Tuesday 26 May 2020

When we finally reboot, we should do things differently. But will we?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

There are a lot of motivational quotes doing the rounds right now about how this self-isolation because of Covid-19 is a chance to re-assess our priorities and change our lifestyles. All this enforced time at home, which is giving us too much time to think, means we are making all sorts of promises about how we will do things differently, “when this is all over”. We will meet up with our friends more. We will accept every social invitation under the sun. We will not work such long hours. We will make sure not to take our freedom for granted ever again.

On paper, this sound like a great plan. But, of course, there is the likelihood that following through with all these promises will not be that easy, because once we get back on that treadmill called ‘life’ again, the chances are that we will be lured back into our old rhythms. It also all depends on how the pandemic has affected us economically.

For those who have lost their jobs, their priority will be to try and recoup what they have lost, and for certain industries such as tourism, the future still looks bleak. Despite financial assistance from the Government, a drastic cut in their take home pay is the reality for a lot of people. They are having to re-learn how to budget, how to get by with less, how to tell their children “sorry, we cannot afford it” which was not the aspirational lifestyle so many were leading BC (before Covid).

For those whose job did not fall under any of the Government’s schemes, the situation will be even more dire – they will either have to re-invent themselves and go into a different line of work, or simply take anything that comes along. Speaking from personal experience, I assure you that when you are out of work, you will apply for any vacancy and stop being too choosy. Redundancy also forces you to take stock and realise your own potential, sometimes discovering abilities and resources you never knew you had. But as long as you are not afraid of hard work, you will get through it.

What I do think will happen is that there will be a renewed appreciation of how important it is to save for a rainy day. Too many people were simply spending everything they earned, relying on credit cards, and never thinking about tomorrow (I am, of course, not referring to those who are on minimum wage in which case saving is impossible). When the measures to close certain industries were announced and people were hit by the realisation that they would have no income for a few months, the panic was real. If we learn nothing from this crisis, at least I hope we learn that it is a bad idea to live from pay cheque to pay cheque or to assume (as so many did) that your extra income from a rental property will always be there.

If there is one thing I have learned in my life is that nothing is forever, you can never assume that your job will always be there, and you must always have a back-up contingency plan in the form of cash savings to last you for a few months, just in case. To those scoffing that this is impossible, may I remind you that previous generations always did it and it was precisely because they saved that they weathered many storms, especially with the large families many had back then. You can dine out less often, you can cut back on how many clothes you buy, you can drive a less fancy car. How to save and how to budget should be included in our educational curriculum, because the mentality of just living for the moment is the reason why so many families are suffering so much additional stress right now which could have been avoided.

When we reboot what will our economic model look like?

Muscat’s grandiose economic plan was working for six years…until it suddenly wasn’t. He kept telling us that we needed more and more foreign workers to sustain our economy because every industry was crying out for more employees, and so that there would be enough money for our pensions. And so they came, in droves and in thousands, from all over the world, including third country nationals.

But the minute this crisis hit, there came the horrific realisation that they too would have to be financially assisted. It soon became clear why there was such an eagerness by the Government to provide so many repatriation flights “for those who wish to go back to their own country”. Understandably, many grabbed the opportunity because frankly, in the fear which gripped the world in March, most preferred to go home to their families. But there was also another fear, sparked by a growing resentment towards ‘foreigners’; a resentment which has always been there but to which more fuel was added by the xenophobic talk of politicians. As they assessed the situation, I do not blame the many thousands of people (about 5,000 to date) who took a flight back home rather than stay in a country where they were not sure they would be treated equally. In fact many TCNs haven’t been, even those who were working legally, and I have been informed that they are not covered by the wage supplement benefit scheme, for reasons which are still not clear to me.

When this is all over, I wonder how Robert Abela will attempt to encourage foreign nationals to come and work here. What kind of spiel will he use? Because it is all well and good for him to have addressed the non-Maltese community in English with a carefully worded, politically correct speech about how we are all in this together. But the fact is, we aren’t, are we? Not really, not when it came to the crunch. The least we can do is to not be hypocrites.

It was also very disappointing to hear him say during the TV programme Xtra that it will be the construction industry which will keep the economic wheels turning. Leaving aside the clamouring noise, the risks to our homes and the effects on our mental health, how can more construction be justified at a time when people have less money to invest, and the property market (whether to buy or to rent) is over-saturated already? Who exactly needs all these empty properties? They will certainly not be filled by air b’ n’ b tourists or people relocating here looking for a long lease, until the airport and ports re-open. While those who work in this sector will be making money, it makes no sense to keep glutting the market with more empty towers. This is without mentioning the further destruction to our environment, even though on TV the PM described himself as an environmentalist.

Really? You could have fooled me.

When we reboot, will we be better people?

This week, I saw a disturbing video of a man who had lost his job, which went viral. He claimed his ex-wife was not letting him visit his son because he could not pay the alimony. The man was screaming in desperation and frustration, and it was not easy to watch. The GWU stepped in and found him a job, his lawyer helped to resolve the domestic issue and he received an outpouring of public support, for which he expressed his gratitude.

But the point is that no one should be driven to this point. Losing one’s job is a terrible ordeal and I believe for men it is a much harder blow because, sexist as it sounds, society still expects men to provide for their families. When he cannot do so, a man loses his sense of self-worth and feels like a massive failure. While women take the loss of a job badly as well, one cannot underestimate the emasculating effect that losing a job has on men, who can easily spiral into a deep depression. It is therefore not surprising that from information which emerged from a Parliamentary question, out of the 71 people who took their lives recently, 61 were men.

Fractured families have problems and experience stress at the best of times, let alone in this situation, so both parties need to set aside their egos, their pettiness and their desire for misplaced revenge if they really love their children.

If the image we like to project on Facebook through feel-good quotes is not translated into how we behave in our actual encounters with others, then all this talk about self-reflection and personal growth is really just that, talk. We would have rebooted …only to find ourselves falling back into our old, destructive patterns once again.

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