The way Malta has so far handled the COVID-19 situation has been exemplary. These aren’t my words, but those of the WHO’s Regional Director for Europe, Dr Hans Kluge, who, at the end of March, tweeted:
#COVID-19 Congratulations deputy prime minister Fearne for the #publichealth measures! #Malta is on the right track and an example to follow #UnitedActionforBetterHealth @WHO_Europe
And there’s no denying it, really. Malta, thanks to the intervention of people like Minister Fearne and our Superintendent for Health, Professor Charmaine Gauci, has managed to control the virus and its spread through a series of timely and adequate measures.
Yet the more time passes, the more people in the highest echelons of power seem to want to be seen to be doing something, anything, to remain in the spotlight. But all this is starting to cause confusion.
Take the recent advice (or was it legislation?) on people having to wear masks whenever they are in shops, on public transport, on the Gozo ferry, or in any enclosed space, and you’ll soon see what I mean. First, we were told that we had to wear them, then (I think, I’m not even sure anymore) we were told that we should wear them but it was up to us, then we were told that being caught not wearing a mask in a shop could lead to a fine of up to €4,650 or two years’ imprisonment, and, finally, we were told that there was no fine but that we should simply follow the Superintendent’s advice.
This was made even more confusing by the fact that Economy Minister Silvio Schembri told us that the prices of face masks were being capped at €0.95c and those of face shields at €5. But he did so without consulting the Chamber of Pharmacists, which led to the latter issuing a controversial notice to pharmacists not to sell any masks at all. But if people couldn’t get their hands on masks, and they could be fined for being at a shop without one on, then what were they meant to do if they had to urgently go out to buy food, for example?
Of course, I understand that these are turbulent times and that the Government has to work quickly, so, yes, not everything is going to be as perfect as they’d like it to be. But when you’ve had nine weeks to come up with a price cap on essential items like masks and visors, then consulting those who are going to be selling them seems like the least one could do.
But it doesn’t stop there, sadly.
- We had the prime minister (a person who, obviously, meets with a lot of people and should, therefore, be considered high-risk to those who are vulnerable) go to old people’s homes when their relatives, who may be staying inside and safe and therefore are of no threat to the elderly, aren’t allowed to.
- We opened the spring hunting season but kept telling others not to leave the safety of their homes unless absolutely necessary. You know, because sacrificing one’s enjoyment for the benefit of others is only the preserve of those of us who don’t shoot at birds.
- We had shops being reopened this Monday, but our national TV station is still running adverts telling people not to go out unless absolutely necessary.
- And we had the measure of asking those who are over 65 and/or vulnerable to stay at home, but there was a whole confusion about what people living with them were meant to do if they had to go out for work, to buy food, and so on.
Honestly, even just writing this article has got me confused. So many people seem to be issuing contradictory statements or going against their own words and advice, that I’m not sure what we are being told to do anymore…
Needless to say, we shouldn’t need government directives to keep ourselves and others out of harm’s way. We should wear a mask whether we get fined for not doing so or not. We shouldn’t visit our elderly relatives because it may endanger their lives. We shouldn’t stay in groups because there’s a higher probability of infection, not because the police might stop us. And, if we do catch the Coronavirus, we should remain isolated because it’s the right thing to do, not because we might get fined.
In the end, however, what those in power need to remember is that if they are not seen to be pulling the same rope and sticking to the same story, then they can’t expect people to follow orders and directives, at least, not well.
In times like these, it is essential that the information that comes from the government is clear and complete, with no room for interpretation or misunderstanding, because if different people in authority are going to be contradicting each other – no doubt trying to appear to be the one with the reigns or pandering to populist selfishness – then all the efforts made to curb the spread of COVID-19 will disintegrate into nothing.