Bright ideas needed to fight pandemic

Author: George Mangion
Published on Malta Independent 19 Apr 2020

Reading through the weekend press, critics wax lyrical on the current emptying of shelves of supermarkets by shoppers buying essential foods and face masks.
These days, public opinion is divided on who is right thereby adding pressure on the government to act sensibly for a humanitarian cause. Sadly, five migrants in a boat left stranded in Maltese waters have been found dead, with survivors saying another seven people are missing, presumed dead.

The hoarding is caused by fears about the potential scarcity of supplies following the intensive coronavirus scare. All non-essential shops and services have been closed and flights were stopped since last month but unlike many other European countries, Malta is not under a complete lockdown. The IMF latest report on Malta was mildly optimistic saying that this year the economy will shrink by 2.8% before rebounding into a strong 7% growth next year. Unemployment is also expected to rise to 5% this year, the IMF said, before falling slightly to 4.4% in 2021.

This may be reassuring yet there is a feeling of irritation when the media reported that the entire open centre housing over 1,000 immigrants is being cordoned off. The army is guarding the centre after the discovery of some residents who reported positive to corona tests. Critics lament that the health authorities should have given it a priority to test this centre as a matter of urgency given that the occupants could not keep the social distancing rules (mainly due to their confined accommodation facilities in steel containers).

This has now led the health authorities to order the lockdown of the entire community to be secluded in situ for a quarantine period (which is being extended). It is a humanitarian disaster for such immigrants trapped in the centre with no means of earning their livelihood. The discovery of infected immigrants in the open centre has fanned the fear that rescued immigrants arriving in their hundreds from Libya on rickety boats may exacerbate the incidence of new corona cases.

Evarist Bartolo, minister for foreign affairs claimed that both police and army resources will be spread too thin in their domestic fight against the pandemic if more boat people are rescued, so he decided to close the ports. Consequently, Malta demanded a fund of

€100 million in humanitarian aid from the EU principally to assist Libya in fighting the pandemic and stem the arrival of migrants by sea. It comes as no surprise that this drastic action to fund Libya was criticised by human rights activist Lara Dimitrijevic. She lambasted the Maltese proposal to pump EU money into Libya saying “Countless reports show migrants are kept in appalling situations and subjected to torture. Libya is not party to international conventions and is run by militias”. The temporary port closure created a ruckus among human rights activists who are baying for the order to be lifted fearing hundreds of fatalities.

These days, public opinion is divided on who is right thereby adding pressure on the government to act sensibly for a humanitarian cause. Sadly, five migrants in a boat left stranded in Maltese waters have been found dead, with survivors saying another seven people are missing, presumed dead.

Some 300 healthcare professionals have written to the prime minister, insisting that Malta cannot abandon migrants stranded on drifting boats. Civil society group Repubblika began court action against the cabinet, saying ministers should face criminal action for their decision to close the country’s ports. Observers think it is unlikely that Brussels will accede to the demands of Italy and Malta for extra funds to stem the tide of hundreds of war-stricken migrants desperately seeking shelter away from Libya. The pressure on Prime Minister Robert Abela is mounting and it is not helped by Opposition activists who are tenaciously accusing his predecessor Joseph Muscat to answer for the alleged scandal in the privatisation of three hospitals.

All the while, the Opposition has pleaded in court against the selling of three hospitals to VitalsHealthCare who had sold them to Stewards Health care. The original deal was signed under the obligation by Vitals to complete the refurbishing of the 800 beds at St Luke’s hospital. Such facilities were never carried out with the result that following the onset of the pandemic, the government was forced to invest millions to erect emergency hospital facilities to house potential corona victims.

This long introduction needs to be read in the light of Malta running an economy which prior to the onset of the pandemic was the envy of all EU states. A multi-million euro property market has flourished over the past seven years under Joseph Muscat’s baton. The GDP growth doubled in seven years as the island never seen such grandiose building projects and full employment.

Public land worth millions was granted to selected hoteliers at fire-sale prices to encourage the promotion of upmarket tourism. Such affluence came with wanton greed for erecting of soulless concrete structures that sent the average rents sky-high. During the so styled “Aqwa Zmien”: money was no problem and the economy flourished resulting in an acute shortage of workers which was partly solved by engaging third-country migrants. In fact, thanks to Muscat’s populist administration, the economy turned the corner unleashing a feel-good factor that saw the nation throwing caution to the wind. Let us celebrate our fortune while migrants clean our streets and foreigners serve us in hotels and restaurants.

An artificial sense of profligate living made us believe the party will never stop – but unfortunately, it did with the detection last December of a lethal virus in Hubei, China. So, one may ask what is the fly in the ointment of the proverbial aisle of milk and honey? Do we deserve such misfortune? Perhaps history repeats itself and human nature tends to score its own auto goals.

The Bible story of the seven years of bounty to be followed by another seven years of famine rings familiar. Notice, how the schools, university, hotels, restaurants, gyms, shops, cinemas, bars, and places of worship are shut as if the Martians have landed and scared everyone to stay indoors.

Economists warn us that this partial lockdown is anathema to inculcate a thriving economy, although as a temporary measure the solution of working at home serves to minimise human interaction. In truth, most firms suffer as efficiency and cash flow drops. International business so crucial to an economy mainly based on services is ad interim on the rocks. Wanted – discipline in following advice from health authorities plus a dose of creativity and innovation as these are the quintessential components for a sustainable recovery.

George Mangion


Author: George Mangion
Published on Malta Independent 19 Apr 2020
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