During Monday’s surreal and marathon address to the nation, Prime Minister Robert Abela defended his government’s decision to lift preventative measures, put in place to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Ostensibly contradicting professional medical advice, Abela claimed his decision was backed up by research and studies about the corona­virus pandemic.

However, the Medical Association of Malta has queried the existence of such studies. MAM president Martin Balzan is also quoted as saying that such assurances are dangerously misleading due to the unknown nature of the coronavirus. The Malta Association of Public Health Medicine said the number of COVID-19 cases is now higher than hotspots like Italy and Spain and the country could be at the start of a ‘second wave’.

While the international community struggles to share urgent information about the pandemic, any government that blocks or minimises the reality of this evolving situation is playing a dangerous game. Transmission rates and death rates are not measurements that can be manipulated with smiles and political promises.

Despite our wish to return to ‘normal’, and the importance to give businesses all the possible lifelines, the numbers of new cases are hardly reassuring. The containment of community spread and mass infection is the only way that other countries have been capable of reducing risks to citizens’ wellbeing.

Therefore, so long as Abela claims the virus spread in Malta is no longer of significant concern, then the work of medical professionals and other front liners will be critically undermined. Their success in managing the first wave of infections will be wasted unless a sustainable path forward can be co-developed between medical experts and the government’s economic tycoons. Several organisations have supported the idea of a carefully controlled reopening of non-essential services. However, they equally stressed that such actions towards economic recovery cannot justifiably put health in jeopardy.

Throughout the press conference, Abela projected an image at once overbearing in its triumphal posturing, while also worryingly laissez-faire. At one point, he even urged the media to stop being negative when he was there to deliver the ‘good news’ that we may now go back to hairdressers and nail technicians.

By highlighting the “self-discipline of the people” as his chosen strategy for containment, the prime minister effectively washed his hands of the direct responsibility to protect public health. Likewise, the decision to promulgate ‘guidelines’ rather than legal notices has been flagged, as further relaxations take place. The prime minister’s speech also made reference to people experiencing trauma and at risk of mental health problems. His remarks implied that the relaxation of protective measures would, in itself, be beneficial. Yet, it stands to reason that the mental health of people in Malta would be impacted by the anxieties and concerns of a global epidemic.

However, relaxing protective measures, rather than making a substantial investment in public mental healthcare, simply risks further confusion at a time already overrun by uncertainty.

Abela faced the perfect storm just weeks after his election. It is a very delicate balance to fight a pandemic while trying to keep the economy afloat.

It becomes an almost impossible task to manage when you have just taken on the role, unless you surround yourself with experts. But trying to give the impression (in a condescending tone) that the battle has been won, without underlining the potential dangers of coronavirus could have serious consequences. 

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