Robert Abela has some explaining to do. The prime minister gave a speech at the SiGMA Europe 2021 festival in Ta’ Qali earlier this week, after which he posted a beaming photograph of himself, maskless, shaking hands with a woman, also maskless, flanked by two other bare-faced delegates.
Smug self-satisfaction oozing from every pore, he appears to have forgotten we’re in the middle of a devastating pandemic that’s showing no sign of relenting any time soon.
As successful as Malta’s iGaming industry may have been before Joseph Muscat and co. got their grubby mitts on it, reports from this week’s display at the SiGMA gathering suggest the five-day event could serve as an example of the depths to which the industry has fallen over the past few years.
Attendees describe scenes of near-total disregard for rules, for the welfare of others, for the bounds of decency. They shared tales of flagrant breaches of Covid-19 measures: most people didn’t wear masks, they didn’t practise social distancing, and, on at least a couple of the days, temperatures weren’t checked on entrance and they weren’t asked for vaccine certificates or any other type of Covid-related documentation. Security at the entrance was better at the end of the week, but inside the venue, nothing had changed.
And all this in the presence of the prime minister and a clutch of other government representatives, including the economy and investment minister. But instead of calling for adequate measures to be enforced, Abela waxed lyrical about the sense of “optimism” among the investors present – reportedly 600 from across the world.
It’s possible, of course, that Abela was simply so far up his own derriere that he just didn’t notice the lack of masks or the jostling crowds.
He hasn’t, after all, made any statement expressing disappointment or dismay at the fact that the event saw thousands of people thronged together, reportedly drinking and dancing and totally ignoring the fact that Europe is on the brink of a fourth devastating wave of the pandemic that’s killed millions across the world.
One person who described these scenes to us said there was a conference going on somewhere, but it was “well-hidden” from the party, where open bars dispensed free-flowing drinks, abundant trays of finger food and nibbles circulated, DJs blasted dance music and scantily-clad hostesses enticed visitors to the exhibitors’ stalls.
A related party held at another venue was shut down by police for non-compliance with Covid rules, but within the venue itself, anarchy reigned unchallenged. The organisers did bestir themselves to act in the case of one of the participating companies who presented a vulgar and offensive skit between an almost-naked “comedian” and his colleague, a dwarf.
But otherwise, by all accounts, the event was an unfettered display of revelry, with little to no regard for the risks of Covid infection or transmission. “Everyone was joking that they’d be leaving the event with Covid,” one of the people who contacted us about it said.
Fitting, perhaps, for an industry built on gambling, an activity that’s widely seen as shady, dangerous and immoral. And not only because of the age-old questions around morality and legitimacy, or the dangers posed to vulnerable players. The widespread use of gambling, casinos and online gaming by criminals, and especially organised crime gangs, as money laundering routes makes these activities dangerous on a much broader scale.
Indeed, many countries have periodically banned or severely restricted gambling in all or several of its forms – betting on horse races or football matches, backroom poker games, casino roulette tables or fruit machines that swallow whole pensions in coins, but rarely spit them back up.
IGaming, and the huge amounts of money to be made from it, appears to have broken down most countries’ resistance to gambling, including Germany’s, which was one of the longest to hold out in Europe. But the whiff of immorality and sordidness has not only persisted but, in Malta at least, has intensified into an inescapable stench.
Since the local industry was born almost two decades ago, the island has attracted hundreds of gaming companies and associated service providers such as game development outfits, specialist recruitment, law and corporate services firms, to set up shop here.
Any lingering distaste towards a business activity so fraught with risks soon dissipated, in most people, as they began working out how much money they could make if they embraced it. Lawyers, accountants, consultants, IT professionals and the like almost universally shrugged off their qualms and bought ever-larger piggy banks.
By 2019, the industry made up almost 14% of GDP, contributing as much as €1.8 billion to the Maltese economy. Not even the Covid-19 pandemic could dent it much – it only slipped slightly to 12% of GDP in 2020.
That may have helped reconcile otherwise disapproving professionals with their decisions to discard their scruples – after all, popular wisdom tells us, “if you can’t beat them, join them”.
But the pigeons are slowly coming home to roost. In September, The Shift published an article entitled ‘A Country Built on Dirty Money’, which highlighted the fact that “the success of the gambling sector is underpinned by links to the Mafia, underground criminal networks, financial crime and fraud”.
Of course, not all iGaming companies are involved in criminality, nor even most. But those that are make up one of the reasons Malta was greylisted by the FATF – a development that, ironically, could lead to those very same companies leaving Malta.
So perhaps it isn’t all that surprising that so many of the industry delegates at the festival felt no obligation to follow the rules. Including Prime Minister Robert Abela.
But with Austria going back into total lockdown, The Netherlands is in partial lockdown and Germany about to impose restrictions on unvaccinated people while not ruling out a total lockdown, this really isn’t the time to get sloppy with preventative measures.
Across Europe, numbers of infections and deaths are rising fast again, including in Malta, where the number of new cases is increasing every day, and hit 79 yesterday – up from 66 the day before. There are currently more than 750 active cases. In total, there have been 38,000 infections and 462 Covid deaths since the start of the pandemic.
The spectre of summer 2020, when one big party sparked a devastating second wave of covid, is shimmering before us again. Thousands of people were expected to attend the SiGMA festival. The implications are alarming and infuriating. I doubt anyone could forgive Abela a repeat of that tragic blunder.