The Malta Independent 18 April 2024, Thursday
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Navigating through COVID

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 17 September 2020, 06:47 Last update: about 5 years ago

Last Sunday's The Malta Independent published an insightful interview with consultant psychiatrist Walter Busuttil, about moral dilemmas faced by healthcare workers amind the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr Busuttil told journalist Karl Azzopardi how healthcare workers across the world are having to make tough decisions to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their respective societies in lieu of the pandemic, and that consequently, this creates dilemmas that can have an impact on the workers’ mental health.


As examples of everyday choices which such frontline workers are facing, the article listed decisions on whether or not to remain in the sector when there is risk of getting infected and, in turn, of infecting a vulnerable person in the family; and on a more severe scale, to decide which patient gets treated when resources are limited.

Dr Busuttil recommends a policy debate on such matters – one which would push for a supportive culture, such as through wellbeing services and balanced work schedules. Naturally, this would require that policy leaders themselves are trained and sensitised to such matters. At the same time, every worker is responsible for her or his wellbeing where possible, both inside and outside of work. This could also be applied to society in general, where, for example, every citizen could abide by the directives issued by the health authorities, whether at work, within the household, or as a consumer.

Dr Busuttil summed up his stance by stating that “we just need to pace this out and take it day by day, enjoy what we have and try to look forward. Do not be selfish, listen to the guidance and try to keep the numbers down and hope for a vaccine to be found as soon as possible.”

As Dr Busuttil himself acknowledged, it is often not easy to make certain choices. For example, many students, parents, educators, and other workers in the educational sector right now might be experiencing mixed emotions regarding the new scholastic year. A new year of educational opportunity lies ahead, but at the same time it is characterised by risks, most especially those related to the Coronavirus situation.

This brings to mind various philosophical and sociological writings which can help us navigate through the COVID context.

Philosopher Jean Paul Sartre rejected ‘deterministic excuses’ and said that each and every one of us is responsible for our freedom, though this is by no means an easy task. One of his famous examples was that of a pupil who faces a tough moral wartime dilemma: whether to look after his ailing mother or to leave her and join the Free French resistance against Nazi occupation. He faced a clash of loyalties and was forced to decide for himself. For there is no ready-made text to solve this actual dilemma.

On a related note, albeit a different context, when receiving the Nobel Prize, Albert Camus said “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.” Camus opposed those who justified terrorism in the name of ‘justice’, believing that one’s choices can and should have an ethical dimension. In the meantime, as Soren Kierkegaard puts it, we often have to take a leap in the dark and live with our decisions.

Does this provide solace in terms of the everyday existential choices we face in the COVID context? For some, the current situation could be a weight too heavy to carry. An anxious labyrinth of choices is faced, and despite the regular commendable recommendations by the health authorities, each and every one of us may often struggle with the choices ahead. This is even more the case when the scientific method is constantly challenged by sensationalist hype, fake news, and post-truth perspectives.

On the other hand, social policy can invest in tackling the risks and opportunities. Sociologists such as Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck write about the need to invest in reflexivity, for example through educational practices that equip us to make informed choices. In turn, as Jurgen Habermas puts it, this requires communication which is free from distortion and which fosters deliberation rather than counterproductive diktats. Finally, as Zygmunt Bauman explains, this requires welfare institutions which aim towards cooperation and the pooling of anxieties: Malta’s health sector is a case in point.

Within this context, the communicative efforts of the Health Authorities, voluntary organisations, and workers such as medics, environmental health officers, psychologists and journalists are imperative to help equip each and every one of us.

Still, sociology equips us to seek gaps in such practices. For example, whether there are enough safe spaces for deliberation where people can express their fears, aspirations, and questions. From the silent majority to specific groups, from non-unionised workers to asylum seekers all the way to those excluded from the media narrative to the avid consumer of news (fake or factual), we are all in this together. It is not easy to be a policy maker amid such challenges, but social investment can help equip us to make informed choices in the different social roles we occupy.


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