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Troubling silence surrounding long term impact of COVID-19 on survivors

There is a deafening silence surrounding COVID-19. It may seem a strange thing to say given the chatter on Facebook – but that is not the troubling silence.

Consider this, the public health authorities have been diligently publishing official figures. On the surface, it would seem that all is well – after all, there were many days where zero cases were registered. And herein lies the problem.

During the first wave, the authorities were widely praised for their handling of the situation. The nation was glued to the daily briefings, led by Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci. Yet as each day passed there was a frustrating silence from journalists, who often kept asking the same questions and getting non-answers.

It became so repetitive that the briefings stopped because, after all, the situation was fine. We had ‘beaten’ COVID-19.

A more circumspect assessment of the situation, however, revealed obvious red flags. There was plenty of talk of recovery – the nation celebrated because recovering from a potentially deadly infection is great news. Yet, nobody stopped to ask what recovery meant.

Going by the briefings, recovery was defined as testing negative after a certain period of time. It all seemed so cosy – here is this little island, doing things right for a change.

Yet beyond the bubble that is the Maltese archipelago, there was another picture emerging. Recovery was not straightforward. Even back in April, it was clear that recovery was a long road. Indeed, major medical charities now have formal support.

A patient may recover from the virus in the sense that they no longer carry it, but what about the aftermath? It quickly emerged that COVID-19 was actually a long COVID – a painful process of recovery that could take months. The virus may have been eliminated from a body, but the effects on the pulmonary and nervous systems were long lasting.

So we have to ask, how come we remain completely ignorant of the recovery experience? This is not a case of stigma – as a nation, we tend to be very open about our ailments. Indeed, the Litany of Ailments is a staple of just about every interaction, whether you’re buying bread or waiting to see a doctor or just trying to enjoy a bit of quiet. Inevitably, someone will tell you all about what’s hurting.

Where are the COVID-19 survivors? How are they doing? Are they receiving further treatment, and what effect is this having on hospital resources? The silence is ominous, further amplified by the silence of medical workers on the ground. A view beyond our small space shows that people have complex recovery experiences.

Maltese exceptionalism blights every aspect of life, but while that rhetoric may work for spin doctors, it fails in the face of medical science. It is not possible that the recovered people simply carried on as normal, without any problems.

It is clear that the effects are both physical and mental. The situation is so serious that academic journal publishers, not usually known for their generosity, have made COVID-19 research open access. It is worth noting that, usually, authors have to pay significant fees to make their research open access. This act by publishers is monumental in its scope and implications.

This leads to another issue – numbers. The population cheered when the figure went down to zero. People relaxed, they heaved a sigh of relief. This is entirely understandable – the pandemic had a deleterious effect on mental health. It is the subsequent actions of relevant authorities that is inexcusable.

It started with a Prime Minister blithely saying the second wave is in the sea and it continued with the failure of the Health Minister Chris Fearne (who is also the Deputy Prime Minister) and the Health Superintendent to bring order to proceedings.

Both Fearne and Gauci are well aware that a deadly virus does not just disappear, especially in the absence of a vaccine. Indeed, Gauci recently admitted that COVID-19 never left.

So how does one interpret the numbers? Did the authorities lie when they reported zero cases? It is unlikely they did – that famous zero is attributable to a downturn in testing as a result of numbers going down.

It is human nature – there is no need to go get tested if, after an extended period of physical distancing, the numbers have gone down. The measures worked. And to an extent, they did, until they were overturned seemingly overnight. It is a bit like going on a crash diet and then stuffing your face in celebration.

There has been much rhetoric about how the second wave was brought by ‘foreigners’ invading ‘our’ shores. However, the cases started to emerge after that infamous hotel party. Logically, this means that COVID-19 never went away and as soon as measures were lifted it came back with a vengeance.

This time round, no attempt was made to reinstate distancing measures. The loud baying from the business community won the day. Calls to end mass events are being studiously ignored.

As cases continue to rise, we need to demand more thorough accounting. Why are there so many sporadic cases? By definition, sporadic means scattered, isolated. It does not mean many cases – especially in a discrete geographical area.

In medical terms, sporadic refers to a disease that occurs infrequently and irregularly. This is clearly not the case and the authorities are playing with words and lives. At best, the large number of sporadic cases represents a failure in contact tracing – at worst, it hints at an unethical numbers game.

Gambling is dangerous at the best of times when it involves human lives it is downright lethal.

It is time to banish the silence. This is not the time to engage in conspiracy theories or partisan politics, neither is it the time to cling to dubious sources of information (whether they are official or doing the rounds on WhatsApp and Facebook). If we do not take charge of our health, and that of the nation, the consequences will be dire.

If you are a survivor of COVID and would like to share your experience in complete confidence, please contact us.

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