This is not what herd immunity was supposed to look like. Seven months after making this declaration, Chris Fearne has dragged the nation back into a sense of COVID-19 uncertainty.
Masks are now mandatory in all public places again and from past experience, we can expect law enforcement to be extremely zealous. Police will once again start fining people for walking their dog without a mask, for going on a stroll in the countryside or for taking a bite to eat.
When the weather starts heating up, we can even expect police to return to the beaches and clamp down on maskless sunbathers.
Yet Fearne failed to explain exactly why this new restriction was introduced and what it means for the pandemic moving forward other than a vague statement that it will help keep hospital admissions low.
And that’s a problem.
Since the pandemic broke out in March 2020, the people of Malta have been largely compliant with the advice and directions issued by the health authorities. People sat through two quasi-lockdowns without resorting to violent protests like in other European countries and when the time came to get vaccinated, over 90% got the jab.
There wasn’t much resistance from the Maltese media or the Opposition either and a MaltaToday survey ranked Fearne as Malta’s most popular minister by far.
Even when things went badly wrong, such as the government’s infamous U-turn over its pledge for “business as usual” to return by May 2021, it was usually Prime Minister Robert Abela who took the blame.
The reason is simple – people largely believed that the health authorities knew what they were doing.
Fearne, an experienced surgeon and politician, was the perfect man for the job, someone capable of both explaining medical situations to the general public and providing a sense of hope that things will get better, but without Abela’s brash style.
He and Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci, whose daily breakdowns of the pandemic situation helped calm the nation at the start, were a formidable double act. Gauci and other infectious disease experts were even awarded the Ġieħ ir-Repubblika.
It’s no wonder that Abela ended up taking a backseat, giving Fearne full control over all COVID-19 announcements.
However, the game has now changed. When COVID-19 restrictions were last introduced, people were made to believe that this would be a temporary sacrifice to prevent hospitals from getting overwhelmed ahead of the vaccine’s arrival. The restrictions were damaging on several people, but the vaccine was the light at the end of the tunnel.
It was a powerful narrative and it worked.
Over 90% of eligible people in Malta have now been fully vaccinated against the virus and at some point Malta even topped global vaccination rankings. As of yesterday, some 33% of people – a third of the nation – have also received their booster shot.
All signs show the vaccine is having its desired effect.
As of yesterday, 23 COVID-19 patients were hospitalised at Mater Dei, three of whom were in intensive care, both figures down from the previous day. Both of these figures have remained relatively stable in recent months.
The health authorities haven’t stated how many of these 23 patients had received their booster. However, on 12th November, when there were 16 COVID-19 patients and three in intensive care, Fearne made it a point to stress that none of them had received their booster.
As Infectious Diseases Unit head Charles Mallia Azzopardi pointed out, the hospital situation is miles better than it was at this point last year, when there were over 170 COVID-19 patients, spread out over several hospitals.
So why introduce the mask mandate now?
Fearne didn’t exactly give a straight explanation but it appears to be a move to pre-empt the eventual arrival of the Omicron variant, a heavily mutated version of coronavirus.
Yet even the WHO has said there’s no sign that Omicron is better at evading vaccines than other variants in terms of severe disease and hospitalisations. In fact, they noted that initial data suggests Omicron is actually less severe than the currently prevalent Delta variant.
As Fearne pointed out in his press conference, Pfizer also announced that three doses provide a similar level of antibodies to combat Omicron as that of two doses against other variants.
By imposing a mask mandate, Fearne has indicated his willingness to disrupt people’s lives at a moment’s notice, without even feeling the need to explain to them in great detail why this is necessary. He is taking the trust he has enjoyed from the people of Malta for so long for granted.
If the light at the end of the tunnel that people were promised for so long turns out to be just the entrance to another tunnel, fewer people will believe the health authorities know what they’re doing. They will feel deceived and trust in the authorities will start to erode.
And if trust in the health authorities erodes, the ultimate risk is that people will feel less confident in the vaccine, all this at a time when they’re being encouraged to take the booster.
Several people are already asking what the point of getting vaccinated was if they’re still going to face restrictions. It’s a feeling of deception and discontent that can snowball.
Fearne and the health authorities should not take this lightly.
Should Malta repeal its mask mandate?