Confinement and the common good

A philosopher once said that if you are lonely when you are alone then you are in bad company.

There is much to be said about the new fear that seems to be creeping in place of the fear of the pandemic itself. Our collective reaction to the possibility of a complete lockdown is a bitter judgment on where society stands with itself.

The perception out there is that come lockdown, the walls of a family home would morph into those of a dark prison and it will only be a matter of time for the inmates to turn onto each other, frustrated by what fate has foisted upon them.

I tend to leave decision making on scientific matters to specialists in the field and I am no expert in pandemics. In this respect, I am as much of a distant observer of global developments as the man next door. What we can observe as the situation unfolds is the destabilising effect that this has had on our scale of values and considerations.

In times like these, we are being collectively forced to look into the mirror and find out who we really are and what we believe in.

The reluctance of a few governments to turn off their economic switch in order to prepare for, and avoid, the worst case scenarios has been an early pointer. Using pre-coronavirus terms we can say that the capitalist market forces fought tooth and nail to stay alive to the detriment of the human element that still makes them run.

Stories abound of businesses that went on notwithstanding the early warnings – ski resorts that drained the very last bit of the snow slopes and became a fertile ground for worldwide propagation.

The supposed leaders of the pre-coronavirus world led through denial. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson were ridiculous in their belatedness in taking the bull by the horns. Like some latter-day Xerxes whipping away at the waves of the sea, Trump even proclaimed early on that “we are stronger than the virus, we will win”.

A few days (not months) afterwards, the US would leap to the top of the charts for infected people. There, he made ‘America Great Again’.

Meanwhile, confined to Number 10, Downing Street, after having tested positive, Johnson was busy doing some serious backtracking of his own… no longer a firm believer in herd immunity that would have threatened to cull the nation’s most fragile.

Closer to home, anger at the European Union’s apparent inactivity in the face of the onslaught is rapidly on the rise. There are two ways to fight the damage being wrought by the virus. The first is the frontline battle fought by the health services.

The battle in every nation has exposed deficiencies and shortcomings in their health structures. The worst hit nations quickly experienced a shortage in both personnel and material, and eyes turned on lesser hit nations from whom solidarity was expected.

The second battle is an economic one. Aside from investment in health itself, the virus had delivered a sucker punch, starting first with the more vulnerable of sectors such as tourism. Then, as time passed, it brought more sectors to their knees.

Economic intervention by governments became necessary if only to assuage the damage. Faced with the threat of mass unemployment, huge industry losses and a dwindling production lines, the solution in most nations was rightly seen to be an economic support package.

As for the EU, the role of the Union in the first of the battles was close to nil. Health services remain the sovereign prerogative of Member States and there is little or nothing the EU as a Union can decide in this respect.

Less appreciated were the hidden rights that most health systems benefited from anyway – for example, the free movement of persons has been the reason why a mobile health sector workforce supplies many of the larger nations.

Tiny Luxembourg was acutely aware of the fact that over 70% of its health workforce came from the neighbouring countries of France, Germany and Belgium. The EU could also have a role in facilitating the procurement of medical supplies and their movement across borders.

The biggest obstacle faced by a willing Union was the egoism of its Member States. Some survival trigger on a national level meant that rather than behaving in solidarity for mutual benefit the early instinct of some States was to shut down and act as competitors on a health services market: each to his own.

That it took some time for this attitude to be adjusted (and we still have not seen the end of it) is a sad judgment of the state of the Union.

As for the second battle, the EU did not fare much better. Notwithstanding a willingness from the Commission and the European Central Bank to take drastic economic action, a few States stepped up their opposition to creating an EU-funded purse that would allow States to manoeuvre in these difficult times.

Once again, EU solidarity stopped short at the door when it was most needed. These too will be questions asked once “it is over”.

Back home, the Maltese government was ‘lauded’ by a WHO official for its handling of the crises. The face of serenity and common sense remains that of Professor Charmaine Gauci, Malta’s Superintendent of Public Health. The prime minister and his ministers are another matter altogether.

The contradictory messages on lockdown, continued building projects despite pleas from medical professionals, and the inheritance of that Steward Healthcare deal – stinking of foul play – do not lead to any sense of confidence in our planners.

Back to the lockdown. Is confinement really that bad? Are we so fragile as to fear surviving a few days or weeks with ourselves? Most of all, is this how we value the common good?

We are, after all, talking about an effort to save the more fragile among us. When we see our prime minister taking what should be a scientifically based decision by first looking at ‘public feedback’ we should not only be judging him. We should also be asking what that says about us.

Jacques Rene Zammit blogs on J’Accuse.

                           
                               
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