Saturday 31 October 2020

There’s no use trying to hide the information, because it will come out anyway

This column first appeared in Malta Today

As the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise, pointing fingers has become a futile exercise. The problem is that those who have been careful will be even more careful, those who were anxious will become even more anxious…and those who stopped caring long ago, will care even less. This is my observation based on what I see and hear around me.

Sure Robert Abela’s silly posturing and pompous bragging did not help, but really, how long can we keep on blaming the PM? Frankly from the behaviour I see, I think there are many people who are just fed up of hearing about the virus, they deliberately do not want to take precautions, and have decided to live their lives as usual, come what may. And this is not about partisan ‘sheep’ blindly swallowing whatever Abela says, because I have heard nonchalant remarks about the virus and sneering about the mitigating measures from all sorts of people, irrespective of how they vote. More and more are taking the prevalent attitude that, “whatever…che s’era’ s’era’ …we are all going to get it eventually, so why bother?” They have reached their Covid tolerance level and are now impatient to just got on with their lives. That’s it, they’ve had enough, they are SOOOO over it. Time to move on.

I also think this attitude is a reflection of our general inability as a nation to maintain the momentum of any new rule. There is always an eagerness at the beginning to do the right thing, but then it fizzles out, especially when we see others not following the rules. I have been looked at with something close to condescending pity for wearing a mask where I’m supposed to, even though in actual fact, my mask is there to protect others, not myself. But unless everyone wears one, consistently and regularly, the effect of the protective face covering is completely lost.

This blasé attitude stumps me. I have heard people speaking in shocked tones when we had over 100 cases in one day, only to turn around and be oblivious to social distancing with their close friends and members of their extended family who live in a different household. It’s like a brick wall has been built around some people’s consciousness even though the daily updates keep telling us how many became infected through family members. Penetrating through this obtuse wall feels like a gargantuan task.

In the face of this, what we need now is for the authorities to publish transparent information, preferably on a live, constantly updated website, where details about the daily cases are outlined, particularly with regard to their clusters and origin. New Zealand is one of many countries which has such a website, for those who care to take a look at it. At this point, it is only if the health authorities are immediately upfront about how the virus is spreading that they can get a handle on this pandemic. Unfortunately, the coy way they have chosen to go about it has forced people to rely on other sources, which come out first with the numbers, but often create unnecessary anxiety especially about the places of origin, such as old people’s homes, among those who are easily panicked.

It is no use trying to keep things under wraps, particularly not on a small island like Malta where everyone has a cousin or friend of a friend who works somewhere which has been affected. The more you try to stifle gossip the more it finds its way out and the less people will trust the health department. Trust in our institutions has already taken quite a beating anyway, but during a national health crisis, if we are unable to trust those who are supposed to be in charge of public health, we will be left to flounder for titbits of information from sources whose motives are dubious. Conversely, if the authorities had to communicate the facts more openly, the public would be able to make their decisions accordingly, armed with the proper knowledge, rather than everyone asking one another and relying on Chinese whispers which only conflate what is really happening. One such example is Skolasajf – how many cases were there, and how did they originate? With the re-opening of schools on the horizon, parents and teachers alike have a right to know and the authorities have a duty to tell them.

One good development, announced as I was writing this, is that the contract tracing app is being launched. It will not collect any user information but simply “let users know if they have been in close contact with someone who later tests positive for the virus.” Obviously it will only work among people who have downloaded the app and only if those who have tested positive input their anonymous code, but I believe it is a good way forward. Still, the app relies on people self-reporting and full co-operation, much in the same way that manual contact tracing does – however, if those who test positive continue to be reluctant about admitting where they have been, the virus will remain impossible to control.

If Ian Borg is not responsible, then who is?

While Covid-19 continued to wreak its havoc, the elements seemed to be in the same destructive mood with a tropical storm hitting the islands last week, giving us more heavy rainfall in two days than we have had for many months.

There were those who objected to holding Transport Minister Ian Borg accountable for the disastrous flooding throughout the country. “It’s not his fault!” screeched the “prosit, Ministru” brigade. But it cannot be acceptable for him to constantly claim to take the credit for every single rivet, nut and bolt, for every layer of asphalt and for every crook and cranny of Malta’s roads, but then try to downplay or shrug off any responsibility when things go wrong. The lack of foresight when it comes to infrastructural planning for when it rains has to be laid at his door. Who are we supposed to blame otherwise, the Tooth Fairy?

When he was questioned by Malta Today, he said he was ‘fine’ with the criticism on social media and went on to say, “There were certain issues that we have been aware of for years, such as the flooding in a road in Pembroke where no works have taken place so far. In some cases, water culverts were blocked by debris carried by the water. In other areas, road works were still underway [the roads beneath the Marsa flyovers] and so the systems aren’t yet functional. The cases vary,” he said.

If you are one of the people who got caught in gushing water, whose car was submerged, or whose home was flooded, then these comments by the Minister are just not good enough. If you cannot plan ahead for the annual September storm which hits the islands every year, then you should not be in charge of such a mammoth €700 million budget allocated to rebuild the country’s roads. Ordinary households manage to get everything in order every year, cleaning their drains from accumulated rubbish and waterproofing their roofs, so why can’t the Government cope with something so basic? Where is the infrastructure for when it rains heavily? Why don’t the new roads, covered by shiny new black tarmac, include culverts on the sides? Every year, right on cue, with unerring predictability, we are flooded, and each year it gets worse, not better, especially since chopping down trees and covering agricultural land with concrete, means there is nowhere for the water to go. Our money is literally being washed away into the sea, along with the precious water which should be collected for when there is a drought.

Most of all though, apart from the considerable damage, the most infuriating thing about the lack of accountability is that politicians keep getting away with it precisely because there are so many who are quick to jump to their defence.

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