The Malta Independent 8 April 2020, Wednesday

Love in the time of Corona

Mark A. Sammut Sunday, 22 March 2020, 11:00 Last update: about 17 days ago

Do you remember Schindler’s List and similar stories of people who helped the Jews escape the crazy and horrifying hunts during the Second World War? Despite regime propaganda that the superior Aryan race had to decimate the other, inferior races, and similar pseudo-science, many individual Germans decided to help the Jews (the foreign “Other”). Ultimately solidarity runs very deep in human nature and no amount of ideology that appeals to selfish instincts can topple the inner regime of human values.


In this time of Coronavirus, I can’t help but think of the solidarity shown to the more vulnerable. At the forefront, needless to say, are the doctors and all medical and paramedical professionals, including nurses, pharmacists, and all the others who have been rightly hailed as heroes. From the very first doctor in China who lost his life because of his involvement in the saga, to all the doctors and professionals who are not only going the proverbial extra mile but also risking their health and lives. Being a health-care professional is a vocation: these people deserve our utmost, unstinted respect and gratitude.

It seems that many landlords too have answered to the call for solidarity in a clear instance of humanity and humaneness.

There are other examples of solidarity. One hopes to keep seeing more of them as time goes by and stress levels rise. We surely don’t want to see the realisation of dystopian novels and films like Children of Man, if you remember that unusual movie from 2006. It’s not so much the plot which interests me here, but the lingering portrait the movie leaves behind... the question of how to spend one’s time productively during a crisis like the current one. The sense of being lost, of having been robbed of even the glimpse of a purpose, of living like the survivor of a shipwreck on an improvised raft wafting on a current-less sea can bring people to confront the most difficult existential questions, and to despair.

In a sense, the current crisis could herald a time of “living dead” – people who have to self-isolate, to live outside the community though living in physical proximity to each other.

From a certain angle, this would be the incarnation of the Neoliberal ideal: individuals should be detached from one another (one would say, “atomised” – like free-flowing atoms), free from family or community ties to follow and satisfy the needs of the free market. Indeed, the Coronavirus crisis prompts us to ask fundamental questions about our economic model, and its social and human implications.

Which brings me to the Minister for the Economy and his “unfortunate” remark. Unlike his counterparts elsewhere (e.g. Luxembourg), the Maltese Minister declared that (pogrom-like?) third-country nationals would be kicked out of the country! But he was right! It was an unfortunate remark – unfortunate for us all! We are unfortunate to have a minister who cannot calibrate his words and the implied message they convey. Whereas crises need solidarity (a manifestation of love), the minister spewed a message that negates love in the crudest way possible.

I’m all for patriotism and all that (I want the use of the Maltese language, the fostering of Maltese cultivated thought, the protection of Maltese industry, etc), but patriotism does not mean being inhuman toward other peoples! Patriotism is, in my understanding, a balancing act between belonging to your local homeland while also belonging to the planetary homeland. Or rather, belonging to the planetary homeland through your belonging to your local homeland.

Patriotism is not inward-looking, but outward-looking. It is the global network of countries that depend on each other. By making your country better, you enable it to respond adequately in its relationships with other countries. Take dysfunctional countries: they are a burden not just to themselves, but to the international community as well. Patriotism is like living in a neighbourhood: if all your neighbours take care of their home, then all will benefit. If some or all of your neighbours couldn’t care less, their behaviour will negatively affect your living conditions.

Patriotism is the opposite of Neoliberal thought, for which the inter-country network is only economic and lacks any human aspect. For Neoliberal thought, the economy comes before humanity.

In a sense, the Economy Minister was (wittingly or unwittingly) following Muscat’s doctrine without, however, Muscat’s magician-like ability to say one thing and making it sound like something else. This was Muscat’s greatest talent. I think somebody referred to it by quoting Dickens: the “Artful Dodger”.

Yes, the evil that Muscat did lives on. It will take a lot of effort by those parts of the political spectrum that believe in Christian Democracy to undo the damage.


The victims

To my mind, the Coronavirus’s biggest victims will be two: the private sector and Robert Abela’s administration.

The private sector is crying out to the Government for real help. The Government has a moral duty to help the private sector – not just toward the sector itself, but toward society as a whole. The economic devastation that will follow the current crisis has to be averted, as the human cost could be enormous.

French President Macron and British Prime Minister Johnson have both used the word “war” when referring to the current situation. I think they are right.

But I am not sure that the Abela administration fully understands the implications of the current crisis. If it did, it would take more adequate measures to help the private sector.

If the private sector comes crumbling down, the Abela Administration – characterless and wishy-washy even in normal times – will come crumbling down with it.

Ultimately, the victim will be the entire population.


Being “at war”

Though the term was used in the context of the current Corona crisis, “war” is a word on which we would do better to stop and ponder. I might be wrong, but I strongly believe that Malta was, and possibly still is, “at war” with her partners on account of the passport scheme and other high-risk economic gambles taken when Muscat was in power.

Shrewdly, Muscat understood that the Neoliberal ideology has two limbs: it allows freedom of enterprise (freedom from state intervention, that is – a revival of the unbridled economic liberalism of the nineteenth century), while allowing (if not even encouraging) freedom of behaviour (“civil rights”; in this it differs from the conservative 19th century).

As Muscat understood he was playing with fire with his passport scheme and other daredevil stratagems, he counterbalanced by pushing radical “civil rights” innovations. His efforts were rewarded with two medals that mark the beginning and the end of his time in power: the Soldier Award for supporting gay rights (2013) and Man of the Year in Organized Crime and Corruption (2019).

Muscat was constantly busy with gun-laying, calculating firing data and applying it to the sights. That his heart wasn’t in it, but it was all a political game, was as clear as daylight. You might remember his Xarabank interview when he declared himself against same-sex marriage, and then, a short while later, he “read a book” and changed his mind. Muscat used the LGBTI population as an insurance policy, to cover his backside in his reckless passport scheme and other high-risk activities.

But it wasn’t just Muscat firing his guns on the enemy - the enemy responded in kind. On the one hand, the “enemy” appreciated the progressive-liberal policies pushed and enacted by Muscat; but on the other, Malta’s economic “guerrilla warfare” didn’t go down well with certain quarters.

Malta was already “at war” with enemies from “without”, because of Muscat’s irresponsible administration. Now, the Corona virus has opened a new front: Malta is “at war” again, this time besieged from within.

It is clear to me that the Corona pandemic will ravage the country. Given the uncertainties of the moment, not just on the national but also on the regional scale, the risks are extraordinarily high.


My Personal Library (90)

Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera (original, 1985) is the story of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza who fall in love in their youth and live their love secretly. Fermina’s father discovers the liaison and forces her to terminate the relationship. When she refuses, he moves the family to another city but the two lovers continue their relationship, at a distance, until they finally meet again and Fermina discovers that Florentino is for her but a stranger, and she breaks off the engagement.

Fermina then meets Dr Juvenal Urbino, a national hero who pushes for progress and modernisation, mostly the eradication of cholera. Fermina and Urbino eventually marry.

However, Florentino swears eternal faithfulness and that he’ll wait for her forever; but he falls victim to his promiscuity, whereas Fermina and Urbino grow old together and experience happy and unhappy years and all that marriage entails. In his old age, Urbino dies when he falls off a ladder, and Florentino approaches Fermina during the funeral service to tell her of his eternal fidelity and everlasting love. Though she’s unsure at first, Fermina decides to give it a try, and they attempt to live together. She eventually recognises Florentino’s wisdom and maturity, and their love finally blossoms during their old age.

The book closes with an image that unfailingly gives me goose pimples. Florentino asks Fermina to accompany him on a river voyage; she accepts and they finally make love. But when the ship reaches its last port, Fermina sees people she knows and worries that if they see her with Florentino, a scandal would ensue. Florentino orders the Captain to raise the yellow flag of cholera, and the captain obliges. All passengers disembark except for Fermina, Florentino, the Captain, and his lover. As no port will allow them to dock because of the supposed cholera outbreak aboard, they are all forever exiled to cruise the river.

You might also wish to (re-)read Joseph F. Grima’s translation of Joseph Micallef’s Il-Pesta tal-1676 – 11,300 mewta (original, 1983). It is a highly-informative, well-researched, and well-translated book about the Plague of 1676. The book ends with the words the parish priest of Ħal Tarxien added to the registration of the burial of the last plague victim in his parish: “Finis, cessavit et numquam redierit” – “The end, it is over and may it never return”. We all look forward to repeating the priest’s words soon.

You might also wish to read (hopefully not re-read!) Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1925), for some insight into the obdurate fixation to cleanse the dirty organism of the people of foreign bodies: in Germany’s early-twentieth-century case, the Jews. I must admit that I started reading it ten years ago but had to give up half-way through as the obsessive anti-Semitism was too revolting to stomach.

  • don't miss