This column first appeared in Malta Today
*after this was written, the spring hunting season was allowed to open
On Tuesday it will be exactly one month since the first Covid-19 case surfaced in Malta.
Since then, our lives have settled down into a predictable routine and pattern with almost frightening ease. Was there really actually a time when we socialised without giving it a second’s thought? When people were out and about the whole day long, commuting to and from work, doing the school run, ferrying children to their various activities, taking part in our own sports and finally arriving home with a thump after a long day? Or did we dream the whole thing up?
This weird reality has quickly separated the country into different types of people. Those who are self-disciplined by nature adjusted quickly. We obey the directives, listen faithfully to Charmaine every day at lunchtime, and follow what is happening not only locally but worldwide, while trying to maintain a semblance of normality to our disrupted lives.
Others have switched off completely – they just don’t want to know, they don’t follow the news and they go around pretty much as they did before, much to the anger of those who are staying home, as requested..
Another group is desperately trying to survive. As economies world-wide crash all around us, here we have had our own mini crash (but which is mammoth in its implications for Malta). Although the sectors of those who qualify for Government assistance has been widened to include more people, each day we hear of another profession or industry which has been inexplicably left out.The resentment is understandable because everyone has been touched by this one way or another. We’re in the middle of a chain reaction and when one industry dries up, the domino-like effect is inevitable.
Let’s just take all those who work in advertising and PR; a very large industry which includes many small start-ups financed by those who ventured out on their own. Up until this virus hit, things were going well for everyone, but as soon as all events started being cancelled that meant no more need for adverts. Now just think of the spillover effect which that has into other areas, not least of which is my sector, independent journalism, because advertising is what keeps newspapers and news portals functioning. As several editors have pointed out, this crisis might very well prove to be the death knell of an industry which was already on shaky ground. The Fourth Estate is at risk and what that could mean for democracy, the access to information, the public’s right to know and maintaining scrutiny on those in power, is unthinkable. Many other professions have a similar story to tell.
The one industry most of us were hoping would be reined in but which has continued unabated is the untouchable construction sector. This, at a time when more people are working from home and/or are being forced to stay indoors, which means they cannot get away from the relentless pounding, hammering, drilling and digging, even if they wanted to. It is unconscionable that construction has continued to ruin people’s quality of life even during a public health crisis. Five local councils have now joined forces and asked the Government to limit works to the hours from 8.30pm – 1pm which is quite a reasonable request.
If it wants to gain some respect, the Government should at least carry out the required inspections of all construction sites to ensure they are abiding by building regulations; if a site is found to be in breach of the law, it should be immediately shut down. With the property market facing a downturn, there’s never been a better time to make developers toe the line.
There have also been too many U-turns to pander to various lobby groups such as car importers. So far everyone has maintained their cool, giving the Government the benefit of the doubt, but you can already start feeling a certain restlessness and edginess as each week melts into the next.
This is why it is imperative for the authorities to be fair and just when it comes to their (partial) lockdown decisions because tempers are already fraught and it will only take one last straw to tip someone over the edge, like the driving instructor who angrily confronted Prof Gauci this week. There can be no preferential treatment, no discrimination and no exceptions which make no sense. Despite a few hiccups and mis-steps, on the whole Abela and Fearne have proven to be a good team, steering the country well at an unprecedented time in its history. But this last week they have sent too many mixed messages and there is the risk that all the goodwill they have built up since this all began will be wiped clean if they fail to step up to their leadership roles when it really matters.
We are extremely fortunate that to date, the public health strategy led by the unflappable Prof Gauci and her team has been on point and the containment of the spread seems to be working. When one compares the amount of swab testing per capita to other countries, Malta has excelled.
However, all this will be demolished with one fell swoop if the decision is taken to allow the *spring hunting season to open (let alone the derogation to hunt for quail and turtle doves). This is not about whether one agrees with hunting or not, but the principle of the whole thing. Apart from not having enough manpower to chase after hunters and make sure they are abiding by the law, you really cannot continue to expect everyone else to sit at home while hunters are given a free pass. Many of us have given up our favourite hobbies, and everyone has made some sacrifice, whether it is health professionals living apart from their loved ones or elderly relatives not being allowed to visit with their grandchildren. If hunters are allowed to have their way, it would be just too galling for words and a nation-wide rebellion, with everyone refusing to stay home, will be difficult to control.
But perhaps there is a way to engage hunters in a meaningful way so that they can contribute to society in areas which are sorely needed, such as delivering groceries to those who cannot leave the house? I realise it might not be as thrilling as shooting a bird, but never under-estimate how good it feels to help others in need and they will come out looking like heroes in the public eye. Incidentally, that is also an option for car driving instructors to earn an income.
Of all the types of people which this blessed virus has really exposed however, the ones on my black list are those who have figured out a way to exploit the situation and profit from it. You know who you are: those of you who are spiking up prices on basic necessities and goods which are in high demand, everything from groceries to paracetamol and hand wipes. Then there are the taxi companies delivering food, a few of which have also jacked up their rates. Really, at a time like this? I hope you feel good about yourself as you tally up how much you have earned every night while there are those who are worried sick at the pit of their stomach because no money is coming in.
As the days roll by and we wonder how long this surreal way of life can be sustained, what we need to take care of the most, apart from our physical health, is definitely our mental health. Being cooped up inside for too long can do strange things to the mind; being forced to live at close quarters even with family members whom we usually get along with, can make us become snappy and irritable. Some have had to make a lot of cutbacks because of their diminished income and everyone is worried about the uncertain future. If we knew there was a cut-off point it might make things easier, but there isn’t one. We all need to find ways to cope, each in our own way, with different things working for different people …from my timeline, it seems that baking bread and dreaming up delicious, home-made meals is providing one of the most soothing comforts.
Above all, however, this is a time for leaders to lead. Stop pushing the amiable face of Prof Gauci to the front lines to deal with the difficult questions. Although she has been invested with more powers according to the Public Health Act, it is cowardly for the Prime Minister, the Deputy Minister, and the entire Cabinet to hide behind her composed, smiling face because they know everyone loves her.
Step up to the plate and take the difficult decisions, no matter how unpopular. I assure you the majority in this country will thank you.