The first case of COVID-19 in Malta was reported on March 7, 2020 and, to this day, this news still resonates in my ears. The fear of the unknown is still the cause of many uncertainties and disruptions in our daily lives.

The pandemic has had a direct medical, economic, social and cultural hit on all our lives. Many families have experienced a decline or loss in wages, with some even suffering unemployment. For most of us, the home has become an office and a classroom for our children. The full effects of the pandemic will only be known in the fullness of time.

But it is certainly one of the most profound and challenging events of our history. After 15 years working in education and with a background in sociology, I know that these changes will have a massive impact, not only here in Malta but on societies around the world. Again, no one knows how it will turn out. Uncertainty again!

Many of you will know me from my involvement as a performer and presenter in the music industry in Malta. As a result, I have been particularly concerned at the direct impact of the pandemic on the arts and feel moved to speak about it.

The cancellation of cultural events, owing to increased restrictions and social distancing measures, has meant that artists have been laid off worldwide.

Internationally acclaimed orchestras and opera houses have been made unemployed literally overnight. Even world-renowned groups such as Cirque de Soleil (whose performance I was privileged to have attended when they visited Malta) have found their sources of income suddenly cut off. And not just for a few months but for over a year.

To put you in the picture, even before the pandemic, artists’ working conditions were difficult. Most do not have a regular salary, are constantly chasing late payments for their work and are prone to being underpaid and/or undervalued.

The pandemic has worsened the situation, with the closure of theatres and other venues, the cancellation of events and exhibitions and the restriction of a host of other engagements (such as weddings or gigs in clubs and restaurants) which artists have relied on to pay their bills.

A recently published research study by Valerie Visanich and Toni Attard on the impact of the pandemic on our own Maltese artists makes the following findings. A significant number (41 per cent) of the families of those who participated in the study were dependent on the income generated from their work in the arts. Many of these artists work on short-term contracts with no advance payments, which puts them in a vulnerable and perilous position.

The pandemic has had a disastrous effect on the families of artists- Julie Zahra

The pandemic has had a disastrous effect on these families.

The COVID-19 wage supplement played an important role in supporting artists and others in various sectors. Yet, despite this, artists are still struggling to stay afloat. I strongly feel we need to go a step further and begin to address the wider issue of how to ensure better conditions for our artists in future. As a community, it is in our best interest to safeguard artists. They contribute so much to our communities, to our society and to our economy. Yet, so often, we tend to neglect or take them for granted.

There are some signs of hope.

A new union has just been formed which aims to protect people in the arts, both those working full time and part time.

The MEIA (Malta Enterprise Industry & Arts Association) consists of influential people from different sectors of the arts. This is a massive step forward in helping to improve the rights, working conditions, well-being and security of those working in the arts.

The Arts Council’s efforts to ease artists’ financial obligations and burdens have been invaluable in these difficult and unprecedented times. However, a year on from the onset of the pandemic, it is now time to look to the future and to find new and innovative ways to address the many challenges faced by artists in Malta.

Julie Zahra is a PN candidate.

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