Last Saturday, Health Minister Chris Fearne shared a chart which showed that Malta has been administering COVID-19 vaccines faster than most other EU member states.
One can understand why the minister was keen to share it, given the criticism that has swirled around the country’s vaccination strategy and logistics.
The irony is that the chart would have been impossible to create just one day earlier because his own ministry had until then been unable – or unwilling – to say how many vaccines Malta had administered. That has changed as of this week, thankfully.
Sadly, it is a case of one in, one out. For while a vaccine count has been added to COVID-19 statistics provided every day, data previously included which indicated how many new cases are linked to family contacts, work colleagues or social interactions is now nowhere to be found.
This reflects Malta’s somewhat cavalier approach towards data transparency throughout this pandemic. Information about new COVID-19 cases, recovered patients, deaths and swab tests is provided every day, but only as an infographic and with no historical context. The only central repository of data available is a spreadsheet hidden away on developer site Github, which is updated by dedicated staff at the Superintendence of Public Health.
Contrast that to the wealth of information made available online by other EU member state governments. Even some of Europe’s smaller countries seem to be able to provide more – and more useful – COVID-19 data than Malta does.
Data published by Iceland’s government, for instance, tells us that 17.6 per cent of patients aged 90 or older have died but only 0.6 per cent of those in their 60s have.
In Luxembourg, people are informed that the government there sent out more vaccination appointment letters than it had vaccines last week (3,720 letters for 3,013 doses), as it expects around 20 per cent to decline vaccination.
Over in Ireland, citizens can see that 18,677 healthcare workers have been infected so far and that community transmission has now overtaken close contact as the cause of most virus infections.
None of this information is made available in Malta.
While UK residents can see their government’s estimate of the virus’s R number online, in Malta that number is hardly ever revealed. Even the positivity rate – a simple calculation showing the percentage of swab tests that are positive – is not made available, leaving it up to news outlets like Times of Malta to calculate and disseminate to the public.
A geographical breakdown of COVID-19 cases was only provided once, in April, during a press briefing. The media was never given that data or any updates to it.
It is not that authorities do not have these statistics. Public health chief Charmaine Gauci details how many patients are hospitalised and some data about patient demographics during her weekly COVID-19 briefings and Fearne himself occasionally provides morsels of data in response to parliamentary questions.
But these snippets of information are rattled off, reported and quickly forgotten. Making this data permanently available and updating it periodically would already be a good step up in the quality of COVID-19 data Malta makes available.
There is value to being open with data about what is arguably the most measured cataclysm in human history. Good, transparent data allows citizens to be better informed and allows discussion to be based on facts, rather than opinions.
This government does not have a good reputation for openness, frequently denying journalists’ requests for information. On the pandemic, a more proactive policy of honesty is undoubtedly in the public interest.
In these uncertain times, surely that is something worth aspiring to.
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