people indoors in close proximity for a long period of time is not wise.  He was obviously not saying that we should leave our elderly parents (or anyone) on their own to eat a meagre turkey leg and a sad Christmas mince pie in front of the TV. What he was discouraging was large gatherings a’ la Maltija.  Is this so impossible to contemplate in the interest of protecting each other’s health?  I am sure we can get creative and figure out ways to make sure we can still meet up in small numbers, ensuring that those at risk are kept safe, while also not abandoning anyone by leaving them alone. 

And if that is not the true meaning of Christmas, I don’t know what is.

So how will this work exactly?

‘Christmas in the City’ is an initiative to get people back to visiting Valletta again, which was announced with much fanfare by the Tourism Minister and met with sheer disbelief by a public which has watched the number of deaths multiply before their eyes. Remember the shock when the first person died?  Well, this past week 3 and 4 people have been dying daily so we can be forgiven for wondering whether those who came up with this initiative are living in the same country.  

Decorations and Christmas lights are one thing, but the programme also includes a number of activities. Although I was assured that only small to medium-sized events were going to be organised, this still poses the problem of enforcement.  How exactly are crowds going to be controlled, and how is everyone going to maintain social distance, especially when free parking is being offered on public holidays?  

Abigail Mamo (CEO at the Malta Chamber of SMEs) also played down the impression that there would be large events. “There will be minor activities like choirs singing and small street performances that will add to the Christmas spirit together with the decorations. These should be held in different areas of Valletta to avoid concentration.”

Again, my question is, how is this going to work exactly? How do you disperse crowds if they are all flocking in to shop when there is free parking and are gathering around street performances? Let us not forget that this will also coincide with the re-opening of bars, and other places which can serve alcohol. 

I realise that the Valletta business community (like all other small businesses all over the island) has been dealt a harsh blow, along with performers, actors and musicians who make their living from their art. But the mixed messages from the Government on the one hand, and the health authorities on the other has now become simply unacceptable. It is all very well for some to say, “you don’t have to go if you don’t feel safe.”  If it were that easy then there would be no discussion (and probably no pandemic either). The issue has always been that if one person in your family or a colleague decides to go to crowded places where the spread is more likely, then they are potentially exposing you as well.  

With Covid-19 your fate quite literally rests in the hands of others: have they done a swab test, have they been honest with the contact tracing team? Will they quarantine until their test result clears them or will they just keep living their life, not caring that they might be infecting others in the meantime?  Because of the considerable backlog, test results are taking much longer than they were initially, and this has created even more problems for employers and employees, with the former finding themselves short of staff and the latter not wanting to risk losing their job.  Some workplaces have been reasonable and flexible, and allowed teleworking, but others have not. Never has other people’s behaviour so heavily impacted the lives of others and never have we been at the mercy of something we have absolutely no control of.  

This virus has really shown us who we really are when (small) sacrifices are required; I cannot imagine how many would have coped had we been in a war.

The never-ending lockdown debate

Many are once again calling for a short, sharp lockdown and while I realise this will ease the pressure on the health care professionals who are overwhelmed, won’t the cases just spike again once we re-open everything? Seems to me we will just have a deja vu of what happened in July.  In fact, I have a similar dread about what will happen when the bars re-open again, because my feeling is that there will be complete anarchy. I also wonder how many are buying alcohol and simply having house parties to circumvent the closure of bars. 

Also, apart from the threat to people’s livelihoods, if a lockdown is implemented the way it has been in other countries, that would mean no visiting each other at all, no socialising with your extended family and no house parties, so be careful what you wish for.   

I recently saw a poster telling the PM that the blood of all those who have died is on his hands. It’s true that he keeps sending mixed messages and was too optimistic that it’s “over”, but Robert Abela is not forcing people at gunpoint to meet up with family and friends even though they see the numbers spiking.  We all have free will. We all have vulnerable, high risk people in our families. So unless they pass a law where the Police can interfere with what happens in private homes (and I can just imagine the outrage that would cause), we have reached a point where we have to take ownership of our decisions.

Having said that, Abela is still not showing enough proper leadership. Now that we have hopefully seen the last of Trump, I wish our PM would act more like President-elect Joe Biden. One of Biden’s first decisions was to appoint a coronavirus advisory board and an updated strategy that researchers say follows the science. According to one report, “Once Biden and Harris are in office, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be in charge of announcing recommendations for when it is safe to open or close restaurants, schools and businesses, according to the updated plan.”

Our own PM needs to take a leaf out of Biden’s respect for science and go back to listening to the health experts. For while Prof Gauci has continued to be the official face for Covid pronouncements, I think she needs to take back the control she had at the beginning of all this. We cannot have her telling us to avoid crowds while the Government launches something like Christmas in the City, which will only draw the crowds. 

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