The Malta Independent 15 August 2020, Saturday


Mark Josef Rapa Tuesday, 28 July 2020, 06:43 Last update: about 18 days ago


Last week's spike in new Covid-19 cases was met with increased disputed between citizens, healthcare workers and organisations, and the state. But Prime Minister Robert Abela us still determined to enjoy his summer. "We won't succumb to fear over Covid-19, our economy will remain open," he boasted at the Labour Party general conference on Sunday.

In the second quarter of this year, non-essential shops were shut, mass gatherings were banned, and travel between Malta and Gozo was restricted. The majority obeyed the often-ambiguous notices even if it meant that our freedoms were restricted, and we were contributing to the coming years of recession. Common good and sense trumped over what would have otherwise been a healthcare disaster. We had done well. 


Those who flouted the rules were given a verbal warning or fined. The 'neighbourhood watch' and witch-hunting on social media discouraged any form of defiance of the rules. But as the rate of transmission went down, keeping the restrictions was no longer justifiable. New, lengthy and tragically confusing guidelines were published. Non-essential establishments had to heavily invest in having all the necessary precautions in place if they wanted to operate. They had done well. Common good and sense triumphed once again. 

Mass events came back on the books, and our airport began welcoming holiday goers from selected countries. The entertainment and catering industry could finally have a breather. Being an island which for so long ignored local tourism, Malta relies on tourists, on the party revellers. But we had no cause for alarm. Tourism Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli told BBC over a fortnight ago: "Malta is very prepared, we're the safest Mediterranean country by far".

But a few hundred parties and village festas later and the numbers are back up - as expected. SARS-COV2 is a highly infectious virus and is mainly transmitted through droplets and can be transmitted even by those who are asymptomatic. To the Head of the Malta Medical Association's 'Malta is playing with fire' comment, Farrugia Portelli replied with: "surely we know what we are doing." But do they? 

Both Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Health Chris Fearne, and the Superintendent of Public Health Prof. Charmaine Gauci, have, through various portals, been incessantly reminding the general public of the importance of social distancing and wearing masks. Social distancing is one of the most successful strategies to stop the spread of the virus.

Can you enforce social distancing at a mass event? For some events, and where there is a will, yes, you can. At 'The Comedy Knights - 'The New Normal'' show held at the Valletta Waterfront over last weekend, for example, there was a two-seat gap between rows. The two-seat gap rule emanates from guidelines for the reopening of theatres published by the Culture Ministry in collaboration with Arts Council Malta. 

But as with anything else in this country, the law does not apply equally to all, if at all. The responsibility for health and safety in theatres (indoors and outdoors) rests with the producers of the show, but not all of them. Those behind last Wednesday's Malta Philharmonic Orchestra Concert, co-hosted by the Office of the Prime Minister, at the Girgenti Palace, clearly could not be bothered. Photos from the night show a tightly packed courtyard with no social distancing, let alone a two-seat gap between rows. No social distancing was observed at the Labour party's Extraordinary General Conference held at the former cinema, Rialto in Bormla either. To add insult to injury, Minister Fearne was present and urged us all to be 'more responsible than ever."

What we are effectively being told is that the government has abdicated its responsibility. It's now up to us to make a risk assessment and determine whether a said event is safe to attend to or not. In countries were large-scale educational campaigns and individual responsibility are at the core of Public Health, this approach works. In Malta, it doesn't. In Malta, the general public has never been taught how to reason and decide for the common good and yet the government expects all Malta to grow into the true adult Europeans we ought to be in a matter of days.           

It is a cultural and systematic failure that will take generations to change. Working towards a society where individuals see themselves responsible towards the common good is admirable, but a public health pandemic is not the best place to experiment with new methods. Mass gatherings are what they are, a hotbed for the virus. Where social distancing rules can be applied, these must be adhered to. Where this is not possible, maximum capacity can be set. What is certain is that if the authorities keep issuing permits for large-scale events, the general public will still congregate and participate in them. 


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