Saturday 02 July 2022

Public pressure to do the right thing is what will save our summer

This column first appeared in Malta Today

On 17 July, we were patting ourselves on the back for having gone for eight straight days with 0 new cases while the total number of active cases had been whittled down to 3. That was a mere two weeks ago, but it already feels like much longer.

While it was a relief to have had a brief respite from constant Covid-related news, the downside was that people had already become very complacent. Masks were optional, social distancing had become an afterthought and everyone was in full summer mode, busy meeting up with friends and attending as many parties and events as possible.

Today, those who are sensible are just as busy cancelling plans and putting everything on hold yet again.  Anyone with two brain cells has understood that it is simply not worth the risk, because there are too many unknown variables when it comes to meeting up with a large group of people.

The clusters from just two events, the pool party at the Radisson Blu and the Santa Venera festa street party have not only affected those who have tested positive and their families, but has had a ripple effect on a number of workplaces which have had to quarantine their staff.  While for some industries this may just be a minor inconvenience, in the case of the 6 doctors and 30 nurses who have reportedly been forced into quarantine, that means a further depletion of resources in our crucial health care industry.  It is not just Mater Dei and health clinics though: one must realise that if there is just one person who tests positive in any other vital sector of the country, you’ve had it, because it could mean shutting down an entire department.  

If we are very lucky we just might be able to contain this new outbreak which has led to a spike in cases, mostly because common sense has made most of us highly aware of the inevitable repercussions if we don’t.  By now we all know the drill and many have reverted to their previous cautious behaviour. And while everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the press conference by Health Minister Chris Fearne and Supt of Public Health Charmaine Gauci was announced, by the end of it, the public mood had turned ugly again. 

It seems it was relatively easy to clamp down firmly on band clubs and the Church to cancel all their external festivities for their respective patron saints. The Big Four however, namely the businessmen behind the four major musical festivals scheduled for August/September, were a harder nut to crack.  Expecting them to adhere to the new measures of 1 person for every 4 metres squared was met with derisive laughter. Expecting them to carry out a risk assessment of the event and submit it to the MTA, while the health authorities shifted the onus of responsibility on the organisers and the venue owners was greeted with even more scepticism.  Let’s be honest: it is hard to say the words ‘enforcement’ and ‘Malta’ in the same sentence and still keep a straight face. 

For once, however, a strange occurrence took over this nation. The public did not wait for any leader to tell them what to do or what to think. As people watched aghast as the number of cases shot up, reaching 150 (85 of whom are immigrants who were immediately quarantined as soon as they disembarked) the impossible happened. Everyone joined forces, irrespective of their politics, and loudly made their voices heard that these massive music festivals had to be cancelled. Faced by the dreaded possibility of going back into lockdown and of children not being able to return to school, but most of all faced by the real threat to public health, the majority objected to the appalling lack of judgement shown by Tourism Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli who, through the MTA website, was blithely promoting these events which would fly in thousands of party revellers with absolutely no swab testing required.

When doctors and nurses quite rightly put their foot down and threatened to strike if the music festivals were not cancelled, the public backed them up 100%.  Every medical and professional association came out foursquare against these festivals which were being advertised with a complete lack of irony as “three days of madness”.

One festival, ‘Escape 2 the island’, actually had a promotional video which started with the words “Malta saves the summer” for all the world as if the only way one can enjoy summer is by spending three days in a drunken, or perhaps drug-induced, haze.  A petition demanding that these mass events be banned quickly obtained over 15k signatures, so in truth, it is these people who objected vociferously all over social media who have probably saved the summer, and possibly even a few lives.   

As the virus started spreading again, so did the clamour and outrage.  If a pool party with some 300 people and a village feast with a few hundreds managed to create such a spike, what would be the result of 9000 party-goers coming mostly from the UK (which is also experiencing a spike)?  Yes, you read that right, 9k –  and that was just for one of the festivals. The MTA has denied that any part of its €4.5 million sponsorship schemes have gone towards these events,  but politicians have a way of playing around with words in order to wriggle out of honest answers:  “there was no sponsorship involved in the events mentioned so far …” the Tourism Minister was quoted as saying. I’m sorry, but those two words “so far” immediately set alarm bells ringing. 

When the news broke that the four music festivals had been cancelled, I immediately checked their respective FB pages to make sure it was not just talk, and they all carried the same exact statement announcing the cancellations, “after close conversations with our partners at the Malta Tourism Authority”.   I don’t know about you, but for me, the connotation of the word ‘partners’ is that there is some kind of business partnership or arrangement.

If the MTA still has loads of cash to spend, why doesn’t it allocate some to our local entertainment industry which has been dealt such a harsh blow? There are so many ways they could support home-grown talent, by organising concerts with the right social distancing on the beach or village squares for example, which can cater to the tastes of various age groups who like different genres and who want to enjoy summer as well.   With our weather there could be small to medium-sized concerts every night for the rest of the season in different parts of the island, to avoid too much crowding. We need to stop trying to make everything mega and huge and massive, because in the time of Corona, that is exactly what you don’t want. Keep it small, keep it safe, and keep it local so people can walk there and avoid contributing to more traffic. The musicians will be happy as long as you pay them well (there seems to be enough money), and the public will be happy with some diversified entertainment. 

There are so many ways to promote what Malta has to offer in the way of tourism from culture, to sports, to diving to discovering hidden gems, but it requires a bit of thought and creativity not the easy panacea of three day music festivals to fill hotels for a weekend with thousands of people simply to keep party promoters happy. 

It is truly ironic that by trying to inject Malta with an influx of tourists in this way, it has not only boomeranged badly, but it has left the island now struggling to restore the “safe destination” label which Julia Farrugia Portelli was gushing about not too long ago on the BBC.   The inability to think long-term even in economic terms is mind-boggling, and the complete disregard towards public health is quite breathtaking.  These quick fixes are never going to work because everyone, from politicians to businessmen, have to accept the unpalatable fact that it will take a while to recover the financial losses caused by the pandemic and that they will need to get used to it. 

We spent many long years never having these massive parties on the island, so I’m pretty sure we can survive without them for now.  In the meantime their time would be better spent trying to repair the damage caused to our tourism by promoting Malta as the next Ibiza, at probably the worst time in history to do so. 

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