Monday 14 June 2021

Tell me, who do you trust?

This article first appeared in Malta Today

“Trust levels in any society tend to be reasonably accurate representations of how trustworthy that society has been. Trust is the ratio of the times someone has shown up for you versus the times somebody has betrayed you. Marginalised groups tend to be the most distrustful, for good reasons — they’ve been betrayed.

The other thing to say is that once it is established, distrust tends to accelerate. If you distrust the people around you because you think they have bad values or are out to hurt you, then you are going to be slow to reach out to solve common problems. Your problems will have a tendency to get worse, which seems to justify and then magnify your distrust. You have entered a distrust doom loop.”

The above two paragraphs could have easily been written about Malta but they are, in fact, an excerpt from an excellent op-ed column in The New York Times penned by David Brooks entitled “Our pathetic herd immunity failure”.  Brooks was analysing why the US is probably not going to achieve herd immunity because a large segment of the population is reluctant to take the vaccine, as its level of distrust is so high that it is no longer able to do something which is for the common good.

The rate of our own vaccine rollout seems to indicate that vaccine hesitancy is (thankfully) not as prevalent in our country, which is perhaps a reflection of the fact that despite so many things wrong with this country, our excellent health care system is something to be proud of, and hence there is a measure of trust that, “they know what they are doing”.  Even this administration’s harshest critics have been voicing how favourably impressed they are with the current sms/online booking system which has been a vast improvement from waiting around for that precious letter, as well as with the vaccination process itself.

A lot of this trust is undoubtedly due to the firm and reassuring leadership of Health Minister Chris Fearne and Prof Charmaine Gauci who, after losing complete control last year, seem to finally be back in the driving seat. And while there are certain inconsistencies in the re-opening plan and they are being unnecessarily cautious in some sectors which have been left until last, on the whole the mood of the country is one of relief that there IS a plan, and most people are on board. The common good, in terms of both our health and the economy, is something which we have learnt to truly appreciate over this last year and a half. If the country crashes and burns, we will all go down with it, and I would like to think that no sane, rational  person wants that. (Unless it would give them a grim satisfaction so they can blame the Labour Government, in which case there this no hope for people like that).

It is also probably safe to say that many are getting the jab for very selfish reasons. At the top of the list of individualistic reasons, is that a vaccine passport is going to be a very likely prerequisite if we want to be able to travel. I am not ashamed to say that, after the obvious priority of health concerns, for me this comes a close second.  After being cooped up on this island  for over a year, we are all going a bit stir crazy and cannot wait to board a plane to basically…anywhere.  

Of course another important reason is that I know that by being inoculated I am contributing towards achieving herd immunity so that we can perhaps one day live normally again. I realise that there are those who are afraid, and have opted to sit back and wait for others to achieve herd immunity for them, but if everyone thought like that we would be in the same situation the US finds itself in, as described above. 

If we leave aside the health sector, however, the reason I shared the excerpt from The New York Times column is because it seems to encapsulate the prevailing sense of general mistrust among the public, which is growing with every item of breaking news, and with every revelation. Sceptics have become more sceptical, the cynics have become more cynical, and those who were ready to give the benefit of the doubt, now no longer know whom to trust or indeed, whether there is anyone left who is trustworthy. 

We read that the Government has embarked on a massive clean-up campaign and has had a sudden urge to tow away abandoned vehicles, and the reaction, right on cue is, “Huh! You can tell an election is coming”.  The typical Maltese character is pretty good at smelling BS from a mile away, and this hasty sprucing up of a country which has been left to fall into such utter neglect only serves to elicit a sardonic snort.

The penchant for churning out statistics doesn’t impress much other. We are told that ,“72 tonnes of waste were collected in 3,500 bags from the 72 km of roads where cleaning has been done so far,” to which many drily responded, “mhux ovvja? if the country is only cleaned up properly once every five years!”  Some have also questioned whether this is just a superficial clean up for show, mostly of leaves rather than real rubbish, on the main roads which are the most visible. Cleaning and maintenance of a country should be an ongoing operation, and carried out so routinely and regularly that it is taken as a matter of course, and should not have to make the news.  And, inevitably, the headline that some 450 workers were deployed on the clean up campaign prompted the understandable remark:  “so, what have they been doing all this time?”

You see, we have to be able to trust that we elect a Government which keeps Malta clean because that is part of its job description, rather than some PR stunt which is rolled out when it’s politically expedient, or what is even more insulting, “because the tourists are coming”.  Gee, thanks a lot. It’s bad enough that the mandatory wearing of masks at the beach is only going to be lifted on 1 June, to coincide with the opening of tourism.  That’s a great way to make the local population feel like second class citizens.

But the lack of trust reaches its lowest rating when it comes to the environment; rather than making us feel better, the announcement of a new “embellishment” project immediately sends shivers down our spine as we brace ourselves for what comes next. We know, we just know, that they are going to screw things up and ruin the place forever, either to conveniently accommodate some businessman or else because we have people in these sensitive positions who are philistines (or a combination of both).

The sanitised plans for the Romeo Romano gardens are a case in point, made even worse by Minister Aaron Farrugia telling us that he is “giving us back” the gardens. Can we please stop with this patronising attitude? Much as you might like to think so, Malta is not yours to parcel out and give ‘back’ to the people.  With one voice, those who have frequented these gardens all their lives have told the Minister exactly what they think of his blueprints, which rather than just giving the gardens some TLC, look like they are set to take an area which is gloriously authentic in its natural state and transform it into more artificial, concrete blandness.  Worst of all, it looks like more trees are destined for the chop. Because, you know, that is how you embellish a garden; by removing existing mature trees.

Such is the level of mistrust in this sector that plans to put some benches and bins at the Majjistral Nature and History Park which is managed by an NGO, served to trigger more anxiety. Many simply do not believe that this is going to be just a low key, carefully planned picnic area in a previously neglected part of the park, as has been explained by the Heritage Parks Federation.  Like a traumatised victim of a violent attack, the public now jumps in startled fear at the mention of the word “project”.  It feels like a twisted version of that word association game, where “project” now just makes us immediately think, “destruction”.   

As with any relationship, once the trust has gone, gaining it back is often a long, rocky road which requires constant proof of goodwill. The only way this administration can ever hope to regain trust in the way it handles the environment is to actually listen to what the public is saying. In a few words, stop with all these fancy project ideas, make sure everywhere is well-maintained and clean and please just leave well enough alone.  

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