It flew under the radar a bit but yesterday’s developments marked an important chapter in Malta’s COVID-19 crisis.
Prime Minister Robert Abela left the island for the first time since the pandemic broke out in March, travelling to Libya with two other ministers for an official meeting on migration with the North African country’s Prime Minister.
He flew back to Malta a few hours later having signed a memorandum of understanding for Malta and Libya to coordinate their operations against illegal migration, and that was supposed to be that.
Only it wasn’t.
Since 13th March, everyone who arrives in Malta has been obliged to self-quarantine for 14 days, a requirement whose breach carries a €3,000 fine. A warning to this regard can be found on the Malta International Airport’s website.
Logically, this means that Abela, as well as Foreign Affairs Minister Evarist Bartolo and Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri, who accompanied him to Libya, must self-quarantine for two weeks.
Some may argue that high-ranking government officials should be exempt to this rule for foreign visits in the national interest, but nowhere has it been made public that these exceptions even exist in the first place.
And why should they? This is supposed to be a health crisis and the coronavirus doesn’t discriminate based on status. It can infect Abela just as easily as it can infect everyone else. And while Libya may not have recorded high coronavirus numbers, Malta’s travel ban applies to all countries, regardless of how well they have managed to control the pandemic. Besides, it has closed its ports to migrants arriving from Libya because of the pandemic.
Even if the Prime Minister doesn’t feel any symptoms, we all know now that a significant percentage of COVID-19 cases (we don’t how large a percentage yet) are asymptomatic.
Abela, Bartolo and Camilleri might therefore choose to quarantine themselves for two weeks, placing the risk that they might have got infected in Libya over all other considerations involved with having a country’s Prime Minister, Foreign Affairs Minister and Home Affairs Minister all homebound for 14 days.
If they don’t, it will mean one of two things:
Perhaps they believe that the law doesn’t apply to them, a situation that will mean the government is applying double standards to the crisis and place Malta in a similar situation to the UK, where debate is raging over senior government adviser Dominic Cummings’ apparent breach of social distancing guidelines.
This will of course be extremely unjust and people who have obeyed the quarantine law or who have been fined for breaching it will have every right to feel outraged.
But perhaps this incident signifies a shift in Abela’s approach to the crisis and that the Prime Minister believes the risk of getting the virus can be outweighed by other factors. Perhaps the importance of securing a migration deal with Libya, including the sign of goodwill by shaking his Libyan counterpart’s hand, was worth the risk of getting the virus.
If that’s the case, then he has no other option but to change the self-quarantine law for travellers, which means opening the Malta International Airport to passenger flights.
After all, what other factors are less risky than potentially getting the virus? What about the thousands of workers in the tourism industry whose jobs are on the line if Malta remains closed for the summer? What about the several restaurants and other businesses who will be forced to close down permanently if there are no tourists to serve? Are these people’s livelihoods any less important than stopping migrants from coming to Malta?
And if the government chooses to provide them with wage supplements for the long term, what risk will that pose to Malta’s public coffers?
It’s simply unsustainable for the government to keep forking out millions in wage supplements while simultaneously losing millions in unpaid revenue for the long term, particularly since no one knows when or if a COVID-19 vaccine will be on the market.
So how will the price be paid? Will it be through higher taxes, lower pensions or lower benefits? Is the social cost of this strategy a worthy compensation for the increased risk of coronavirus infection if the airport opens up?
Every action or inaction is a risk at this stage. The world still doesn’t know much about COVID-19 although it knows more about it than it did a few months ago. In Malta’s case, over 500 people who got infected have recovered and unfortunately seven have died.
However, all of these patients had underlying health conditions and three were in their 90s. Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci has also confirmed that not all the seven casualties necessarily died from the virus and that Malta is following the WHO’s guidelines to report deaths in patients who are still COVID positive at the time of death.
Just as many countries worldwide, Malta has acted strongly to combat the spread of the virus, even placing the livelihoods and mental health of thousands of its citizens on the back-burner.
However, as time goes by, the non-sustainability of this approach has become more and more apparent and, by not going into self-quarantine after visiting Libya, Abela will be sending his strongest sign yet that he believes the cure shouldn’t be deadlier than the disease.
The next step becomes obvious. Abela should open the airport in time for summer, with new measures to combat the risk of COVID-19 but without overly stringent restrictions such as a two-week quarantine period that will put practically all tourists off from visiting Malta.