Above graph shows swab testing as at 7 April
This column first appeared in Malta Today
Too low, too flat, too much, too soon, too little, too late. In the years to come we will probably still be debating as to what could have been done better because, you know, suddenly everyone is a WHO expert on pandemics.
Constructive criticism is necessary, of course, and so is scrutiny when the Government gets it completely wrong with such decisions as allowing hunting and construction. The latter decision was particularly heartless because residents’ rights are inexistent. How can the same authorities repeatedly tell us to “stay home” when for some people their home is a prison surrounded by infernal noise from daybreak till dusk? I defy anyone to remain indoors with that kind of incessant racket and not be driven round the bend. And how can you go on your roof to get some much needed Vitamin D with cranes looming precariously overhead, dust everywhere and workmen preventing you from having any sort of privacy? Yet, next to nothing has been done about this problem and residents’ complaints about noise pollution have fallen on deaf ears.
Another bone of contention is that the restrictive measures should have been clearly spelled out and not left to interpretation. There should be no grey areas or vague instructions. For example, what is the point of not allowing hairdressers to open their salons, only for them to be going to clients’ homes instead because it is not technically ‘illegal’? Perhaps the Government has not wanted to appear too heavy-handed but (just like the recommendation for households not to mix) these directives have been based on the assumption that people will be responsible and will do the right thing for the common good. But human nature being what it is, you will invariably find those who will try to wriggle out of rules, find a loophole and defy authority – much to the understandable anger and sense of injustice felt by those who are doing things by the book. This is no time for ambiguity and if we don’t want this state of uncertainty to drag on forever, the directives need to be more clear-cut and if necessary, yes, there should be fines.
I’m glad the endless bickering over whether one can exercise outside has been finally addressed, although again, I think it should have been clearly stated from the beginning that one should exercise alone, and to avoid peak times in order to stay away from others with the same idea. You really cannot leave it up to people’s common sense it seems. The minute you give people any kind of leeway you will find groups gathering to do their training sessions.
For the most part, however, the way our health authorities have handled the Covid-19 crisis has been quite good. If it hadn’t been, I’m sure that the stats we have at this point, six weeks down the line, would have been much worse and we would have faced a real lockdown long ago. It is for this reason that I have found the constant nitpicking very wearying. It veers from those who are still advocating for a full-blown lockdown to those who want the measures to be lifted sooner rather than later. You can read the pros and cons of all these arguments all over social media so I am not about to get into them here.
What I have noticed though, when I compare and contrast Malta’s trajectory with that of other countries, is that on the whole the majority went along with the directives right away. This could also explain the relatively low numbers to date and why the pandemic is being contained. Now for a country which is not exactly renowned for its discipline, that is saying something. I’ve been mulling over this for a while, and I think part of the reason for this is that Italy’s experience stunned us so much we were terrified into submission. Let us not forget that we not only have an affinity with our neighbours because we are so geographically close, but also because culturally and temperamentally, we have a lot in common. We love the food, we travel to Italy constantly and Italians who have come to live here are easily absorbed into our social fabric. Anyone over 40 who grew up watching Italian TV, probably also still watches Italian news and they were certainly glued to it as the pandemic swept through the peninsula. Let us not discount the impact on the psyche of Maltese viewers as they watched with horror while the situation took a turn for the worst in the first week of March in a country which is right next door to us.
I think that, more than anything else, was helpful in ensuring compliance. In fact, I clearly remember walking down to Mosta square in the second week of March and noticing that half of the shops had already decided not to open, before any such directives had been issued (that directive came on 23 March). The insistence by the doctors’ union to ban incoming flights from Northern Italy started as early as 3 March (the directive banning all flights to and from Italy was announced on 9 March). On 11 March, four more countries were included in the travel ban and the final banning of all flights came into effect on 21 March by which time the public’s demand for this measure was practically unanimous.
The same pressure from the public could also be detected in the decision to close the schools – this directive came into effect on 13 March but I had been seeing loud demands for this measure long before that. Mass events were similarly cancelled early on, and from what I could see, most people understood that this was a necessity (we would later learn that a Champions League match in Milan on 19 February and the Women’s Day protest in Madrid on 8 March were directly responsible for the out-of-control spread of the virus in these two regions).
Interestingly, Portugal which has not seen the kind of numbers experienced by Spain, sounds similar to our own lessons learnt from Italy. As reported by Euronews, according to an advisor to the health chief, “Portugal had benefited from being behind Madrid in terms of the virus’ spread. This…had given the country time to get hospitals ready and increase capacity in intensive care units.
It could be argued that the Maltese Government was taking its time and reacting rather than being pro-active, by implementing measures in a staggered fashion rather than in one fell swoop, but as things stand to date, this approach seems to be working. This ultimately is the litmus test after all, and it is what I have been interested in when reading about the approaches taken by other countries. Leaving aside the truly irresponsible attitudes of such leaders as Trump and Boris, most countries have taken a measured approach which balances the need to safeguard public health with the economic repercussions.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister has been particularly praised for her decisiveness by going into Level 4 (complete lockdown) at an early stage, and for her ability to patiently explain to her citizens what each measure actually means. Last week Jacinda Ardern gave New Zealanders some hope that there is an end in sight by announcing that they could possibly go back to a less strict, Level 3 alert.
Sweden has taken a more relaxed, outside of the box approach, with very few restrictions. The different cultural norms have a lot to do with this: many people live alone, few live with their elderly parents and closing primary schools is impossible because everyone works. However, what this means in real terms is not very good news for the elderly. According to an article which appeared in the Swedish daily paper Aftonbladet, entitled “Decision support for doctors responsible for decisions to provide or withdraw intensive care”, it basically says that if you are over 80 or have chronic conditions from the age of 60 and older, you will not be given priority to be in the ICU (the article was translated for me by one of my readers).
Other countries like Germany and Switzerland are also talking about relaxing their restrictions, and this could be the reason why our own Health Minister announced on Thursday that Malta, too, might be able to lift some of the directives in the coming weeks. Predictably, this was met by a mixed reaction, with some thinking it’s too soon, while others thinking it’s not enough. Whatever the decision, one thing we can count on is that someone will not be happy, especially if one industry is allowed to open and another is not.