This column first appeared in Malta Today
In an ideal world, Malta would not have to depend so much on tourism. But a tiny island with less than half a million people and which has no natural resources cannot suddenly decide that tourism is not important for the livelihood of the thousands of people who are employed in so many directly or indirectly related industries.
So, whether we did it now, in September or at the beginning of winter, I do hope people realise that the re-opening of the airport was inevitable and we were going to have to take the plunge at some point. Would the date when we re-open have made any difference to the pessimism which accompanies every daily update? I doubt it. Even when we had four days in a row with 0 cases the gloomy comments came right on cue, “now you will see”, “just you wait!”, “we’ll be infested with the virus when the airport opens” and so on. On Friday, with one case reported which was imported (i.e. it came from someone who had arrived in the country), it was like some kind of vindication for the naysayers who crowed that they were right.
Meanwhile, as it turns out, the person who tested positive was reportedly on a repatriation flight from Amsterdam – so what are we saying, that we do not even want residents to come back to the island now? I think we need to take a deep breath, assume the Lotus position, and tune into some Zen music so that everyone will calm down.
Of course, this does not mean we should go to the other extreme and act like it’s all behind us (just because the PM said so), because that is equally irresponsible. Now that the 1 July opening of 20 destinations has come and gone, the date which is making everyone jittery is 15 July, mostly because flights from the UK will start again. In this case (and from any other high risk countries), I agree that as a precautionary measure, all passengers should have a swab test result showing they have tested negative, which can be linked to, say, their ticket or boarding card.
Let’s face it, the UK has not exactly been a shining light in the way it has handled the pandemic. Like the US, bad leadership and a general disregard for science has put them up shit creek without a paddle. This misguided, arrogant attitude trickled down to the populace, especially to those under 40, who do not have the same kind of respect for rules and self-discipline for which the British have always been renowned. There also seems to be a prevailing resentment against any form of authority and an individualistic streak which rebels at having personal liberties curtailed. The result? Inevitably, certain areas have seen renewed outbreaks and are going back into lockdown.
The UK now officially has the highest rate of infections in Europe. This has not fazed our Tourism Minister, Julia Farrugia Portelli, who was interviewed by a BBC news programme about opening up the UK routes. Ironically, while she was all smiles and soothing reassurances, the British news anchors seemed to be more concerned about sending their (potentially infected) tourists over to us than she was. They were genuinely baffled as to why a country which was practically virus-free would even WANT to open its airport to such a risk and Julia’s insistence that Malta is extremely safe only served to (understandably) baffle them even more. For a brief moment I imagined one of the newscasters was going to throw themselves in front of the monitor and beseech her, “don’t do it, for the love of God, nooooo!”
(Let us leave aside all the snide remarks about the Tourism Minister’s painfully stilted accent, because it is what it is, and she cannot help it if English is not her first language. If PN supporters who tore her accent to shreds are so desperate to have a Minister who can speak in a posh accent, they better get busy and ensure their party wins an election. Also don’t hate me for saying this but…to native English speakers, all foreign accents sound the same).
In fact, Julia’s accent was the least of the problem. What was more troubling was her skirting around the issue and inability (or refusal) to give a direct answer to the important questions. Apart from taking their temperatures, what other protocols are in place for incoming passengers? And if a tourist falls ill at a hotel, what happens? Vague replies about mechanisms just do not cut it, so either she was not well-briefed by her advisors or else she thought she could just breeze through it by turning it into a timely promotional advert for the island.
For example, one point which she should have picked up on immediately was when the newscaster told her that taking the temperature of a passenger only gives you a reading of a specific moment in time. To which she could have easily replied, this is true, but then again so does a swab test. After all, you could test negative before your flight, hop on a plane, and come down with symptoms as soon as you check into your hotel. Like a good Boy Scout, politicians who agree to be interviewed must always be prepared, and this is even more the case with the international press who are not interested in doing a fluff piece to make you look good. She should have had all this info at her fingertips, or at the very least she should have been paying more attention to Charmaine Gauci over the last few months.
Apart from that uninspiring interview, however, we really need to come to terms that the airport has to open. We cannot board ourselves up forever when so many businesses earn their income from the fact that we are a tourist destination. Opening up means that there will be an inevitable increase in positive cases, because Malta is not special so those who keep predicting this are not saying anything particularly earth-shattering. But just think back to March when everything started closing. Remember how forlorn we felt at the idea of never being allowed to go anywhere again? Remember how bleak the future seemed? Well, that phase passed, and while many scoffed at Julia when she said, “we will have a summer”, she was, in fact, correct because we are currently able to do the things which seemed beyond our grasp as recently as May.
We can only continue to do these things, however, if we stop being so pig-headed about the basic guidelines which have been repeated ad nauseum and which we should be able to recite in our sleep by now. Tell me, what is the big deal about wearing a mask in indoor spaces and keeping your distance from others? My mask protects you, your mask protects me, and it will allow us to keep enjoying life – and this, of course, also applies to tourists. This is why I feel that telling people that, “masks are recommended but not obligatory” has defeated the whole purpose of trying to stop the spread, because once you give people an opt-out clause, you’ve had it. By keeping them obligatory it will give all those who are high-risk a chance to feel that they are part of the community again, rather than being made to feel like invalid outcasts, who must be banished from sight.
Personally, I would rather have the small inconvenience of wearing the occasional mask when required than being forced to go into lockdown again. Keeping a social distance has not been a problem for me either, because it suits my “don’t stand so close to me” personality anyway. It has been such a relief to queue and not have people breathing down my neck and I vote for those floor stickers to remain in place forever. And really, should basic hygiene be such an effort? Praise the Lord that people have learned how to wash their hands after using the bathroom and before their meals. I trust everyone has learned why you should not be sending your children to school when they are sick (irrespective of Covid-19) and that adults sneezing and coughing without covering their mouths is, quite simply, gross.
I have no crystal ball, of course, so I cannot say what is going to happen. What I do know is that we have an excellent healthcare infrastructure in place to cope if we have a surge in cases, and enough experience of how to contain any potential outbreak. The bottom line is that, as much as we may all be trying to help the local economy by being tourists in our own country, it is simply not enough. As much as we dine out, go to Gozo, take weekend breaks in hotels and shop till we drop at shopping malls, our population has its limitations. The reality which is already staring us in the face are the grim economic repercussions if some form of tourism does not get going again.
I just hope we are not going to freak out every time we spot a tourist, for all the world as if they were zombies coming back from the dead to eat us alive.