The Malta Independent 4 December 2020, Friday

8 observations on Covid-19: The good, the bad and what awaits us

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 28 June 2020, 10:00 Last update: about 6 months ago

Malta is preparing to re-open its airport after more than three months. The country has been isolated because of the Coronavirus pandemic, which has affected nearly 700 people on the islands. It now awaits its return to normality, or the new normal, and questions remain whether the welcoming of visitors and the travelling of Maltese citizens will re-ignite the virus, ably kept within manageable numbers since the first case was registered on 7 March. Stephen Calleja takes a look at how Malta tackled the pandemic and what can happen

  1. Health vs economy

That was always the issue. What is the most important – our health, or our economy? Initially, the government’s message was one that gave priority to our individual and collective health. There was a rush to close schools, and then shops, bars, restaurants and all places where people gather to entertain themselves. The airport and the ports were also shut down, a move which kept foreigners from coming to Malta and the Maltese from travelling. But the economy was not ignored. Financial packages were introduced to help businesses in difficulty. The first was well-intentioned but not well-received, and the government corrected itself with more initiatives to assist private companies in dealing with this unprecedented situation. They have now been extended to cover more months than originally planned.

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As time passed, and the numbers started to decline, there was pressure to ease restrictions. Health remained important, but the economy started to take precedence. The lifting of the measures started gradually, but one later got the impression that the rest of the restrictions were removed hastily – some would say too hastily – in a bid to get the economic ball rolling again. Health professionals at first protested, but no longer do so. Maybe they are awaiting a sharp rise in numbers before they speak up again and point fingers in “I-told-you-so” fashion. The businessmen are now happier. But it will take more time for the situation to return to what it was. Some say things will never be the same again. We’ll see.

 

  1. Mixed messages

The health versus economy theme was the main reason why there were so many mixed messages being bandied about. Very often, what Prime Minister Robert Abela was saying was not the same message that was being given by his deputy Chris Fearne and health chief Charmaine Gauci. The pandemic is behind us, Abela once famously said, only to be pulled back by words of caution that came from Fearne and Gauci some time later. But this was not the only case when there appeared to be serious contradictions in what Abela and Fearne/Gauci were saying.

This confused people. For us who follow what is being said because it is part of our work it gave us the sensation that there wasn’t too much communication going on between Castille and the health authorities. Or, if this communication existed, there was disagreement on the way forward, and what one said was not necessarily what the other repeated. In the initial weeks of the crisis, there had been more conformity in the message that was being imparted, but there came a point when Robert Abela started to be more “pro-economy”, if you get the drift, leaving Fearne and Gauci to keep the lid on any over-enthusiasm that all had been sorted. It’s not; we just have to live with it.

 

  1. Charmaine Gauci

For many weeks, she became the “face” of the fight against the dreaded disease. Each day, religiously at 12.30pm, many tuned in to traditional and social media to hear what she had to say. Many just listened to the first minutes of her daily briefing, when she gave the numbers of the new cases, and later also started stating how many patients had recovered. There were times when she looked tired, especially when the virus reached its peak and the pressure must have been enormous. But she never lost her smile, composure and optimism.

Often, however, she was not totally forthcoming in her answers, like a true civil servant. She started to be repetitive, and it was easy to know what she was going to say next. Maybe she thought some people needed continuous reminding of what to do and what not to do. It must be said however that hers was a tough role, and she was up to the task completely. Helped by a strong team, her relaxed demeanour helped to lower the panic that was gripping the nation. She deserves all the accolades.

Gauci became a household name and it would be interesting to know if there was a spike of the name “Charmaine” given to newborn girls these last three months, or whether those conceived during the isolation period will be named after her.

 

  1. Cancellations

Some may be ruing the day they decided to cancel their planned event. Now that the health emergency will be lifted and mass gatherings will soon be allowed again, the organisers of such events are regretting their haste in deciding to call off concerts, festivals, weddings and what not. One particular organisation went as far as seeing the need to cancel its Christmas event. Not to mention the football season, with all the controversy that came with the decisions taken by the MFA.

The cancellations came at a time when many were in panic mode, and when the health authorities were refusing to give indications as to when restrictions imposed would be removed. Caution was being exercised, as it was impossible to predict how the Coronavirus pandemic was going to develop and if and when it was going to be brought under control. This reticence pushed many to abandon their plans, perhaps too quickly.

What the Church did deserves a special mention. It was in March that the Church decided to cancel all village feasts, most of which are held in July and August. Many feasts could have been held as usual now that the measures have been relaxed. But perhaps the Church did not want to “discriminate” between parishes who hold their event in the early part of summer, and those who do so as autumn is approaching. It’s not good, the Curia must have argued, to see St Catherine, St George and St Philip pushed aside while St Julian, St Lawrence and St Cajetan celebrate. We believe this was done also to avoid adding fuel to the rivalries in localities with more than one feast, with one slated early on the calendar and the other later.

 

  1. Opening of airport

The re-opening of the airport lifts Malta out of its international isolation, but could open up a return, maybe an even stronger presence, of the virus. Some days ago New Zealand declared that it had eradicated the virus, but two persons arriving from Britain to see a dying relative tested positive. Other countries thought they were close to zero active cases but, once borders were reopened and restrictions eased, the numbers rose again. In some places, restrictions which had been lifted had to be re-imposed. In some countries, the virus has not yet reached its peak.

Let us remember that the first cases registered in Malta were of people who had returned from abroad. It took a number of days for local transmissions to be recorded. So a return of travelling could lead to a fresh spike, the so-called second wave which many predicted but which, so far, never happened. It could arrive when flights start coming in and Maltese pick up their travelling habits again.

This will be the biggest test, and it is hoped that the right choices have been made. It would be a pity that all the good work carried out in the past months is thrown to the dogs.

 

  1. Social distancing, contact tracing, swab tests, masks and visors, vaccination

 

Probably these were the words that have been used the most in the media in the past months. All have become popular terms, and they have also become part of our lives.

Social distancing remains a necessity, even now that restrictions have been withdrawn. It was hard for many of us not to go visit our elderly relatives, but now that we can it is still advisable not to indulge in too many hugs. In public places, this can work in some cases, such as when deckchairs are placed two metres from each other on beaches, but not in bars where there is continuous mingling and touching of surfaces.

Contact tracing exercises continue to take place each time someone tests positive for the virus. This is why in certain places names and contact numbers are being taken. It would make it easier for people to be traced for swab tests. We have gotten used to have our temperatures taken too. That’s the easier part. What is not comfortable is the requirement of wearing masks or visors. It’s often suffocating.

We have been told that this “new normal” will have to remain in place, hopefully until a vaccination to combat the virus is found and made available. We’re told we do not have to wait long for it but, as we all know, one cannot really predict with certainty.

 

  1. Quarantine and isolation

Most of the people who had the virus did not need hospital treatment. Yet they were required to stay at home in quarantine, isolating themselves from the rest of the family members who reside in the same household, who were then also constrained to stay at home just in case they had been infected. In fact, in many cases, clusters of infections took place, as one family member gave it to another, or one colleague in an office gave it to another. This is why the health authorities have always insisted that staying away from others was vital to control the spread of the virus – because it is highly contagious, and as we all know, not all those who carry it show symptoms.

Thankfully, today’s technology makes quarantine and isolation easier to absorb – television keeps one good company, not to mention laptops, computers and mobile phones which seem to have become human extensions. Many people learnt to keep in contact not only with friends and relatives, but also in relation to their work duties. Isolation, in fact, was not only for those who had the virus or who came in contact with someone who was infected, but also for many others who for many weeks worked from home to reduce the chances of contracting the virus. This also helped to keep the numbers low.

 

  1. Discovering Malta

Travelling restrictions, and less traffic on the roads, encouraged many to visit places around the islands they had never been to, or had not been to for many years. We under-estimate the beauty of our country, although it must be said that Malta is more beautiful when it is quieter, as it was at the height of the pandemic. It is certainly less chaotic, less noisy, and much cleaner. Still, tourism is a main pillar of our economic well-being. The airport will be re-opened this week, but we cannot expect the same numbers we had until the Coronavirus pandemic hit us. Many of us will also be reluctant to travel in the coming months. So we should make it a point to discover, or re-discover, Malta. We could absorb our history, culture and beauty, while at the same time spending our money in the Maltese economy. And, yes, use the vouchers too.

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