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Gateway to a golden age

I did not think I would live to see Maltese people everywhere queue in an orderly fashion, respecting personal space, and accepting that signed warnings applied to them as well, not just others. Nor have I ever seen such broad consensus – where it is not just the lion that lies with the lamb, but also the GWU with the UHM – on what needs to be done in the national interest.

Yes, it has taken the coronavirus to get us here. Yes, the threat is dangerous. It should not be trivialised. And yes, the consensus is broad but not complete. As I write, the government is resisting calls by the medical association to move towards a complete lockdown.

Yet it’s worth remarking that a health crisis has got many of us to ditch the habits of a lifetime, both at the personal and at the institutional level. If the crisis lasts long enough, will the country emerge with a changed approach to politics and the public interest?

We have had to make drastic changes to our lives but many concern things we should have been doing anyway. Do you care to improve your immune system? Then you should have a balanced diet and get adequate exercise and sleep.

Do you want to minimise the chances of infection? Then do what’s always sensible. Wash your hands regularly and cough and sneeze discreetly. We are, in a rudimentary but consistent way, beginning to practise preventive medicine on a large scale.

We are now much more observant of our fellow citizens. The last time most of us were picking up so many clues was when we were watching a murder mystery set in a country house, where hosts, staff and visitors look at each other with mutual suspicion, each gesture and cough a sign to be interpreted.

The suspicion, admittedly, we could do without. But the rest? The virus is helping us see the world as a single mansion. We’re connecting the dots between climate and the texture of our lives; between air pollution and how it might help the spread of disease. What we’ve always known is finally sinking in: what happens to our global environment happens, inescapably, to us.

The potential overwhelming of the healthcare system, should the number of cases spike suddenly, is helping most of us think more responsibly about what demand to place on it. Finally, we are prioritising.

The suspension of schooling and university classes is prodding institutions to think more systematically about distance learning. Available technology is being used to compensate for lost face-to-face classes. Expect us to come out of this with a greater appreciation of how this technology can be used to enhance customary education, not merely compensate for its lack.

The government is holding real consultation with varied and conflicting social interests. That doesn’t mean all its decisions are perfect. But structured social dialogue – the real thing – is something we haven’t seen for a long time.

Indeed, what we’re seeing goes beyond dialogue. Our decision-makers are looking outwards, at standard policies abroad, without thinking or behaving as though Malta is the great exception.

Even the current disagreements have a silver lining. They arise because our institutions are disagreeing about which scenarios are most immediately salient. But the fact that we are thinking in terms of scenarios at all – thinking of the future as holding surprises and preparing even for surprises – is so unusual as to be celebrated.

None of this will compensate for the virus-linked deaths we will have. This virus has an unequal impact on us – revealing some of the seamier aspects of inequality in our society.

Its economic impact will not quite be like that of other economic crises (since many people are simply postponing spending rather than losing purchasing power), but some businesses will get into trouble and some people will lose jobs. And we need to be prepared for a second wave of the pandemic, if not also for a regular seasonal experience.

All those are real, cruel downsides. But if we retain the habits of civic responsibility and institutional practices that have developed as a result of the crisis, we might with hindsight decide that it took one disease to rid us of other behavioural pathologies.

In that case, the virus would not have led only to a lockdown. It would have served as a gateway to a golden age of radically new approaches and investments in medicine, education, the environment and governance.

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