Candide lost his job because he kissed the boss’s chambermaid. Captured by an army, he was forced to fight. He deserted. Begging for food, he got a ride on a boat and was caught in a ravaging storm. He was thrown overboard but reached the shore promptly hitting an earthquake, a tsunami and a fire. He was tried by the inquisition and publicly flogged. All along he was stuck with Dr Pangloss, professor of metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology, who assured him at every misfortune he faced that it could have been worse. Candide was told he was living in the best of all possible worlds.

Mindless optimism is maddening and useless. Boris Johnson’s ministers keep saying the boss will ‘defeat’ his Covid-19 infection because he is a fighter and a model of resilience. As the devastating Emily Maitlis put it, personality does not kill a virus. Proper prevention, adequate care, expert health professionals and medical equipment do.

Cloaking oneself in Churchillian rhetoric and turning COVID-19 deaths into Dunkirk can help ‘keep our spirits up’ but what would be more useful is the reality of what we are. Political leaders are a needy sort. They hanker for applause. And at times like these, when pressure on them is crushing and their effort to do their bit to help us out of the situation is undoubted, they need it more than most other times.

Prime Minister Robert Abela cut a pathetic figure sitting in front of a standing Karl Stagno Navarra on the Labour Party’s TV station this week, lamenting the criticism he is facing. “To have people that are so insensitive that they try to capitalise on the fear that the Maltese people have right now, that’s something that can’t be forgiven, and it’s something that hurts me,” he said. “It’s something that shouldn’t happen, and shouldn’t be happening at this time of national unity.”

There it is again. National unity as a justification for discrediting dissenting views and for attempting to censor their expression this time by capitalising on the “fear that the Maltese people have”.

There is no doubt that fear is a factor in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Professing Panglossian reassurances that we are provided with the best possible guardianship by the best possible government in the best possible circumstances we had any right to hope for, we can be lulled for a while.

But drugging us all into a false sense of security is not going to help us make the choices we need to make, even if those choices are what the government wants them to be.

There is much that could be worse in the government’s response to coronavirus. In place of Chris Fearne, who is fast becoming everyone’s favourite TV anchor-man, we could have had Konrad Mizzi who was – you’d better believe it – health minister for a while and would not have been able to reassure a lottery winner that tomorrow they’d be able to eat.

But the government’s successes in this battle are not merely symbolic. At Mater Dei, they mobilised a response that seems ready for the wave to come. Testing has ramped up in significant numbers and in rather a short time. And, with some exceptions, information has been flowing.

Unquestioning obedience, even in the middle of a pandemic, benefits no one

But however deservedly admired Fearne and Superintendent Charmaine Gauci may be, flattery is not going to get us anywhere. Unquestioning obedience, even in the middle of a pandemic, benefits no one. And the way the two are dealing with questions on the response by Steward may change the public’s relationship with them. If questions are not asked, there’s every chance someone blunders. There’s every chance blunders are happening right now. If it’s ours not to make reply, ours not to reason why, then ours but to do and die. Frankly, no.

The country’s response to COVID-19 in Gozo appears to be weaker than the response in Malta. It is legitimate to ask if facilities in the responsibility of Steward Health Care are up to scratch. We know the company is broke, that it is asking the government to pay it millions, and that Steward is meant for profit first, healthcare second. Do we know if their state of readiness for this disease meets the government’s exacting standards for Mater Dei?

The government’s instructions on social distancing are ambiguous and often conflicting. Government ministers continue to conduct photo opportunities with front line responders (photos with soldiers and nurses, say) where people are well within the recommended two metre distance and, in any case, are disobeying their own guidelines about unnecessary travel endangering our front-line combatants, all for that applause ministers crave.

The government’s plans for people living in communities are showing weakness. They are heedless to warnings about what may lie ahead in the migrants’ centres, and the prisons are becoming a suffocating pressure cooker. Old people’s homes look especially vulnerable.

The government’s response to the economic collapse has been jittery and the eventual enhancements to its poor initial effort prove that criticising government decisions is useful because it serves the purpose of reminding the authorities what they forgot to take care of.

For weeks now, we’ve heard absolutely nothing from our economy ministers which in times like these is chilling silence indeed.

The government’s ability to coordinate their business looks hopelessly weak. They issued a statement lambasting Identity Malta for attempting to exile children amid  a pestilence as if Identity Malta existed independently of government. There too was another blunder that needed the outrage it received to be reversed and fixed.

Yes, Abela has a tough job on his hands. But instead of seeking the dubious privilege of Stagno Navarra’s paid-for adulation, he should not mind facing criticism. It will be more reassuring to know our prime minister is covering all bases in times like these, even some he didn’t think of before his critics pointed them out to him.

It could be worse. If citizens are allowed to speak freely and they’re listened to, it could be better.

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