“Lockdowns are a very, very last resort and can be avoided.”
This statement wasn’t passed by Robert Abela, Silvio Schembri or an aggrieved Maltese bar owner, but by the WHO’s regional director for Europe Hans Kluge.
However, it’s a perspective that has clearly permeated the Prime Minister’s mind as he tries out a different strategy to combat the pandemic’s second wave than the instant quasi-lockdown he imposed on the country eight months ago.
Bars have been forced to shut down, public gatherings have been severely limited, masks have become mandatory, but schools, restaurants, shops, hairdressers, gyms and the airport are still open.
But as European countries respond to their second wave by locking down one by one, Malta’s strategy of trying to protect the healthcare system while allowing large parts of the economy to remain open is starting to stick out like a sore thumb.
When announcing lockdowns, all European leaders have stressed the same point – they are crucial to avoid overwhelming their healthcare systems.
While doctors and medical groups in Malta have warned their workload has increased due to the pandemic, the government has so far responded by bulking up its human resources, hiring 200 nurses over a period of months and boosting its COVID-19 case management and contact tracing team from 30 to 100 people.
Malta’s testing rate remains extremely high, the 12th highest worldwide as of the time of writing, its COVID-19 death rate has gone from being the worst in Europe to the 17th worst and the number of patients receiving intensive care has remained stable.
Neither Health Minister Chris Fearne nor Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci have called for a lockdown and during her most recent press briefing, Gauci didn’t mention the word ‘lockdown’ once, only urging the public to abide by the current measures.
Both her and Fearne know full well that their voices are so powerful that their endorsement of such a strategy would almost certainly force the Prime Minister’s hand. If they believe the situation within Malta’s healthcare system is such that requires a lockdown and they’re staying silent, they should both resign for negligence of duty.
However, the alternative is that they still believe lockdown can be avoided, and if it can be avoided then it should be avoided.
It’s a simple, glaring fact that lockdown can be extremely damaging to many people’s lives, particularly poorer people, something the WHO has quite crudely referred to as “collateral damage”.
If COVID-19 is a war, then lockdown is akin to burning down your own crops and villages to try and starve the enemy as it advances towards your fortress.
Malta has so far been largely spared from the economic disaster that has befallen other countries – the government has stepped in to keep businesses afloat, with Abela recently saying around half the private sector is receiving some form of COVID-19 subsidy.
The latest official unemployment rate stood at 4.1%, remarkably lower than it was a few months ago. However, the strategy is clearly unsustainable in the long-term and unless a safe and effective vaccine is distributed in the near future, the seams will start to tear apart, which is when things will get really ugly.
Claiming this is an issue of money versus saving lives is not only an extremely facile argument but also an inaccurate one.
Take this recent study by paediatric consultant and health researcher Victor Grech and leading economist Stephanie Fabri, who tried to assess the impact economic hardship caused by COVID-19 restrictions will deal on people’s lives.
Its findings? Economic hardship could prove to be more deadly than the virus itself and more years of life could be lost due to recession than would be gained through lives saved, a dangerous irony if ever there was one.
The government shouldn’t ignore this advice, nor should it ignore the rumblings of discontent in Malta which have ended up escalating into full-blown desperate and violent riots overseas.
Although Malta is going through its deadliest period since the start of the pandemic, there are clear signs that people are more disgruntled at the restrictions than they were last March.
Rather than stocking their shelves, people are still going out for entertainment reasons and there are early reports of properties being secretly rented out for house parties.
Gone are the evening claps for healthcare workers, the Facebook Live parties and shows, the feel-good Zoom videos and the businesses voluntarily shutting themselves down.
Now bar owners and freelancers are accusing the government of killing their operations, thousands of people joined a Facebook group against mandatory masks within a few days before the social media giant closed it down, and not even Charmaine Gauci has escaped criticism.
COVID-19 fatigue is here and unless we’re careful, it could descend into COVID-19 rage, just as it has in Italy, Spain and Germany, where anti-lockdown protests have turned violent.
This is unsurprising. Governments have a responsibility not to push their own people into poverty, and if they ignore this responsibility then people are going to react and social distancing be damned, which would render the whole thing counter-productive.
Robert Abela often gets criticised for “caring more about money than people’s lives” when he insists that a balance must be struck between safeguarding lives from COVID-19 and livelihoods from COVID-19 restrictions, but it is this kind of situation (and worse) that he is trying to avoid.
Not imposing a lockdown is certainly a risk but imposing one is just as much of a risk. In the absence of any warning by the nation’s health leaders, reluctance is the right move.