For a country with an intense case of Tiny Island Syndrome, Malta sure loves to boast about being the best in the world and the envy of all the big boys in the playground. That is until undeniable facts hit our ideal image square in the face. And as far as the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine roll-out is concerned, the chasm between transparency and spin is slowly shifting from laughable to dangerous.
For the last 313 days, Malta’s health authorities have touted the importance of transparency throughout the whole process of dealing with the global pandemic. And at several instances in 2020, they outperformed all expectations. But let’s unpack the moments when they fell short for a hot second.
Sure, let’s forget the fact that the very existence of the Health Ministry’s Saħħa Facebook page only came to be two whole months into the pandemic, after increased pressure by this newsroom for ministers to stop using their own Facebook profiles for ministry affairs. In case you don’t want to forget, though, here’s a refresher… incidentally published on the exact same day Saħħa was opened.
As soon as Malta got Saħħa, a new precedent was set for anyone justifiably worried about the pandemic; daily statistics, updated totals, and a new era of added transparency.
In an effort to make sure Malta’s positive statistics got as much airtime as the rest of the figures (or much more if some people had their way), it didn’t take long for the spin to kick off.
From Day One, a commendable strong point in Malta’s COVID-19 strategy has been to test as many people as logistically possible. Every day, we kept being told that 1,000, then 2,000, then even 3,000 people were being swabbed on a daily basis. Great.
Eventually, however, even a positive statistic like that was treated to some good old government-sanctioned spin, with Malta’s high testing rate first being used to pit us as “the best in the world”, and then used to justify why the islands were going through a worrying second wave mere weeks later.
What didn’t change throughout all of this, however, was a related statistic that was getting more irrelevant and unnecessary as the weeks rolled on; the total number of swab tests conducted in Malta… ever.
Beyond the fact that someone can very easily test positive for COVID-19 days after testing negative due to the nature of the virus and its relatively long and dormant incubation period, it was soon evident that the total number of swab tests was hardly adding anything useful to the conversation.
However, what it was doing was stockpiling a shiny big number that the likes of Robert Abela could wave at “all the haters” every now and then, shutting them up with an attractive number that only kept getting bigger. After all, this is Malta, where no matter what, bigger has to be better.
And all of this doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that people like our very own Prime Minister were using this constantly-growing number to spin per capita statistics and play down down Malta’s other, more worrying numbers.
And while the evident effort to be more transparent than usual is definitely admirable, it’s hard to not see beyond the thin mist of deceit that presented itself at times.
There are tens of thousands of people out there who have either been swabbed or know someone who has. It might’ve been last week, it might’ve been last month, or it might’ve even been back in April 2020. They might’ve even been swabbed more than once… or contracted COVID-19 later, only to recover. And hey, they might’ve even been swabbed a couple of weeks later after another scare.
There’s even a large number of people out there – from frontliners and healthcare workers to shop assistants and other employees in the private sector – who have been swabbed much more than once, either as a formality before a particular event or as part of new workplace regulations.
Not to mention all the people who were getting tested at least twice to confirm they’ve recovered, effectively taking up a total of three tests each every single time they’re infected. So that means the total number of people swabbed is actually a smaller number than that big number Saħħa shares every day. Probably significantly smaller. Welcome back, spin.
As the total number of swab tests ever conducted on the island continues to rise, the true nature and implications of this figure continue to get muddied by the realities of everyday life, essentially rendering the number statistically useless. But in the name of transparency (and the definitely accidental pro of a positive statistic), health authorities keep pushing it out on a daily basis.
After all, if anyone was inclined to find out how many people have been swabbed since the beginning, they can still easily find that number out by adding up all the daily statistics. Is it a hassle? Sure. But is the number actually important in the grand scheme of things? Not really. And one could easily argue it hasn’t been for quite some time now.
Because what started as a commendable precaution has now become a daily necessity, and nearly a full year into this new, drearier normal, it’s time to look ahead at future plans instead of patting ourselves on the back for past achievements.
Now, with 2021 well underway – and with it the fabled “road to normality” – a new, important statistic has emerged… but it’s still nowhere to be seen.
In the words of the very leaders seeing us through this tumultuous time, normality can only really be achieved by vaccinating as many people as possible against COVID-19, as soon as possible. And sure, Robert Abela has said we’ve achieved normality a couple of times before – only to go back on his own words and say he never said that – but that’s neither here nor there.
And as COVID-19 active cases continue to break records daily (yesterday’s record of 2,601 active cases broke the day before’s, which broke the day before’s, and so on), every country in the world has essentially joined a race against itself. With daily testing stabilising at three thousand, new cases always hitting tripe digits and a couple of deaths serving up a harsh dose of reality every now and then, all the numbers we’ve been following are now competing against a brand new number; daily vaccinations.
At its heart, this newcomer in the statistics race has all the makings of health authorities’ new favourite number.
After all, here’s one number that everyone will be delighted to see increasing on a daily basis… and one that’s actually vital to our country’s return to normality. But 18 days after Malta’s first COVID-19 vaccination, daily figures on just how many people are getting the jab are still nowhere to be seen.
So why isn’t the public being told exactly how many people are getting vaccinated every day, along with the total number so far? Well, there’s a couple of possible explanations… and none are looking too great.
Firstly, you have the issue of Malta’s vaccine roll-out being criticised for its speed and efficiency (or lack thereof). With promises of at least 10,000 doses being delivered every week, doctors called out the national roll-out a week into the country’s vaccination effort, complaining that only one in 10 healthcare workers had been vaccinated.
“It is public knowledge that the government has in its freezers many more vaccines than frontliners, and about 19,000 vaccines remain idle in the freezers,” Malta’s Medical Association said.
Speaking to the Times of Malta days into 2021, health authorities confirmed that the number of people vaccinated was expected to increase to 2,000 a week within days and increase exponentially to 5,000 a week.
But with these targets, the MAM said it would take more than three years to vaccinate all of the Maltese population. Forget comparisons to countries like Israel, which vaccinated one million people in less than two weeks. After all, there are logistical limitations with Malta’s infrastructure and human resources… ones that end up seeing a tiny country just over 25 kilometres long still not manage to vaccinate everyone for months to come.
At the same time, you even have people who have been dead for decades receiving letters informing them about their COVID-19 vaccine appointment.
So there’s that.
Of course, health authorities can easily dismiss all of the above as Maltese doctors being one collective Negative Nancy. They can also quell public concern and help spread some well-needed positivity by publishing the number of people being vaccinated daily, even adding up the full number on the side to distract from the still-worrying daily numbers.
It’s not like this would be a completely new and unexpected tactic; just last month, as Malta continued to hit grim milestones days before a Christmastime surge in cases, Saħħa made sure to publish the total number of people vaccinated against the flu, boasting about the commendable record the island had just hit. And it wasn’t the first time last season either, with another post being shared in October after the island hit 100,000 flu vaccinations.
So where are the COVID-19 vaccine numbers?
Instead, we keep getting snippets of the bigger picture; a nurse here, an elderly care home resident there, and President George Vella.
And while all of these are great to see – especially when considering President Vella’s surprisingly strong statement – it’s the lack of everything else that has some people worried and others frustrated.
The latest figure we’ve been given is “over 4,000”, with projections of 16,000 people being vaccinated by the end of January. We were also told that, with every country choosing a different tactic, Malta has erred on the side of caution by reserving every vaccinated person’s second dose instead of using up every single jab and risk losing all its progress should an unspeakable vaccine shortage arise.
But with every other number being updated way more frequently and clearly, what’s keeping us from doing the same to the most important number right now? Not so fast kids… here’s how many tests we conducted since March 2020 instead.
All of this is by no means disregarding the countless frontliners who have worked tirelessly to swab so many thousands of people over the last months. After all, the only reason we’re even aware of what the current situation is like is thanks to the people risking their health on a daily basis and coming into contact with those of us who have been infected (some of whom out of pure selfishness).
In fact, there’s no real need to stop publishing any figures, even those as technically unnecessary as the number of people who got swabbed a year ago. After all, we should be pushing for more transparency, not less.