Tuesday 26 May 2020

Testing the waters of the new normal

This article first appeared on Malta Today (Sunday edition)

The pressure to start relaxing the measures imposed because of Covid-19 has been mounting and was turned up a notch over the last week.

It was clear that ‘the natives were getting restless’ as the saying goes, because on Thursday one FB page called Malta Daily (whose administrators are a mystery) quoted an ‘inside source’ that on May 4th, hairdressers, among other outlets, will be allowed to re-open.

Alerted to this rumour which swiftly swept through the grapevine, the authorities must have taken action because within an hour the post had been taken down.

As it turned out, some shops are indeed opening but not hairdressers, beauty parlours, nail technicians or anything else remotely intended to making us all look presentable again.  The reason is pretty obvious: all these services are difficult to provide while maintaining social distance, although I have seen one enterprising owner who has already put a solution in place for getting your nails done. It has been a difficult time for those who are high maintenance, but the answer was definitely not trying to worm your way around the loophole and asking your hairdresser to come to your home instead, just because no mention of this was made in the legal notice. Is having perfect hair really worth the risk of spreading the virus? 

For shopaholics and, of course, for those with small businesses and their staff, Workers’ Day lived up to its name and turned out to be a day of good news for those itching to get back to work.  As from Monday, certain non-essential outlets will once again be open, with all of us wearing masks to go shopping, which will take some getting used to. Some were quick to point out that it is also conveniently just in time to get some commerce going for Mothers’ Day.  To be honest though, if it were not Mother’s Day, it would have been something else, and if there was no occasion I am sure we would have invented one, like  “Let’s shop just because we can” Day.  

Friday’s press conference was met by the now predictable, mixed reactions. Some people welcomed it, saying it was about time, others were dismayed, thinking it’s too soon, while still others could only focus on what Abela got wrong.  His suit was too tight, he was snappy when asked about the immigrants and his buoyant, positive attitude was at odds with Fearne’s more reserved, cautious approach.   All three observations probably have some ring of truth to them, especially the first one. But hey, who hasn’t been over-indulging with the stress of waiting for Charmaine’s update each day and wondering how long this weird suspension of time will last? As for the immigrants, Abela needs to learn how to remain cool and collected under pressure, and take a leaf out of Prof Gauci’s book who has deftly and charmingly learned how to wiggle out of repetitive questions by smiling and saying, “I’ve already answered that one”. 

The third point is something which many have remarked on, and was brought home by the demeanour of the two men. Abela was exuding optimism and hope in his address to the nation, while Fearne looked tired and somber, while continuing to admonish the public that restrictions might have to be reinstated should the number of infected cases increase.  Obviously, we are not the only country trying to walk the delicate tightrope between protecting public health and opening up the economy for both financial and mental health reasons. There are cautionary tales to be learned all around us from other Governments which have lifted measures too soon. It is apparent that Fearne and Abela have not been quite on the same page about when to open up. In fact, up until the day before, Fearne was only speaking about resuming some health services and then waiting a week or two before opening up the non-essential shops.  

What was happening behind the scenes, we can only imagine, as this transition strategy was being hammered out. Compromises had to be made and there must have been a lot of give and take in order to strike the right balance.  However, I cannot help but feel that there is an obsession from some quarters to pit the PM and Deputy PM against each other.  It also seems to me that if Fearne had been the one to announce the relaxation of measures, the same people who slammed Abela, would be applauding instead.  Almost every day I read a comment that Fearne would have made a better Prime Minister which is, frankly, a moot point.  Personally, I think a good PM is only as good as the people around him, and that despite their differences (which I am sure exist), so far it seems the Abela-Fearne tandem make a good, complementary team. 

Meanwhile, with the re-opening of retail shops we are entering into a new type of normal, and the most urgent measure which needs to be taken in hand is the mandatory wearing of masks to enter all outlets. 

Masks should be distributed through local councils or through pharmacies at a fixed rate or preferably, for free, otherwise we will have the usual greedy opportunists trying to profit off something which is in great demand. The last thing we need is for some bright spark to start bulk buying and charging exorbitant rates.  Hoarding by those who are selfish should also be prevented, so there needs to be a certain amount distributed per household. Dr Fearne made a good point when he said that those retail outlets which provide free masks for their customers will have a competitive edge over their competitors, but that this is obviously in their discretion.  He also said that the authorities would be carefully watching out for any speculation and abuse, especially since manufacturers have assured him that there is an adequate supply of masks.  

Other relaxation of measures seem to have been taken in haste, such as the opening of the Court Registry. According to those in the legal profession, no consultation was carried out about how this was going to work exactly, and there is no plan in hand on how they are to maintain social distancing and ensure everyone’s health is protected.  

Whether or not the decision to lift restrictions on so many enterprises at one go (including health care services) was a good idea or not is something we will know within a week or so when the statistics emerge.  Those who have been relentlessly clamouring for a fixed date for an “exit strategy” have got what they wanted, those accusing the Government that it had no plan at all or that it was being too secretive should, hopefully, calm down.  On the other end of the spectrum are those who are understandably worried that we may have suddenly sabotaged all the good work which has been done so far. 

The way I see it, the decision to re-open so many shops and services on Monday was a calculated risk, meant to pacify those who were chomping at the bit to get things moving again while still trying to enforce the measures of social distancing and hygiene which have become our way of life.  There is also another aspect to this decision. We have to be realistic and admit that some measures had to be lifted soon, because the restlessness was growing big time and the more restless people become, the less disciplined they will be. Keeping restrictions in place for too long might have ended up being counter-productive, as we were already seeing with people blatantly flouting the rules, holding house parties and mixing households despite repeated requests not to.  Following the announcement, I could already sense that the despondency caused by lockdown fatigue had been lifted because people had something to look forward to (even though ours was actually only a partial lockdown).

And while it is important to keep tabs on what others are doing, straightforward comparisons with other countries can be misleading because lifting of restrictions is all relative, since many countries were on complete lockdown. So for New Zealand, for example, their transition to Level 3 means that people will now be able to travel to work, spend more time outside and order takeaway food. Schools will open next week.

Spain, which was one of the hardest hit countries, and which had one of the strictest lockdowns, last week allowed children under 14 to finally go out of the house for an hour each day.  From Monday, some small businesses will be allowed to open, and individual outdoor sports activities will be permitted.

In Italy, one of the most devastated countries in Europe, manufacturing and construction sectors will restart on Monday but retail shops will not open until later on in May.

France will lift lockdown measures on May 11, with schools gradually reopening followed by cafes, restaurants and bars.

In Germany, small shops were allowed to open much earlier, on 20 April, however as infections and the R.O. factor started rising again, critics warned the Government that it had re-opened too soon.  All eyes are on Germany in fact, to assess whether it will be hit by a second wave. 

The common factor, no matter what nationality we are, is that this new normal means that we are still testing the waters, we need to keep our distance from each other and wear masks.  We also share the common knowledge that our ability to move about more freely can be restricted once again overnight should public health in our respective countries become at risk again. 

As Prof Gauci tells us with a smile, every single day, ultimately, it really is all up to us. 

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