2020: A year which sets the cat among the pigeons

Author: George Mangion
Published on Malta BusinessToday 9 April 2020

a year which sets the cat among the pigeonsIn Malta, with an aging population and a growing trust gap between politicians and ordinary people, the lack of adequate investment in physical, social, and economic infrastructure is further accentuating the problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

With most professional staff in the financial services and banking sector working from home, now for the fourth week running, one cannot but reflect how our lives have changed dramatically listening to the regular daily sad news about the spread of the pandemic.

This fills the media waves making our subconscious feeling depressed and bereft of new inspirations. Can you blame us when none of us cocooned at home can look into a crystal ball and know exactly where we will be in the summertime? But if we will be in a bad place, we can make smart decisions not to slacken our resolve and keep up with the social distancing as advised by the health authorities.

We are witnessing how political leaders are constantly vying for attention reminding us that the sun will soon shine over the cloudy days that lie ahead of us in this Good Friday week.

Little can we empathize with how the elderly, vulnerable persons and pregnant women project their future in these dismal times. It is in the spirit of solidarity and other Christian virtues that we must support them in their temporary isolation as advised by the health authorities.

The bitter pill is the need to face the boredom of staying indoors and contemplate on their lack of mobility and human interaction. The picture they get from the media is that there is no way we can avoid drinking from the poisoned chalice of a pandemic – it comes with no known date of closure.

Recently, the unexpected happened with the entire Ħal Far open centre put under quarantine to try to contain the spread of COVID-19 after a number of migrants contracted the virus. Now, that the inevitable has happened, and the army has been called in to keep guard at the open centre, we need to ensure the response to close the entire compound is grounded in solidarity and protection.

Society needs to come together to help an estimated 1,000 residents in Hal Far who often lack basic items on a good day, let alone when they are unable to work for a quarantine period of 14 days. It is then up to our political leaders to think outside the box and in a non-partisan manner share the burden of the suffering among all and sundry.

This is a call for common sacrifice, burden-sharing, and cohesive national policy. We have thousands of healthcare workers and other public servants putting their health and lives at risk to treat those infected both now and in the future. Can we give them a bonus in recognition of their extra duties?

We have teleworkers denying themselves not only the luxury of social life but the necessity of the company of their own families and loved ones at a time of great psychological stress in order not to risk contaminating them.

It is no comfort to hear stories of privileges enjoyed by political cronies who seem to have a grip over the state coffers to stick the snouts deeper in the country ’s trough.

The news that AirMalta has sacked all its part-time cabin crew and wants to trim off pilot salaries to €1,200 monthly is a strong message that the burden needs to be seen to be shared equally with other state employees.

This, of course, has been recommended by a sociology professor from university who suggests that a flat percentage is cut off all state employees’ salaries barring those who work in difficult environments such as the health, army, and police workforce.

Such a wage cut can be pooled into a fund to buy health equipment such as ventilators and secure alternate accommodation in hotels for the hundreds in quarantine. The noble gesture of three ministers who waived a month of salary is a gesture that should be replicated by other top salary earners in about 300 government agencies/regulators who may in a magnanimous move share the suffering of many business owners who have lost all trade since the beginning of March and face zero revenue with no reduction in operating expenses.

The government has not reduced any electricity tariffs neither taxes on fuel (even though oil prices are down to almost 35%). Business owners are making sacrifices to try and not to sack staff and to switch to working online at home. Can they succeed in keeping the commerce afloat? One cannot be so sure.

Granted that hotels, restaurants, bars, travel agents, casinos, owners of shops of non-essential goods, hairdressers, gyms, and many others cannot work remotely. There is some government aid for an effort not to terminate employees while others are making full use of leave entitlement. Typically, large hotel chains have placed their workers on a two-day routine and are trying to reduce their operating costs in the most pragmatic way.

Employees will be working from home for the first time, which means figuring out how to stay on task in a new environment that may not lend itself to productivity. But there are ways to deliver results and avoid going stir-crazy, from setting up a good workspace to the way you link to your team.

The challenge of remote working depends solely on who is managing the workers to maximize productivity, so traditional processes may not apply. Leadership practices must change for an organisation to get full value from telecommuting staff.

This means that with all good intentions and best endeavours companies admit that the teleworking performance will never match that which occurred when office routine was the norm.  Efficiency and productivity suffer in the long run.

In fact, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) forecasts that the global economy will expand by a mere 2.4% in 2020. It notes that rich economies are expected to grow at roughly the same uninspiring pace as they did in 2019. A continuation of the global slowdown in manufacturing will also drag down growth worldwide.

In just two weeks, the newly unemployed in the United States are now more numerous than all the new jobless claims from 2008 to 2010 during the entire Great Recession. These unemployment figures are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak distorting economic activity.

In Malta, with an aging population and a growing trust gap between politicians and ordinary people, the lack of adequate investment in physical, social, and economic infrastructure is further accentuating the problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Consider the three abrupt top ministerial resignations which have left a sour taste among the party faithful and the Opposition baying for retribution concerning a number of major political scandals that were regularly disclosed in a public blog by the assassinated journalist – Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The damage to the island’s reputation caused by such scandals as a financial domicile is palpable. The ECB’s recent reprimand to Bank of Valetta over AML and governance issues did send shock waves since this is a major bank which now, due to the Corona slowdown, is postponing its dividend payment.

In conclusion, the pandemic has galvanised the nation into strengthening the three pillars of governance, rule of law, and democracy.

George Mangion


Author: George Mangion
Published on Malta BusinessToday 9 April 2020
Get in touch: info@pkfmalta.com