The Malta Independent 30 May 2020, Saturday

At the crossroads

Mark Josef Rapa Tuesday, 19 May 2020, 07:18 Last update: about 10 days ago

As health care systems across the globe struggle to cope and recover from the first wave of COVID-19, governments are looking for a breather. Measures that are no longer justified and proportional to the risk the community is in will have to be lifted. How one goes about this will inform the success of the government. 

For Public Health measures to be effective, external communication mustn't conflict with each other. The government and Public Health authorities, irrespective of the possible competing interests, must appear they are on the same page. If the general public receives mixed messages, the likelihood is that they will endorse the one which affects them the least. 

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A few weeks ago, Prof. Charmaine Gauci, the Superintendent of Public Health, said that wearing a mask in stores is mandatory Failure to do so is a contravention against Article 13 of the Public Health Act. In less than 24 hours, Prime Minister Robert Abela told the media that failure to wear a mask is not an offence. In fact, the legal notice which would have made the wearing of masks mandatory was never introduced. 

One must keep in mind that Abela's statement came out only a few hours after the Malta Chamber of Pharmacists imposed a directive on pharmacies not to sell masks.  The Economy Minister, Silvio Schembri, had the night before, put a cap on the price of disposable surgical face masks and visors. The Chamber of Pharmacists was never consulted. What happened next leaves a lot to be desired: the government, with our money – lest we forget – is paying the difference in price between the wholesale price and the price cap. VAT on these items was also reduced from 18% to 5%. Had the right people been involved in the discussion, negotiations could have gone in a different direction, saving the taxpayer money. 

The post-colonial top-down approach is ineffective, especially in a pandemic. Citizens must feel and know that what is in being done is in their best interest. The likelihood that they will cooperate is higher. Nevertheless, even if one engages with the right stakeholders, gets a good deal, but are ineffective at delivering the message, all the efforts would be in vain. The basic rule of effective communication is tone and timing. Long-winded speeches which in Malta always end up in political rhetoric are a waste of time. Granted, they work to keep monopolising a society which has never been encouraged to think and talk politics rationally. Being punctual wouldn't hurt either. 

The venue you choose to deliver the message has a role to play as well.  In the daily briefs, Prof. Gauci has a long table to sit behind and a tabletop microphone in a dull room. She is alone other than the tech people, sign language interpreter and members of her team. No monies, other than the essential, were spent. 

Unsurprisingly, this contrasts heavily with the financial aid press conference the Prime Minister gave. The news conference was held at the Excelsior Hotel at the cost of €250 per minute – €15,000 for an entire hour. One would think that at a time where everyone is counting their pennies, the government would be making better use of our shillings. Behind the Prime minister were several individuals who need not have been there at all. At the time of the conference as a society, we were only allowed to go out for essentials. Sitting behind the Prime Minister wearing an ill-fitting suit is not an essential activity. Also, some of them present were over 65 years and should not have been out of the house in the very first place. If there was an ideal time for theatrics and splurging of money, this was not it. 

Last weekend, we learnt that more measures will be lifted in the coming days. How we learnt about this would raise an eyebrow or two in Europe; Europe, the continent we believe we have a common heritage with. ONE, the Labour party owned media station, was once again chosen to make public announcements out from with no other media house briefed or invited to ask questions. Both doctors’ and nurses’ union have expressed their concern about the opening business and economies. The government has, as at the time of writing, not addressed the concerns of unions. 

We learnt how restaurants will be allowed to open, but not just. The Prime Minister himself gave owners the blessing to further encroach on public land, spread out their plastic tables and beverage-sponsored umbrellas and cater for as many patrons as possible. What about the rest of us who want to go for a stroll along the promenade we all own? What about the elderly, people with disabilities who need access to ramps, parents with young children and pushchairs? 

What happens in the next few weeks will make or break all the hard work Public Health authorities and each one of us has put in fighting this pandemic. Any friction between the government and Public Health will break the trust we have put in the capable hands of Prof. Gauci and any future measures that will need to be introduced.


Dr Mark Josef Rapa holds a Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Malta and Master of Laws degree in Health Care Ethics and Law from the University of Manchester. Mark Josef works as a Research Assistant at the School of Social Sciences at the University of Manchester.

 

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