The leisure of gods

If you think democracy and transparency are expensive – wasting money on red tape, independent institutions, and State-funding of political parties – you should try crony governments that refuse to tell you what they’re doing.

Bill Gates has pledged $100 million (€92 million) to fight the coronavirus outbreak. Konrad Mizzi, as minister, pledged $110 million (€100 million) of our money to Steward Health Care – which it can claim any time it wants, even if it doesn’t like what Malta expects of it during the pandemic.

A year earlier, after a collective agreement signed between Air Malta and ALPA, the pilots’ association, Mizzi signed a side letter that promised a job and full take home pay to all pilots till 2023. Today, Air Malta cannot afford to pay full salaries as long as its planes are grounded.

Both pledges – which hamper the national attempt to save lives and livelihoods – were kept secret from us by our government. We only discovered them thanks to the press, in the middle of the pandemic.

We used to be told that our economic growth was ‘the envy of Europe’. But now we have every reason to envy the well-governed countries of Europe.

They may have long rule books, lengthy procedures on public procurement, and come down heavily on even seemingly minor infractions by public servants and ministers. But they would have had Mizzi out on his ear back in February 2016.

Our more relaxed approach to good governance, many of us used to say, is more ‘pragmatic’. Sure, some people ‘feast’; but everyone ‘eats’. Ordinary people aren’t being harmed.

Well, they are now. “Discipline” is being required of all of us during the pandemic. But of some, much more is required because of the caprices of others.

The crazy agreement with Steward Health Care means that more is required of our doctors and medical staff, as they’re overstretched to cover for the gaps Steward did not fill. Our medics signed up to heal the sick, not to pay for our sick politics.

Seventy-two elderly patients in care at Gozo Central Hospital needed to be transferred to alternative premises to increase the beds that can be reserved for coronavirus patients. The choice of those manifestly inadequate premises, however, bears the grimy fingerprints of cronyism.

The hotel has no views or grounds. The rooms are shoeboxes, so small that the equipment needed to transfer patients from bed to wheelchair cannot fit. Many patients must in practice be confined to bed. Meanwhile, the Downtown Hotel rakes in €1.6 million for a year-long contract, issued without a tender, making more money per bed than it did as a hotel.

Cronyism means unnecessary suffering for some of us: the extra-exhausted bodies of our medics, the aching discomfort of elderly patients and the emotional turmoil of their families. Not to mention the tension of small businesses that might get a better financial package if there were less corruption and maladministration.

Meanwhile, the propaganda outfits continue to praise our health services and broadcast documentaries on World War II. It is worse than hypocrisy. To be hypocritical is to say things you don’t believe. But here, what’s being said is being used to prop up the very system that is harming the people being praised.

When the health services are praised, there is a blurring of the distinction between the heroic medics and the system that includes the scandalous deal that gave three of our hospitals away.

When the comparison between the pandemic and World War II is made, the aim is to suggest that any criticism of the government’s current actions is treacherous – a betrayal of national solidarity. Yet the real betrayal is of the elderly people who must suffer so that others can make hay while the pandemic shines.

As we’re told that soon we can exit from self-isolation and confinement, let us ponder what it means to ‘return to normal’. Normal here means that cronies continue to receive millions in direct orders, even though some businessmen don’t know if they can survive for another few weeks given the government’s financial package.

Normal also means that even when our watchdogs raise questions about the Electrogas deal, a crony who was part of that deal gets to review the criticism – while the businesses asking for a cut in above-market electricity bills get turned down.

This pandemic has exposed just what kind of normal it is. It’s one where thanks to politics there is a fundamental inequality of dignity and health: the suffering and hypertension of some is the price to pay for the leisure of others.

It’s not just that there are laws for gods and other laws for animals. The gods get to rest their feet on the animals’ backs.


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