Five days before the budget was presented, the Labour Party celebrated its first centenary. A hundred years ago, working people were trying to recover from a pandemic and a recession that had wreaked havoc on their livelihoods. The government of that time, conservative to its core, was not helping. It responded to recession with austerity, inflicting even more pain.

The Labour movement which arose in response wanted a better future. It dreamt of prosperity, of freedom, of equality. A movement born of hope and optimism, geared to achieve progress and change. A hundred years later, this movement is leading this country when we are facing an economic challenge as difficult as that of those days.

The COVID-19 pandemic is different in many ways from previous economic crises. Generally, whenever an external economic shock hits us, it mostly strikes industries dominated by men, most typically manufacturing. This shock has instead decimated demand for services sectors, especially those dominated by female employees.

When the number of registered unemployed hit its peak, a few days before the launch of the economic regeneration plan in June, there were nearly 1,780 women registering for work. This was three-and-a-half times the number of women that had been registering before the pandemic struck us. The rise in men registering for work was relatively half as pronounced as that.

This is not happening just in Malta. The most recent UN Women’s report concludes that the pandemic will widen the gender poverty gap by pushing millions of women into poverty due to the type of jobs they have. Also, the pandemic is leading many women to leave their jobs to care for children.

After the hard-won gains we made in Malta in this sphere in recent years, it is vital to ensure this does not happen here. This recovery is not just an economic issue. This time it is also a gender equality issue.

Thankfully, the June economic regeneration plan has done wonders. Half the women who had lost their jobs till early June are now back working. The vouchers that boosted domestic consumption helped hundreds of women to regain their economic independence.    

This is one of the main reasons why I welcome the budget for 2021. With the relaunch of the voucher scheme, and the launch of so many other measures to boost disposable income, the ser­vices sectors on which so many women depend for their livelihood, now have a fighting chance.

This time it is also a gender equality issue

The improvement of children’s allowances, the rise in the in-work benefit and the enhanced tax refunds for those on low incomes will benefit mostly women. The reopening of schools will help working mothers return to normal hours of work and boost their income again. This progressive budget is doing a lot to safeguard the great strides forward for women achieved since 2013.

I welcome a number of social measures that aim to address the injustices of the past. Those who paid contributions but not enough to qualify for a pension, mostly women, were given another benefit boost.

More importantly, women who had contributed between the age of 16 and 19, but who for some arcane reason were being denied these contributions, will now get them, and consequently qualify for a pension for the first time.

Thousands of women will bene­fit from improved supple­menta­ry assistance, free public trans­port, better old age pensions and survivors’ benefits. Those, mostly women, who stop working to care for their disabled children will now get a carer’s grant.

But this budget was not just about women. It was also a budget for the environment.

At last we will consign single-use plastics to the garbage heap of history. A more generous car scrappage scheme will tempt ma­ny to switch to less-polluting cars. The public sector will begin the shift of its vehicle fleet to electric. The commercial sector will start to sepa­rate its waste. The bottle refund scheme will finally begin.  The national park will be exten­ded. Green walls and grey-to-green schemes are to be launch­ed.

The quarantine facilities for small animals will be improved. The pet cemetery project will begin.

A biodiversity strategy will be developed.

 Beyond COVID-19, a better future beckons.    

Lydia Abela, lawyer and wife of the Prime Minister

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