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COVID-19 and what matters

We can agree to hold Robert Abela to account over his leadership of the pandemic crisis without, however, letting critics off the hook. If Abela appears to be losing sight of some fundamental issues, so do some critics.

Does it really matter if Abela doesn’t wear a mask? No. Heads of government are not ordinary people. They have the resources to be frequently tested.

So why does Chris Fearne, the health minister, make a point of wearing a mask? Because Fearne probably wants to signal some distance from the prime minister on this issue. But it’s one thing to say that it would be more consistent messaging for Abela to wear a mask. It’s quite another to attribute significant consequences to him not wearing one. There are COVID flare-ups across Europe irrespective of whether the head of government wears a mask or not.

Likewise, it doesn’t matter if Charmaine Gauci does not publish the pandemic strategy. No written strategy can be useful in a situation where all governments have to improvise, irrespective of their strategy.

This pandemic is full of unknowns and uncertainty. Is it unwise to have mass gatherings that do not respect social distancing? Generally, yes. But there seem to be no clusters of infections acquired on popular beaches (so far), in spite of the violation of the social distancing rule.

Naturally, that doesn’t clear the way for all mass gatherings – and certainly not for parties where people are drunk and yelling (and therefore breathing) in each other’s faces. We are seeing the result of that irresponsible behaviour.

Given the uncertainty, we need government and social partners to discuss the challenges under conditions that breed trust. Political trust has been an invaluable asset for Germany, for example, even though its shutdown rules were comparatively relaxed, and though it has had some significant localised flare-ups this summer.

What a contrast with Malta. The president of the doctors’ professional union, Martin Balzan, has been subjected to personal attack on the Labour-owned TV station. The doctors’ epidemiological concerns have been portrayed as partisan.

It hasn’t helped Abela. Neither the business community nor the medics regard him as the adult in the room. Something is going seriously wrong when the pandemic policy is widely believed to be guided by the prime minister’s resentment of his health minister’s reputation or, worse, by cronyism.

The fact is that Abela’s argument on the current spike is not crazy. Misguided, yes. But it deserves to be addressed.

Abela’s point is that while the R-factor (the infection rate) is important, it should be understood in conjunction with how badly the infected are afflicted – hospitalisations and deaths. Since many of those infected now are young, the argument goes, the kind of infections we have are not as serious.

Furthermore, Abela suggests, we may have over-reacted in March. It may have been the prudent thing but let’s not repeat that.

That’s the argument. Here’s what it leaves out.  First, young people go back home and mix with older people. There are costs to protecting yourself against infection by being isolated or significantly curbing your social life. It will take a year or so before we know if there was a significant rise in suicides, or deaths from drug use, or of the elderly whose health deteriorated because of isolation from their family.

In the first phase of the pandemic, there were many hospital treatments that were postponed. Even if there was no major health cost then, a second round of postponements could have an effect – precisely because it’s the second postponement in a matter of months.

Second, there are long term economic costs. There are the nagging reputational issues. It will take time to fight off headlines (such as one in Italy) about tourists who return from Malta infected.

Just as important are the potential socio-economic effects on young people. If the current policy makes it more difficult to re-open schools in September and October – for fear of youth spreading infections – what will that do to the quality of education? Particularly those who are about to begin a new chapter in their educational experience? Sixth form, university or technical training?

That’s not just a problem of justice – of young people paying for leaders’ mistakes. It concerns the formation of future workers and so is a long term economic issue.

These are the issues we should expect the government to address. Talking about whether Abela should be wearing a mask is a distraction, and probably a sign we’ve been watching too much CNN.

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