Monday 19 April 2021

There’s always something new which is ripe for abuse

This column first appeared in Malta Today

As if development permits, lucrative positions of trust and a multitude of other things in Malta are not enough to present those who are so inclined with an opportunity to exploit and abuse the system, this pandemic has presented them with two more.

Vaccines, it seems, have become the new pjaċiri’ (political favours).  While some of those who should have received their jab by now (those with chronic conditions and those over 70) sit anxiously at home waiting for that precious letter, I keep hearing of too many cases where others who are young and healthy have been vaccinated ahead of them.  I can appreciate that the Government is depending on receiving adequate supplies of Pfizer for these two cohorts, and that it has tried not to waste any doses. I also agree that having a stand by list of people who can come at short notice is a good idea for when a vaccination centre has a number of no shows; but why should this list (apparently) be made up of Government office staff?  Or so I have heard, because I keep asking whether this is true, and I have yet to receive a proper answer.  

Knowing how Malta works, it would not surprise me if it’s true because what better way to keep people happy and shut them up from criticising the current administration than by allowing them to jump the queue to get vaccinated?

Surely, all those who have called the 145 helpline (when they finally get through) because they have been skipped over, and who have had their details taken down should be the first on that stand by list?  When this unfairness is pointed out, as usual you get those who twist themselves into a pretzel to justify it, one of the arguments being that it is better to vaccinate the young who are still in the workforce, rather than those who are staying at home to be safe.  But this kind of reasoning makes my head want to explode because it completely dismisses an entire demographic of people who have borne the brunt of this pandemic.  The implication is that their lives don’t matter enough to be given the utmost priority. For over a year, they have been isolated and deprived from living a complete life as part of society because they are terrified of becoming infected.  

Most of all, however, this reasoning fails (or does not want) to see that this is yet another classic example of injustice, and a form of corruption, where those with the right connections who know how to pull strings, can get whatever they want.  If we wanted further proof of this than nothing underlined it more than the news that construction workers who work with Bonnici brothers all got vaccinatd this week.  When asked about this the Health authorities have remained mum. In answer to a PQ on whether anyone who is not a frontliner or vulnerable has received the vaccine, the Minister of Health’s answer was infuriatingly evasive, stating that those who work in ‘essential services’ were among those inoculated.  Essential: a whole slew of jobs could fall under this term if we stretch its definition wide enough, but telling me that a construction worker is essential in this over-built up country, is reaching the point of absurdity.  

Meanwhile, every day, people on social media who are desperate to be vaccinated because they are high risk, voice their concerns in vain.  They have no clout, no political leverage, no powerful lobby or union to cause all hell to break loose and fight for them. They are ordinary, tax-paying citizens who honestly thought that when it comes to public health, there would be a modicum of fairness in the vaccination rollout.  

If vaccines have presented an opportunity for using Malta’s infamous network of ‘friends of friends’ (to quote Alfred Sant’s famous phrase), then the decision on who is allowed or not allowed to open has also become a cobweb of furious networkiing.  Out of the blue, a new legal notice told us that lotto booths and betting shops would be allowed to open (suddenly, it seems, gambling has also become an ‘essential service’). Questioned directly about this, Prof Charmaine Gauci said it’s because those who place bets go in and out and do not linger.  I am sure that was very comforting to all the hair salons, beauty parlours and other small businesses which have spent so much money to make their workplaces ultra safe, cutting down on the number of clients at one go, but who have been forced to close anyway. 

Of course, the public was not fooled and quickly pointed out that the gambling sector is a money earner for the Government. What continues to astonish me is that this administration expects people to just accept these decisions which are blatantly favouring certain sectors, without batting an eye. Do they take us for morons?

The most brazen attempt to circumvent the Health authorities’ directives, however, was definitely that by a Padel tennis club at Manoel Island which, despite the legal notice closing organised sports which every single other sports discipline and club promptly obeyed, and despite the Police going there several times, remained open anyway. They claimed they were within the law because it was not an organised sport. The information the Malta Tennis Federation had was that they had been given the go-ahead “by the authorities”.  I wrote to Prof Gauci, Minister Fearne and even the OPM, to find out where this permission had come from, but was met by a wall of silence. To his credit, a spokesman from the Ministry of Sport communicated with me several times, but even he could not understand how they were operating. The unfairness of the whole thing stuck in my craw; there was a fundamental principle at stake here which could not be ignored. Is the law the same for everyone or not? Why should the law-abiding always get the short end of the stick? Or are we simply laughable, pathetic fools for abiding by the law in the first place?

As it turns out, we will never know.  

Thanks to a combination of media and public pressure, the issue could no longer be ignored. On Wednesday, Prof Gauci announced that a new legal notice would allow a number of non-contact sports to be practiced. Surprise, surprise Padel tennis and tennis were among them.  Now, obviously I am pleased that I can practice my own sport again, but that does not erase what happened. We should not forget that there are those who have so much power in this country that the authorities were actually willing to reverse their own decision to impose a blanket ban on all sports, rather than admit what actually happened.  For, if the Padel club was truly within the law (and everyone else misunderstood it) the easiest thing for Prof Gauci would have been to say so, rather than go through the hassle of issuing a new legal notice, right? Frankly, the very fact that I never got any replies to my questions speaks volumes. 

More than anything else, this episode made me realise how important it is not to content ourselves with complaining behind the scenes. We cannot just roll over and play dead. If we just bow our heads in resignation at Malta’s injustices (even if they seem trivial) and admit defeat at the first hurdle, we are just accepting the status quo. I know people like to use the phrase, “well, that’s Malta for you” but this defeatist expression infuriates me even more. If we do not stand up for our rights for even something as minor as our favourite sport, then no wonder so many powerful lobby groups happily run roughshod over us on the more important issues.   And if we do not learn how to join forces to fight back against what is wrong, we will remain weak and undivided in the face of those who get whatever they want with a simple phone call. Because they can.

I know it sounds very 60s and hippyish to say, power to the people, but it is really as simple (and difficult as that). To use yet another cliche, there really is strength in numbers, and we need to keep making our voices heard, the louder the better, no matter what the issue.  

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