“Hospital numbers confirm that COVID is under control” Robert Abela insisted on 18 July on ONE radio. Three weeks earlier, there were less than 30 active cases. Now there were 2,294 – almost a hundredfold increase. Abela used the low number of hospitalised patients, 17, to cover up his mishandling of the situation, once again. One week later hospital cases had doubled, Abela’s defence annulled.
Abela bumbles along making the same sort of errors, over and over again. He struggles to see even into the next week making a fool of himself every time. He never seems to look where he’s going and is caught unawares as he stumbles into excrement.
In their book ‘Superforecasting’, Tetlock and Gardner document findings from the Good Judgement research project. Subtitled ‘the art and science of prediction’, the book contains essential lessons for governing. Predicting what’s coming and taking appropriate action is essential in preventing calamity from befalling your country when you’re in power.
The authors recognised that those who are cautious, humble, numerate, actively open-minded and consider multiple points of view are the most successful in forecasting. Sadly it also identifies the core reason why Abela repeatedly fails to see what’s around the corner. He is lousy at understanding events. And he doesn’t learn from experience. Many things were predictable and indeed were predicted, but Abela still got them wrong.
In the summer of 2020, Abela opened up Malta to mega parties, marketing it as the destination of choice for young people desperate to have a good time. After the Hotel Takeover party and other reckless events, COVID numbers spiralled out of control. It took the threat of industrial action by nurses and doctors for four major events – BPM Festival Malta, Escape 2 the Island, Mi Casa Festival and Rhythm and Waves Festival – planned for summer, to be cancelled.
Abela has repeated last year’s follies. This time Abela paid unvaccinated teenagers, desperate to have a good time, €300 to come to Malta to study English. What followed was again entirely predictable. A COVID situation that had been managed effectively rapidly got out of hand.
Desperate to absolve himself Abela ridiculously claimed that COVID was under control despite a tenfold increase in cases. He pointed to the low hospital numbers as justification. Abela should have known of the three week lag period between a spike in cases and hospital admissions. But he messed up anyway.
His persistent blundering flows from a fundamental inability to read the situation or consult counterparts before implementing decisions.
From the start, Abela displayed a reluctance to take action to protect the country. Since then he repeatedly and falsely promised normality. As early as April 2020 he claimed that “return to normality is approaching”. In May he was touting Malta as a “COVID-safe country” and that “things are returning to normal”. On 1 June 2020, he again reassured us that “we are returning to normality” and that “Malta will embrace normality”.
As the reality of the sudden rise in cases demolished his empty promises, he reigned in his claims for a while. By November 2020 he was again promising that “as from January we will return to normal”. By December he insisted that “Malta is in pole position to get back to normality”. At the end of 2020, he promised “business as usual by May”. In February he said, “we will be closer to normality come March”. By then nobody was heeding his rosy predictions. Fervent cheerleaders recognised his claims were hollow. And so did he.
The multiple debacles and U-turns of Abela and his government leaves many in despair. As the COVID crisis struck, Silvio Schembri ordered foreign workers who lost their jobs to be deported. When heavily criticised for his ruthlessness and inhumanity, he doubled down: “Charity begins at home – our primary intention is to guarantee jobs for Maltese”. As pressure grew, he was forced to apologise. But the damage was done.
Like Abela, Schembri’s short-sightedness failed to predict that as businesses eventually spluttered into life they would need workers. The exodus of workers on whom the economy depended has left businesses struggling, unable to run their enterprises. Adrian Delia, myopic as ever, instead of blaming Labour’s disgraceful and reckless actions blamed the foreign workers themselves: “In bad weather the first to leave are the foreigners, leaving us to fend for ourselves”.
Plenty more short-sighted decisions followed. As cases surged, only vaccinated people would be allowed in, the government announced. Faced with a European Commission backlash another U-turn followed. Before the rule even came into effect Abela’s government had to accept an embarrassing climb down. Even those without a vaccine would be allowed in but would need to quarantine. The Indian made Astra-Zeneca vaccine was initially not accepted, only to be accepted just days later – after the negative publicity was generated.
Abela’s €300 enticement for language students backfired. Malta was back on the European red list. Over 15,000 flights were cancelled as a result of the uncertainty created by Abela’s chaotic rule changes. Instead of kickstarting tourism, Abela’s short-sightedness destroyed it.
Minister Clayton Bartolo insisted red-listing made no difference. “The ECDC red list is a list where they will be seeing where the countries are – it does not directly affect travel or tourism” he mumbled incoherently. In fact, the European Commission advises member states to discourage travel to and from ‘red’ countries.
Meanwhile, Abela’s government was spending taxpayers’ money repatriating COVID-positive language students to their home countries. How much it cost or how many students, Malta Tourism Authority refused to divulge. Having locked teenagers in quarantine, in some cases with barely enough to drink and without internet access, Abela failed to predict the incandescent rage of parents and respective ambassadors. “Malta kidnaps Italian children” is not great marketing.
In normal times, an inability to anticipate the consequences of decisions can be embarrassing. In the COVID context, it is a fatal characteristic.
Yet Abela proficiently masks his wretched performance with publicity stunts and vouchers, while a credulous majority is taken in.