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Lovin Versus Lovin: Two Conflicting Opinions About A Whole Year Of COVID-19 In Malta

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One whole year of COVID-19 in Malta later, everything that had to be said about the global pandemic has pretty much been said already. But it’s amazing what you can add to the conversation with a bit of hindsight and a good old-fashioned debate.

Lovin Malta asked two of its journalists – Tim Diacono and David Grech Urpani – the same set of questions about the last 365 days of COVID-19 on the island.

From Malta’s different pandemic responses to what happens next, these are their conflicting opinions. Welcome, to Lovin Versus Lovin.

1. Was Malta’s initial response to the COVID-19 outbreak better or worse than its current response?

Tim Diacono

COVID-19 was a completely new threat last year and the government decided to practically lock down the nation without the benefit of time to analyse the situation. It didn’t really have a choice – too many people were scared and confused and the government was socially forced into imposing a quasi-lockdown.

However, prolonged lockdown or closing the island off to the world is completely unsustainable, and locking down the nation whenever there’s a new case will just make everyone even more uncertain than they already are.

This is to say nothing of the strain lockdown measures cause on public finances, the effects of which we haven’t really begun to realise.

David Grech Urpani

It was not only better than the current one… it was better than most countries’.

Malta registered its first case of COVID-19 on 7th March, and while most countries were still scrambling to control virtually insurmountable waves of infections months later, we were already planning on reopening everything by May.

The country’s initial response was swift, strict and – most importantly – it didn’t beat around the bush. Within just over a dozen weeks, the country’s initial response led us to zero daily infections and three active cases.

The country’s current response has led to hundreds of daily infections and 3,252 active cases.

But of course, to avoid a thousand words, here’s one picture:

2. What do you make of the so-called ‘Swedish’ model?

Tim Diacono

Something is clearly working for them. They managed to bring case and death levels to extremely low levels last summer despite only introducing light restrictions, managing to flatten the curve without going into lockdown, or making masks mandatory. 

During the second wave, Sweden’s weekly average daily death rate plunged from a high-point of 99 to a low-point of six, once again with only light restrictions.

Time will tell whether they were right, but they went against the flow and it seems to be working quite well for them.

David Grech Urpani

Every single decision taken during a pandemic needs to consider a number of variables. And when a decision is based on how you’re expecting people to act, one of the biggest variables to keep in mind is culture.

You can never – ever – compare a relaxed Mediterranean island with family and social life at its very heart to a large Scandinavian country with large swaths of non-densely populated areas and a cultural tendency to be way more reserved and disciplined.

This stops being stereotypical and starts being factual when you take into consideration what the numbers in other Nordic countries looked like when the only significantly different variable was their refusal to adopt Sweden’s “just chill and open the floodgates” model. Sweden has recorded death rates far higher than their Nordic neighbours… and the economic hit was still similar anyway.

With a little bit of hindsight, the Swedish model has been seen as a failure by pretty much everyone, with British papers like The Guardian kicking 2021 off with phrases such as, “We now know with certainty what public health experts have long predicted: a light-touch coronavirus approach like the Swedish model does not work.” Time Magazine went one step further, calling it “a disaster which shouldn’t be a model for the rest of the world”.

But enough about what I or anyone else who isn’t in any of this thinks.

Here’s what the King of Sweden had to say days before the end of 2020: “I think we have failed. We have a large number who have died, and that is terrible.”

3. Is Malta’s death toll worrying?

 

Tim Diacono

Of course, it’s worrying – every death leaves behind pain and the circumstances of COVID-19 (with restrictions on who can tell you goodbye and not even being allowed a normal burial) make it even more traumatic.

However, it’s also extremely worrying to read a report by a leading Maltese economist and doctor which warns that economic hardship could result in more years of life lost than would be gained through lives saved through restrictions. Obviously, low-income households will suffer more than most.

Governments don’t only have an obligation to contain the spread of COVID-19 but they also have an obligation not to push their own people into poverty.

David Grech Urpani

It depends.

Malta recorded its first COVID-19 death on 7th April 2020.

In those 334 days, we’ve had 329 deaths.

That’s nearly one death every 24 hours, every single day, since last April.

So it depends on whether you think that’s normal, commendable, a nice consolation prize… or downright horrific. I’d be inclined to agree with the latter.

4. If you were Prime Minister, what concrete measures would you order?

Tim Diacono

I would tell my Cabinet, MPs, and other high-ranking government officials to reduce their monthly salaries to €800 in solidarity with bars, restaurants, and people in the events industry.

I’d also make sure that all the data and evidence upon which restriction-decisions are made is published.

David Grech Urpani

As far as concrete action goes, I would see what worked the first time around and just repeat it. I don’t think there’s any rocket science involved in avoiding mistakes by replicating triumphs. The facts are simple: tighter measures suck for a period of time but have an instant positive reaction.

But when you’re speaking about a national leader, a “concrete measure” can also be the way you act and the words you use, because these are the subtle yet vital things that can end up informing or inspiring your citizens’ actions.

And belittling frontliners by making fun of concerned citizens with an “il-mewġ fil-baħar qiegħed” definitely ain’t it, chief.

5. Should Malta go into a lockdown?

Tim Diacono

Definitely not, unless as an absolute last resort to save the healthcare system . If that’s the case then the health authorities must publish all the scientific evidence and data which led them to take this decision and the government must announce a lockdown end-date from day one.

Throughout lockdown, there should be multiple (possibly daily) press conferences by the Prime Minister, the Health Minister and the Superintendent of Public Health, where they should accept multiple questions from journalists. 

David Grech Urpani

The closest Malta ever got to a lockdown (which, by the way, was nowhere near an actual lockdown anyway) led us to zero daily cases.

If you’re still not sure just how important a proper lockdown can be to eventually reanimate an internal economy, here’s a video from New Zealand. And no, this isn’t from 2019. This was two weeks ago.

6. Do you agree with vaccine passports?

Tim Diacono

Definitely not, because it’s discriminatory and risks opening the floodgate to vaccine abuse and corruption, with people jumping the queue to make sure they have a vaccine passport. There are already a few allegations of dirty practices right now, let alone if there’s a vaccine passport on the line.

Perhaps it could be introduced once everyone’s been given a chance to get vaccinated, but even then it sounds very much like it will go against freedom of choice. 

David Grech Urpani

101%.

If we want to open borders sooner rather than later, vaccine passports are how we can actually control shit hitting the fan one more time. Just treat them like a way, way more efficient and dependable version of a simple temperature check at airport arrivals.

And if you’re worried about “the Man” tracking you but you happen to own a phone, a laptop or literally anything with an internet connection, I’ve got some very bad news for you bud.

7. What’s the worst impact of the pandemic?

Tim Diacono

There are many, but the fact that people are being forced into poverty for no fault of their own is just extremely sad.

Unfortunately, quite a few people have played down economic hardship as a price that must be paid for the greater good but obviously, not a single person has volunteered to enter such hardship themselves.

David Grech Urpani

Social and cultural.

Sure, you could pit death rates against unemployment rates and argue endlessly on the merits of either, but the very nature of the endless argument is where we should be feeling the worst blow.

We were given the ultimate test, a world-changing event that challenged and capsized our everyday lives, and yet here we still are. Divided more than ever. Confusing patriotism with a health emergency. Picking sides and demonising people. Politicising a pandemic.

Beyond all that, certain swaths of cultural and social life – from simple friendly meet-ups to fully-fledged parties and festivals – have taken a massive and sustained blow that will probably take quite some time to recover from… if they ever will.

I for example started the decade thinking Malta’s alternative music scene will be hard-pressed to bring back the magic it had in the early 2010s. Now I’m not sure whether it’ll still be around to start doing anything about it.

8. Overall, how would you rate Malta’s COVID-19 response out of 100?

Tim Diacono

One can only imagine how tough it is to manage a country through a pandemic – there are so many variables and any decision you take will cause suffering.

You have to compare Malta to every country in the world, so I’d give it a score of around 80.

David Grech Urpani

I genuinely feel the first two months deserved an 85.

I also genuinely feel these last months deserve a 35.

I guess that averages out at 60. Yeah, that tracks.

Who did you find yourself agreeing with the most? Let us know in the comments below.

READ NEXT: Preserving Our Islands: Why Undoing Malta’s Heritage Erodes Our Collective Memories

Sarcastically ironic, Dave is a recovering hipster musician with a penchant for chicken, women's clothes and Kanye.

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