Malta unmasked

Author: George Mangion
Published on Malta BusinessToday 4th June 2020

The prime minister is smiling and telling us that normality starts next Friday. Most lockdowns have been lifted starting from the start of next week. No mass gatherings allowed, but the six-person limit is removed. Imagine, entering a bar sitting at a table (2 metres distance from the next one) and ordering a beer when wearing a mask. Not easy-drinking unless one uses a straw.

Still, it is a beginning and one hopes that slowly bars, gyms, and other non-essential shops will reopen for business. Whether there will be brisk business – is another issue. In the early days of the pandemic, many governments warned the public against wearing face masks for fear demand would leave frontline health workers without vital supplies and that it may lull people into a false sense of security. As more masks and personal protective equipment was being produced in China, negotiations with European importers started in earnest and more countries change their minds to oblige citizens to wear a mask when venturing outside.

Why is a mask essential? This is because when sneezing many of the larger droplets will quickly settle onto nearby surfaces while smaller ones remain suspended in the air for hours, where they can be breathed in. While the behaviour of the virus-filled droplets in rooms with air conditioning and outside environments are less well understood, they are thought to settle onto surfaces more quickly in disturbed air. Even experts who advocate masking of communities say their impact on the spread of disease is likely to be modest. As stated earlier, it is obvious that due to the of scarcity of PPE, most health authorities acted prudently and first made, sure enough, masks are available for hospital staff.

Now, three months since the start of the pandemic our public health experts insist that we all must wear a face mask. In fact, in Paris, the wearing of designer masks is becoming quite fashionable. While medical-grade masks such as the N-95 mask provide the best protection against the spread, they’re hard to find and are mostly reserved for use by frontline healthcare workers.

Masks are really a perfectly good public health intervention mainly as a means to protect people against the droplets coming out of their respiratory tract especially from infected people. It is true that people who feel ill aren’t supposed to go out at all, but initial evidence suggests people without symptoms may also transmit the coronavirus without knowing they’re infected. Surveys show how nearly half of SARS-CoV-2 transmissions occur before the infected person shows any symptoms.

The mystery thickens when persons seem to contract and clear the virus without ever feeling sick. Politicians themselves have become examples of the divide whether to wear or not to wear. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have refused to wear them on several occasions, while former Vice President Joe Biden has called the president a “fool” for giving in to “falsely masculine” behaviour instead of wearing a mask.

The stark reality is that the virus is alive and kicking. Take Italy – our neighbour. Recently, it reported 427 more deaths in a day, bringing its overall toll to 33,530.  This means more people have now died in the land of “La Dolce Vita “ than in China, where it originated.

Back home, our prime minister is gung ho. He confirmed that a mini-budget will be announced next week with generous measures to further incentivise businesses. This week, he proudly announced on State TV that his government want businesses to be up and running. Domestic demand must be rekindled with a feel-good factor. Notice how safe we are now – such that the airport will reopen on July 1, initially with direct flight services to 19 countries. Tourists need not stand for quarantine. They need not be tested as we expect them to be clean as the driven snow. Expect majority of the civil servants who for the past three months worked safely from home to return to their workplaces next week.

But schools and the university will wait till the start of September to open doors for students. Soon, we shall look back with awe at the number of weeks we worked from our kitchen tables. Starting off, then an employee is required to have a computer, a telephone and a working internet connection to work from home. Employers were advised to first ensure that the employee is reminded of his basic obligations towards the company, i.e. confidentiality, productivity and trust. Telephone calls ruled the roost while some workers had to tend to their children while answering calls. Little did we worry about the precarious situation where working from home most overlooked the issue of data security.

To be honest, confidentiality and data protection are not necessarily the same thing but go hand in hand. Information subject to data protection is usually confidential in nature but not all confidential information is subject to data protection. The obligation of confidentiality is about the non-disclosure of work-related or work-sensitive information, such as business plans, strategies, accounts, internal communications or client briefs.

In some sectors, such as banking or professional services, confidentiality is taken a step further with professional secrecy mandated at law. Still most performed their daily tasks encouraged not to lose their job so they tried to work in a particular room away from family members. When both partners are working at home, they promise not to discuss details on work; keeping the computer locked under a password known only to the teleworker; preferably working over a remote desktop and Virtual Private Network (VPN), allowing one to disconnect from the virtual desktop; not save work on the home computer, and to be careful not to leave laptops and materials from the office unattended or in unsecured places.

So while the ubiquitous face mask is mild security for our personal health but working from home exposes us to other risks – cybersecurity.  We have all received those scam e-mails asking for our bank accounts to deposit millions of dollars. Next week, as more locked-up businesses reopen in Malta more employees return to work, masks can play a pivotal role in helping block the spread of the virus, especially from asymptomatic carriers. The more people in a given space wear masks at their place of work, the less viral particles are making it into the space around them, decreasing exposure and risk. Will wearing masks become a habit for us as is the case in Asian countries? Not likely. One bets that Malta will be the first in the Med to become unmasked.

In conclusion, following every great crisis, the world witnessed an increase in innovation, and new business ideas and models. Likewise, Malta should ensure that anyone with a great idea can find the right support to kick this off now.

George Mangion


Author: George Mangion
Published on Malta BusinessToday 4th June 2020
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