As the last of the pandemic-imposed measures are about to be lifted, can one say that the experience of the last three months has led individuals and communities to make long-term and sustainable behavioural change? Have we seen evidence of such a transformation in Malta?
For example, with many people adapting to work from home, there was a reduction in time spent travelling and a consequent improvement in air quality and environmental conditions.
On an individual level, many would perhaps have recognised the importance of positive health behaviours, such as eating healthily, sleeping well and regular exercise.
On the other side of the coin, many families are now facing the harsh reality of anxiety, illness and unemployment. Early data reveals that the ongoing mental health impact of these factors is substantial, as are financial hardships and uncertainty over future job prospects.
As the authorities push forward with a hard reopening of services, are the benefits gleaned from the pandemic period set to fade? And is the drive towards renewed “normalcy” threatening to close the door on the positive change that might have come from the enhanced awareness of societal inequalities?
Behind both individual and communal well-being lies a strong sense of purpose, leading us towards growth in the aftermath of traumatic events. The question not being asked is whether our national narrative – the ways we show resilience and safeguard the vulnerable – is changing as a result of the pandemic.
Although the public health response to the need for short-term containment of COVID-19 appears to have been generally successful, transitioning from short-term solutions to long-term change is conspicuous by its absence. As the repercussions of the pandemic continue to echo throughout Maltese communities, there is added urgency to engage in introspective dialogue.
The conversations taking place in other European countries, including the benefits of a four-day working week and environmental policies that restrict vehicle use and promote urban greening, are only just percolating to the surface of Malta’s priorities.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we are capable of restraining our need to shop excessively, to travel at a whim and to take for granted the shared spaces that we inhabit with vulnerable members of society.
There is evidence that society can make behavioural changes following a crisis, however, without the support of national authorities, such change can only happen with consistent grass-roots pressure. Civil society is already coming to the fore, identifying massive social and environmental concerns that are impossible for any individual to fix alone.
Positive change by individuals will likely be temporary, if not reinforced by policy or regulation. Industry and government have a massive responsibility to promote positive change, and yet, so far, these have been the big offenders when it comes to a wholesale return to our broken sense of normalcy, in which the individual is a cog in the economic machine.
A first step would be to enable the well-being of all citizens by quashing threats such as gross inequality, xenophobia and misinformation in the aftermath of the pandemic. If we fail to do this, we will ultimately be neglecting opportunities for positive change and this exceptional period in the history of Malta, and humanity at large, will have been a missed opportunity.
Following the crisis, Malta must not let the opportunity for deep-rooted change slip out of reach.
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