The Malta Independent 13 July 2020, Monday

Crisis decisions

Noel Grima Sunday, 24 May 2020, 08:58 Last update: about 3 months ago

Few of us would have had reason to visit the hospital especially A&E during these weeks of pandemic. But those who did were in for a surprise.

Gone are the crowds by those who seemed to make a day's outing of it. Gone are the foreigners one used to see. Have they all gone home or have they all recovered their strength?

The place is spotless. And quiet. More importantly, the doctors and nurses can cope – a far cry from the hassled staff one remembers from pre-Covid times.

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Mater Dei is back to how it was at the very beginning, before it was inundated. Before people took to preferring it to the primary health centres.

This is an important lesson for us with regards to what may happen in the future. For the lesson from Bergamo and Spain is that when hospitals get overwhelmed, people die, even those who did not have to die. If Mater Dei is allowed to revert to the crowded ghastliness we remember, with people in the corridors, now that we are facing a deadly virus, that will be very dangerous.

We know we will certainly face the usual spike of flu cases in winter which is why the authorities have prepared more and more wards, inside the hospital and just outside it.

There is strict control at the hospital – people wear masks and health workers wear appropriate protective clothing. But just outside the doors, normality, old normality that is, still exists. On Thursday in the A&E carpark a middle-aged woman could be seen wandering about, mumbling to herself. Suddenly she darted to a narrow space between a dirty BMW and the wall, crouched down and peed.

On a very different level, one could also notice that many were parking their car and then leisurely walk to the main building. It could be the simplest of things to stop this abuse.

The task ahead is to extend the safety of the hospital at present to as much of the country as possible. If we just concentrate on easing one step after another we will never get there. Nor if we obey the urgings of those who tell us to overcome fear. Nor if we aim to reopen the airport as soon as possible.

Fortunately for us, the government does not seem to have chosen the path of intrusive monitoring as some authoritarian regimes like Taiwan, Singapore, etc have done.

They may even go further. It may be possible at some point in the future to develop a biometric bracelet and order everyone to wear it so that the government, using algorithms, can find the state of each one's health and who he has been meeting. This is no pseudo-science, it’s real.

There are two further points to make. Coping with the pandemic, and with those which follow it requires trust. People need to trust science, to trust public authorities and to trust the media. Irresponsible politicians may be tempted to take the high road to authoritarianism, arguing that you cannot trust the public to do the right thing.

Trust that has been eroded for years cannot be rebuilt overnight.

Secondly, in this global pandemic, the choice is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity. Both the epidemic itself and the resulting economic crisis are global problems. They can only be solved by global cooperation.

This government has been unilaterally nationalistic with regards to the boat people. It has been nationalistic with regards to the pandemic- other countries have helped those countries and areas which were far more under stress.

Global cooperation is vitally needed on the economic front too. Given the global nature of the economy and of supply chains, if each government does its own thing in complete disregard of the others, the result will be chaos and a deepening crisis.

Another requirement is reaching a global agreement on travel. Suspending all international travel for months will cause tremendous hardship and hampers the war against Coronavirus. Countries need to cooperate in order to allow at least a trickle of essential travellers to cross borders – scientists, doctors, journalists, politicians, businesspeople. This can be done by reaching a global agreement on the pre-screening of travellers by their home countries.

In previous crises the world used to be led by the United States. This is now not possible with Donald Trump. If the void left by the US is not filled by other countries, not only will it be much harder to stop the current epidemic, but its legacy will continue to poison international relations for years to come.

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