This column first appeared in Malta Today
There comes a point in a crisis when you have to stop wasting precious, valuable time finger-pointing and laying blame, while everything around you is falling apart.
By now we all know what the mistakes were and who made them, although this being Malta, hell will freeze over before anyone resigns with their head held in shame. Meanwhile, we need leadership, and someone to take over the reins of the country again to make sure people don’t lose their heads and to curb the mounting panic. If the rumours are true, PM Robert Abela is off on a boat somewhere, perhaps contemplating the waves, and Julia Farrugia Portelli only pops up on her FB page to brag about some project or other, but is carefully avoiding the press.
It seems the only person who can bring some sanity to this chaotic situation is the Deputy PM and Health Minister Chris Fearne, and he now has a duty to do what the other two have abysmally failed to do. The problem is that it might be a case of too little, too late. In fact, when he announced during an interview on TVM’s Ras imb’ Ras on Wednesday that “some” passengers may be tested from “certain” high risk countries, the most frequent sardonic comment was “about time!”.
According to what was stated in the interview, “Over the coming days the Health Authorities will make it obligatory that passengers arriving from certain countries or cities considered to be high-risk Covid areas will have to present certificates that in the last 48 hours before arrival they tested Covid negative. Those who do not present a certificate will have to undergo a swab test and if they refuse they will have to be quarantined.“
I realise that the logistics of this still need to be worked out, but I hope this is not one of those announcements meant to mollify an angry public to give the impression that, “something is going to be done” only for it to never materialise. I am not usually this cynical, but the mishandling of this whole thing since the airport was opened has seriously soured my expectations and the previous trust I had in the health authorities to do the right thing. The same holds true for the announcement regarding crowds and mass events.
Don’t forget that it was on 30 July that Chris Fearne and Charmaine Gauci held a press conference to solemnly announce the new restrictions on mass events (100 people max indoors, 300 people max outdoors, subject to size of venue; groups of people should number no more than ten). As usual, this did nothing to deter those it was targeted at. Every day since then, photos have been posted of crowds everywhere, including the pleasure boats ferrying people to and from Comino.
The legal notice only came into effect on 6 August and was then extended to bars, discos clubs on Thursday 13 August. In that two week timeframe the summer crowds at the most popular spots did not cease and in fact it almost felt like many were determined to have one last rebellious fling, to spite the authorities and frankly, everyone in their family who is high risk.
There is another aspect to these legal notices and press announcements which has to be mentioned: do we actually have the manpower to enforce all these regulations? The Malta Environmental Health Officers Association issued a press release to point this out: “With this second wave, our officers are also performing inspections till late night/early morning in establishments to ensure compliance with mitigation measures and wearing of masks, apart from checks on quarantined people…. We are once again urging the government to take immediate action such as banning of mass events, closure of clubs and bars and also hope that the mandatory swab tests on arrival to the incoming travellers is introduced as soon as possible. With this increase in cases, it is also evident that there is a need to increase human resources or improve work practices in several areas such as swabbing and contact tracing as the backlog is evident. There is also definitely a need to ease our Officers who are now feeling the stress of long hours of work for all these months.”
It goes without saying that unless there are enough officials with the authority to enforce even something as basic as wearing a mask, there will be the inevitable confrontations in public places. Those who are high risk become understandably agitated at seeing the callous indifference being exhibited by some, and yet expecting members of the public to “police” each other is asking for trouble. This is also the case inside public entities such as the post office where I have heard anecdotes of elderly people stubbornly quarrelling with personnel because they don’t want to wear a mask, “don’t nag me, you sound like my wife” and “oh so what? we all have to die some day!” are just some of the common phrases I’ve heard.
Whatever numbers next week will bring, it is going to be extremely difficult to convince those who adamantly refuse to comply with any new restrictions. It was already difficult when we were in semi-lockdown, but now that they have had a taste of their previous ‘freedom’, it is going to be even more of an uphill struggle. Even as the statistics multiply before our eyes, I honestly do not know what it will take to make people grasp the swiftness with which this virus spreads through close proximity with someone who is infected, without the protection of a mask. Every one of us surely has an elderly relative or someone they know who falls in the high risk category – it is disheartening to think they simply don’t care.
It is this selfish individualism which has brought not just Malta, but practically every country around the world, to the state it is in. Those who are high risk because of their age or medical condition are once again being asked to stay in, watching life from behind their windows, while everyone else lives it up. Would it have been so utterly tragic to socialise in small groups instead, so that summer could be enjoyed equally by all?
What if there had been one common policy for travel?
According to a story in the Guardian on Thursday, “Dozens of holidaymakers have been barred from boarding flights from the UK to Greece because of confusing red tape caused by the coronavirus….In July the Greek government announced that all passengers must submit a personal locator form. Some travellers claim that their airline did not inform them of the new requirements or that minor form-filling errors cost them their holiday.”
As each country went about doing things their own way, drawing up their own entry requirements, confusion has reined. Prospective travellers have had to be on their toes checking the constantly changing regulations to where they were headed (and what would greet them when they got back). You could be having a perfectly nice holiday in a place considered safe, only to find out that you will be have to go into quarantine on your return because cases have spiked, as has happened to British holiday makers who are in Malta right now. Meanwhile, half a million British tourists in France were scrambling to get back home before the quarantine rule came into effect at 4am on Saturday, causing even more chaos at the borders.
But where has the EU been in all this travel mayhem? At one point the Union was urging all of Europe to open up airports and ports for tourism, pointing out that it was essential for every country’s economy, but since it was putting so much pressure on its member states shouldn’t it have also gone one step further and come up with one cohesive policy? There should have been one form which would have been the same no matter where you were going and there should have been consensus on mandatory swab tests as well. If you wanted or needed to travel so badly this summer, then you will have needed to get tested beforehand, no matter your destination.
We all know that one of Malta’s major mistakes was not requiring any swab test at all from incoming passengers, but a decision like that should never have been left to a country’s discretion. It would have meant a level playing field as well, rather than allowing countries to risk their nation’s health (and paradoxically, their economy) like Malta has, in a twisted version of Russian roulette which has only ended up spectacularly backfiring. As it is, because our Tourism Minister thought we could bring in more tourists by not imposing the need for any test at all, we moved from the green list to the red list faster than a traffic light changes colours.