Pictured above, Malta’s deserted airport (photo credit: Rita Nehls)
*as of Monday 16th March, this number has now risen to 21
As we await further news, it is important to take stock in this defining moment and determine what kind of nation we are; what kind of nation we should strive to be.
The precautionary measures taken so far are being stepped up every day: closing of schools and churches, banning flights from five countries, mandatory quarantine of passengers arriving from any country (punishable by high fines and in the case of TCNs, possible deportation), discouraging people from attending mass events, banning visits to old people’s homes and strict restrictions of hospital visiting hours. At the time of writing, there has not yet been any announcement of an official lockdown and many feel that the current piecemeal approach taken by the Government is risky because there is a window of opportunity which is fast closing .
The data from China shows that what is known as “flattening the curve’, which is the containment of the spread of the virus from person to person through social distancing is the best way forward. The curve simply stands for the number of people who catch the virus and develop COVID-19, the disease. The first curve is a sharp, steeply rising one, while the second is a smooth low curve. The first shoots up to peak well above a dotted line representing healthcare system capacity, or the number of cases the healthcare system is equipped to undertake. The second peaks below this line.
For this to be achieved, it would mean a complete closing of borders (except for cargo), but that’s not all. It would mean only allowing people to go out for work and for essential errands, in other words, staying at home as much as possible. It will be a sudden, sharp shock to the country, and everyone has to co-operate but many believe it is the only way to give our health care resources a breathing space and prevent the system from breaking down. Those on the frontline, namely our doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals are bearing the brunt of this pandemic and their health is of utmost importance. And let us not forget they are not just dealing with this virus, but with other already existing health problems among our population.
Until a lockdown is announced, however it is heartening to see that so many people are taking matters into their own hands and being responsible. Most theatrical productions, sporting events, exhibits and concerts have been cancelled. Many offices have offered their employees the choice to work from home, something which is to be applauded. Other places of business are encouraging their clients to contact them by email or phone rather than visit personally. I have seen restaurants and cafes becoming very creative in the way they advertise their venues, to ensure public safety through social distancing without having to close their doors. Many taxi companies are urging those who use their services to avoid booking a cab if they are sick, and to observe hygiene, while assuring the public that their cabs are being regularly sanitised. All this is highly commendable and vital at this point.
I think what has happened to our neighbours in Italy has shaken many to the core and the realisation has sunk in that, “there but for the grace of God, go I.” It can easily happen: we are a densely populated island, we travel continuously as do many of those who have come to live here, while tourism is one of the backbones of our economy. At the time of writing there are 12* known infected cases of people who were abroad, but no local transmissions as yet. This is crucial because this means the spread has been contained and manageable…so far.
By the way, Prof Charmaine Gauci deserves a medal for her calm, measured, professional handling of the daily briefings.
And yet selfish behaviour continues with raids on the supermarkets and people spending hundreds of Euros in one fell swoop while not leaving enough for others. Apart from making a dent in their own pockets to stock up their pantry and freezer, what are they achieving? Imports are not being affected by the closing of airports and creating an artificial shortage of basic goods will only affect those who cannot afford to stockpile so lavishly. Imagine a pensioner going to the shops and not finding anything to buy. Are you proud of yourself now? There is also the issue of risky overcrowding. All the loud parental demands to close schools were useless if you are taking your children to a crowded supermarket anyway.
Travel is another example of the thoughtlessness which is still prevailing. Anyone who even thinks about travelling right now needs to consider their priorities and ask themselves whether it is really worth the risk (here I am talking about vacations and not travelling out of necessity). Flight restrictions are being announced and changing daily and many are stranded abroad and stranded here. Yes, cancelling travel plans means losing a lot of money, but financial losses are being suffered across the board: weddings are being postponed and other events have also taken a financial hit. However, no price tag can be attached to our health and anyone coming from another country could be a potential carrier without knowing it.
This is a time when how it affects “me” has to be replaced by how my behaviour is affecting others, in a scenario where it could literally be a matter of life or death for some. To this end, we also need to focus on ways in which people are rediscovering their ability to be compassionate. Such as the list circulating on an ex-pat group of various towns and villages and a contact person who is willing to help out with groceries for those in self-quarantine – a thoughtful, touching gesture if there ever was one.
Everyone can do their bit, such as landlords who should bear in mind that low-income tenants may be struggling financially right now and may not be able to meet the rent on time (come on, show us that you have a heart!).
The Government also needs to consider measures to alleviate the inevitable hardship this health emergency will create for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. The PM has mentioned that talks will take place but it would be nice to hear something concrete being announced, especially regarding quarantine leave, parents who need to take time off with children off school and so on. There are single parent families who may not be able to afford not going to work, and those who have no family in Malta and have no support system in place to take care of their children now that child care centres have been closed. There are also elderly people living alone who have no one checking up on them. With each new measure, we must bear in mind that it is always those who are on the edge of poverty who are at risk and now is the time for entire communities to reach out.
My thoughts also go out to those who are sharing a flat with a number of others. How will the whole household manage to get through two weeks of quarantine if one of them has just come back from overseas, without any income coming in? There are many people living from paycheque to paycheque.
There are also people who suffer from severe anxiety or OCD and I cannot begin to imagine how this whole situation is affecting them. They over-think and worry obsessively at the best of times, let alone in such a strange, eerie scenario which feels like we have stepped inside an Apocalypse movie. Family and friends need to look out for these people too at this moment.
But I also believe that human nature is incredibly resilient. Although there are those who see it as making light of a grave situation, I firmly believe in humour as an important coping mechanism, which is why I share funny memes. It is not because I’m not taking it seriously, it is because I believe our mental health needs an escape from doom and gloom in order to avoid slipping into depression or hysterical panic. People like the talented comedian Ray Calleja are a perfect example of how one can keep their spirits up. Finding himself in self-quarantine he has created a hilarious Facebook diary which combines his daily recipes, snippets from his home life with the quirks of working from home, while relaying the advice being given by the Health Directorate. He is a breath of fresh air, he makes me laugh and it is a much-needed tonic.
But perhaps the most beautiful, emotional thing I have seen lately is a video of an area in Naples, where everyone is confined to their homes, singing a traditional Neapolitan song in unison from their windows and balconies. I have watched it countless times, it makes me smile, it makes me cry, and it fills me with an indescribable mixture of pathos, joy and admiration. It is an example of how the human spirit in adversity somehow finds a way to reach down and rediscover its soul.
I believe we can still manage to find that same kind of spirit within ourselves as well.