The Malta Independent 7 May 2021, Friday

‘Very few people predicted that the pandemic would be this big’ – Charmaine Gauci

Jake Aquilina Sunday, 7 March 2021, 09:30 Last update: about 3 months ago

The pandemic has saddled us with more responsibilities, but few people can say that they had to carry as many responsibilities as the Superintendent of Public Health professor Charmaine Gauci did. Jake Aquilina spoke with professor Gauci to get her perspective on how her life has been affected throughout this past year, especially given the burden she had to carry.

It's now been a year since the start of the pandemic, how has it changed your life both personally and professionally?

As you rightly said, it’s been a year since the start of the pandemic. In my position as Superintendent of Public Health as well as the health department, we're used to having a hard time, however this pandemic has presented us with a lot of work which was required, and which went beyond our capacity. So what happened is we got more people on board with our team so that we would be able to manage what was required to be managed in this pandemic, especially from the public health aspect. 

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On a personal level, it has affected me a lot because obviously I had to dedicate almost all my time to work. As I said, I'm used to working long hours, but this is even worse. However, from that aspect, I have had my friends and my family who have supported me fully throughout, so I consider them part of the team.

 

When Covid-19 first hit our shores, what was your initial reaction?

We had been following up the current situation which was happening in China since early December, and to see what could have happened. The first initial reaction was: ‘Could this be the same situation with the SARS outbreak which didn't affect Malta and the rest of Europe?’

However, we saw that this wasn't the same as SARS, it was spreading much faster... this actually featured out into a pandemic. When we saw that Italy was hit really hard, the reality came to mind and we managed to beef up our response immediately, also because we had been preparing a number of response protocols tackling various scenarios and we had been doing tabletop exercises both locally and also with the EU.

So all that preparation came into place, but obviously, when you have a document on paper and have tabletop exercises, it's never really close to what will be happening in the field. 

 

How difficult has it been for you to automatically come into the public sphere – which may at times turn political – as a professor who didn’t sign up for this?

I had been director of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention directorate for 9 years previous to my position now. With respect to communication with the media, I already had experience in due to the nature of my job. However, this became much more frequent, in fact there were daily briefings for a couple of months in the beginning of the pandemic.

I really believe that being a good communicator on the media, being yourself, always making sure that you have all the evidence available, and being transparent with whatever information you are providing to the public is crucial. I also believe that we need to be careful when speaking to the general public, as you need to make it as easy as possible for everyone to be able to understand the message. I try to train myself as well on this; to be as transparent as possible with the public and to be clear so that everyone – from all different kinds of age groups and educational level – would be able to understand.


Did you expect Covid-19 to take this long when it first hit our shores?

In the beginning, I believe that most people who are similarly in my position thought that this would be like a seasonal outbreak which would have hopefully slowed down as summer came by. In fact, the initial reaction of the authorities was very strong in our measures; when you have something in front of you and you don't know what is going to happen, everyone tried to mitigate as much as possible with the strongest tools that we had.

However, as we went along the year, we realised that this is going to be something that lasts very long, and hence we actually tried to implement measures which are proportionate to the current situation, as you have to see the whole aspect to first control the situation, but also the control measures would be implemented to see where it would have the most influence on the situation.


Do you recall any particular moment which was difficult throughout this year?

I think that is quite frequent in respect of the deaths. For example, with the first death that we had in this country, you start to ask: 'Could we have prevented this?' We obviously know that some deaths you cannot avoid and this is what makes us continue working hard so that we try to minimise the deaths as much as we can. We know that the elderly and the vulnerable are getting complications – in hospital we give them the best care that we have. We have our ITUs which were stepped up. However, we have a limitation as well, so when we have people passing away, that is the most difficult part that I face.

 

What has this situation taught you in the professional sphere, as well as in the personal one?

We had our plans on how to deal with the pandemic, but very few people knew that this could be this big and that it will have so much impact on everyone. I believe the strongest thing is that we know each other a lot. For us as a public health team, we became like one big family as we spend a lot of time together and working towards one aim.

But also, we had all the rest of the other entities who all came up together as one bloc to fight this pandemic. It was important that we had all the resources which were required, even financially. We do need to understand that this had an impact on the economy, so obviously for each country to fight with all that we have will eventually also be of benefit to the economy of the whole country.

What was good as well was that we had very good communications with other counterparts in other countries both within the EU and also outside the EU. We had publications from China and other countries that were affected – they always taught us from their learning experiences. Then we adapted those learning experiences because obviously, no country is like the other.

Another important thing that I've learnt as well is that we need to evaluate all the time what we are doing based on evidence. If you see that something could be made better, we improve and do it better. You need to be humble in the face of evidence, get people all together to listen to their views, their experiences and implement whatever is the best scenario that we have based on evidence.

 

What is your hope for the future?

The biggest problem is that this is a virus which many times is ahead of us. As you can see, we started to control the situation, then this virus adapted to become a variant that is even more transmissible.

However, we know that we have vaccines available, which are safe, of good quality, and their efficacy rate is very high as well. We have the scientific community out there which is always adapting so that the vaccines have the best efficacies that you can get even for the variants.

Also, with the roll-out that we have, we hope to continue to decrease the number of people admitted to hospital, deaths, and eventually the number of cases in the community.

However, even more important as well is that we need to see the whole health aspect of this population. Myself, as Superintendent of Public Health, it’s not just being responsible for Covid-19, but also for the rest of the health of the population, so it’s important to note that we have to continue to beef up when it comes to the health of the population, and make sure that our health services continue to provide the services. We have to improve the health of the population whilst tackling Covid-19.

 

After this year, how much do you think you need a holiday?

I think everyone, the whole team, has been asking to have a holiday. Obviously, I will not be comfortable to have a holiday before we see that this situation has really settled down, but I think everyone who has worked on this pandemic really deserves a bit of rest. More than a holiday I think we all long to spend more time with our family.

However, as I said from the beginning, our families have been supportive, they took up more hobbies – for example my family took up cookery skills now as well – so the nice thing about this is that we all know that in the current scenario we need to continue to give our help 24/7.

 

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