The shift online triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed our world. But while virtual meetings or lectures can work well, the power of a physical meeting has become more obvious too.

Civil society activists have made valiant attempts to keep issues of concern in the public eye. But without public gatherings it is much harder to bring campaigns to the attention of the public, politicians or the press.

Pressure on controversial development proposals is often exerted through public gatherings, with filmed statements, interviews or footage taken near the site, around the Planning Authority offices or in the streets of Valletta. Such initiatives are currently not possible. This takes wind out of the sails of potential protestors.

The same goes for the calls for justice and monthly vigils held around the makeshift monument to Daphne Caruana Galizia in Valletta.

No wonder Joseph Muscat’s government had persistently tried to discourage gatherings there.

Virtual meetings work very well on some levels, but physi­cal spaces gather a momentum that is hard to create online, no matter how many thousands of signatures are gathered in online petitions and social media posts and comments.

These also have their value, but their nature is different.

The coast has therefore been relatively clear, and the Minister for Infrastructure, Ian Borg has taken the opportunity to charge ahead with his projects at an even faster pace than before.

In an opinion piece in this newspaper, he explained that he used the decrease in road traffic brought about by the pandemic to increase his road-building initiatives.

He evidently does not see the current crisis as an opportunity to push for a modal shift away from cars, to home working and less pollution, for instance. For him the future economic prosperity of Malta is still tied to bigger roads and more cars.

Other large projects also remain in the pipeline. The db Group is continuing with its quest for a major development on the ITS site at St George’s Bay, and intends to submit a single revised application for excavation and building.

Politicians often emphasise their appreciation of the voice of civil society. On the ground, however, despite the objections to this project having reached record numbers, nonetheless it was still heavily supported by government.

The first application was approved by the Planning Authority in a manner dubious enough to subsequently annul the permit. The developers have now admitted that the application was “started in a very selfish manner” and want to ensure that its revised version is “not to the detriment of the people”.

Ian Borg explained that he used the decrease in road traffic brought about by the pandemic to increase his road-building initiatives- Petra Caruana Dingli

But people are still up in arms, and the Planning Authority board will eventually be faced with taking another decision on it. Who will they listen to this time?

The virtual shift has changed that world too, at least temporarily.

Routine meetings of planning boards can work well enough online, but the tense and powerful atmosphere of a packed room of objectors on a controversial proposal cannot be replicated at a virtual meeting. The heat is off.

The digital literacy gap

Virtual meetings have taken off like wildfire, and have proven to be an effective alternative to many day-to-day work activities and conversations. Many workplaces, including universities worldwide, are evaluating options about how to move ahead when the crisis subsides.

The shift to the digital world has changed attitudes to home working. For certain types of work this has the potential to create a new life-work balance, and can also reduce costs, travel time, traffic and pollution.

But online communication has also revealed a real gap bet­ween different sectors of the community, which was less evident before. For the youn­ger age group today, weak digi­tal skills and a lack of IT facilities are an educational, work and social disadvantage.

It is also a significant handicap for older people. If they still have a desk-based job, digi­tal skills are vital to keep up with the evolving expectations of the workplace and younger colleagues. But even when retired, without good digital literacy they miss out.

Many elderly people cannot participate in the socialising and entertainment going on through the internet.

They may feel out of the loop if they cannot follow the instant news that has become so standard and mainstream. They cannot watch or listen to shows on demand, or keep up with friends and family in ways that other people do.

For those only able to use a mobile phone to make a call or send a basic message, the rich, varied and colourful online world is a dark, blank space. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless.

People over 65 have been encouraged to stay at home, and now spend less time with family and friends. Those with poor digital literacy struggle to remain fully engaged in the community and may lose the sense of well-being that this brings. They may feel isolated and less relevant.

The crisis has made it amply clear how important it is for government policy to focus on ensuring that good digital literacy is spread throughout the community, among the old as well as the young.

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