Sunday 09 August 2020

The choice between living with the virus and living in fear

This column first appeared in Malta Today

I’m writing this just after reading a headline that the lifting of more restrictions will be announced within the next few days, including the possibility of ‘safe travel corridors’ with selected countries.  As usual, there have been equal doses of horrified dismay and welcome relief. Meanwhile the rumour mill is on overdrive as to what else will be allowed to open and the accusations, as well as the jumping to conclusions, are already flying back and forth. 

Whether things are now moving too quickly or not I am not qualified to say, although I do feel that decisions regarding the way forward definitely needed to be made. When and what to open is the dilemma all Governments are having to face, as they assess the risks, adjust their time frames and take stock of how each measure is affecting the country.  Whatever measures are relaxed, however, must be communicated with clear guidelines because the ambiguity circulating lately has caused unnecessary confusion with people simply taking matters into their own hands.  Is it a recommendation or is it enforceable by law? Are there any fines or not? What is allowed/not allowed as each measure is lifted? It is crucial that such questions do not remain hanging in mid-air because the public is now close to the edge, and without precise clarity, more and more will simply ignore all advice and do whatever they like.  While in an ideal world people would obey directives for the greater good rather than because it is illegal not to, perhaps we are expecting too much.  And it’s useless for the health authorities to preach about social distancing if politicians do not adhere to the rule themselves as I saw from footage of a Parliamentary inquiry meeting this week. 

There also must be no more age discrimination because a whole demographic is now looking down the barrels of a very bleak future, which is in danger of spiralling into an extremely serious mental health issue.  

However, rather than in indulging in mere speculation of what is to come, let us look at what we already know.  To date, because of its timely public health strategy, Malta has been spared the horrific scenes experienced by other countries. And while the lifting of some restrictions on 4 May coincided with the number of cases going up, we have to be careful about making a direct correlation between the two because the increased positive cases could also be as a result of a certain laxness in general.  

For some reason, allowing non-essential shops to open was weirdly translated in some people’s minds as “woohoo, let’s party!” with many flocking to each other’s houses as a result.  And the lifting of travel to Gozo was similarly “translated” as, “let’s rent a farmhouse and invite the whole extended family and friends over for Mother’s Day”.  Erm no, actually, no one ever said that such socialising was now being allowed. 

After experiencing what this pandemic means for so many weeks, you would think that by now, the public would have understood how the virus is actually transmitted and why we still need social distancing and why mixing households is so very risky.  Instead, many curtain twitchers and Facebook police seem to be absolutely obsessed with those who are out and about, when from every scientific analysis I have read it is clear to me that the real danger is people who are in very close proximity, especially indoors, for several hours at a time.  Try keeping a two metre distance from someone when you visit their home, while remembering not to touch any surfaces (and preferably not having anything to eat or drink) and you will realise how virtually impossible it is. Now multiply that by all the other people they have been in contact with and whom you will be in contact with, and you can practically visualise the way a contagion can spread. 

Similarly, why should seeing people driving around in their cars cause others to have a meltdown when the best social bubble ever invented is precisely one’s private car?  Being outdoors, in of itself, is also not risky, as long as one seeks out isolated places.  On the other hand, I am not going on the Sliema front for my walk when all I read about each day is that the place is packed with people walking and jogging…and to those lamenting about this state of affairs I simply say, so why go there yourself? It’s the same with those always complaining about people’s failure to maintain social distance or to wear a mask at large chain supermarkets such as Lidl and Pama; if that is the case, why keep going there?  

I find it is pretty self-defeating to complain when you keep putting yourself in a situation where rules are not being enforced.  Retail shops have their orders, and customers by now should know what they should or should not do, so the only thing we have control over is our own behaviour.  Rushing to post about it on FB will not make those who are pigheaded and ignoring the directives change their ways (if they don’t give two hoots about the directives they are hardly going to care that you posted about it on FB, and they are probably not even reading it anyway).  This was the case from the beginning and will continue to be the case as we learn how to tentatively make our way back into a semblance of how we used to live. 

Ultimately, it is obvious that we need to find a way to live with this virus, because the alternative is to live in a state of constant fear which is not only not feasible, but which could also be as detrimental to our health as the virus itself. How we choose to live this new reality will also boil down to every individual’s assessment of the risks, and this goes as much for those in older age groups, those who suffer from other medical conditions, as well as those who are younger. If, as has been stated, the vaccine won’t be available for a while (anything between 6 -18 months) we cannot by any stretch of the imagination expect everything to remain as it is,  even though ours has been a comparatively mild lockdown.  

If our hospitals were brimming with acutely ill patients which, thankfully, they are not, it would be a different story, but as things stand, the questions beg themselves. Can we let children remain without formal schooling indefinitely?  Are we going to tell grandparents that they can never meet their grandchildren ever again? Can people who have lost their jobs hang on forever? Are we supposed to remain in suspended animation waiting for…for what, exactly? I am not quite sure.  What I find hypocritical is that some of the very same people who were demanding that measures should be lifted are the same ones now slamming the Government for lifting the measures.  I wish they would decide what they want.  

Of course, the worry which comes with lifting restrictions is real, and has been reported throughout the countries which were on complete total lockdown. Many residents were afraid to go out, even though they are now allowed to do so, and their anxiety levels are still understandably high (here we are speaking of countries with tens of thousands of deaths like Spain and France).  I would not be surprised if in Malta too we will be facing aggravated mental issues involving a fear of germs, fear of going out, and fear of anyone who comes too close.  Ironically, it is the 65+ who have been the most careful of all, who are now at risk of being the victims of their own prudence because they have obeyed the directives a bit too well and are now afraid to leave their homes.  

We are opening the door to normal life gradually, and with each movement of that door, we wait, holding our breath, praying that we will not lose everything we have gained so far.   But whether we open up now or in a few more weeks, the fact remains that living in perpetual fear is no way to live either 

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