The disastrous handling of the mounting covid crisis continues to expose the inadequacy of the governance of this country. Every single decision of import in Malta depends on the abilities, conscience and integrity of the prime minister and when these are found wanting, people die.
If this sounds like a description of what we’re hearing from the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry, that is because what covid will explain to people is that the state’s failures that cost Daphne her life are the same failures that are costing people their lives because of poor or wrongful administrative decisions when dealing with covid.
The current numbers indicate that before long, whoever you are, if you are living in Malta someone related to you will have died here because of covid. You will be told your relatives died because of underlying conditions or purely because their lease on this earth expired. You will be gaslit into accepting that people died because it was their fault, or the fault of their relatives, or their carers, or the public: anybody’s fault except of those responsible to run this country and keep its citizens safe.
Joseph Muscat took decisions on the basis of the personal interest of those nearest to him and the corruption that ruled the day had its victims. Robert Abela may or may not be corrupt or conditioned by the corrupt interests of his predecessors. But with respect to his decisions on managing covid he is clearly not taking these on the basis of sound scientific advice or even basic humanitarian concern for vulnerable members of our community. He is taking decisions on the basis of how people who have his ear might react and how they might vote in an upcoming election.
That is political failure. The problem here is more complex than that. Beyond Robert Abela’s political failures, we have an institutional failure to manage political vulnerabilities like these.
The health minister, Chris Fearne, is once again ranking his partisan loyalties above his ministerial conscience. He’s already done that before. He thought Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri should have been removed when their Panama companies were exposed. By his own account, he said as much to Joseph Muscat. But when Joseph Muscat refused to follow Chris Fearne’s advice, as far as Chris Fearne was concerned that was that. Chris Fearne had the legal and political power as a cabinet minister, an MP and a high-ranking Labour Party politician, to push for the decision he thought was right. He didn’t do that because he felt that his moral obligation to present the public with a united Labour Party front outranked his moral obligation to insist the government he belonged to disarmed corruption.
A public inquiry told us all this. Will another one have to tell us that Chris Fearne told Robert Abela that more needed to be done to save lives from covid but went along with Robert Abela’s decisions even if he knew them to be wrong and in and of themselves a threat to human life?
The same analogy can be drawn between Charmaine Gauci now and Alfred Camilleri when he had to deal with the decisions on the Electrogas contract. He could have put his foot down. He should have put his foot down. But “political masters” had their way while he looked away.
Charmaine Gauci is doing this. Her own staffers and underlings are saying she is making recommendations that could “flatten the curve”, “turn the tsunami into a rivulet” and reduce the rate of contagion and the rate of deaths. But when she’s turned down by Robert Abela she’s letting things be.
We have a superintendent for health care and a health minister because no prime minister can be expected to know what to do in a medical emergency without the professional competence of experts in the field. But if the experts accept the decision of an incompetent prime minister without complaint, it’s as if they were never there at all.
As several commenters have said, Robert Abela inspires zero confidence. He seems pathologically incapable of empathy and even his economic planning appears short-sighted and judged by today’s response over any concern for sustainability. Consider the refusal to close down bars and restaurants even for a short period of time. The terrible infection rates are keeping people at home which means restaurants are mostly empty anyway. But if they were forced to close for a short period of serious restrictions, if need be even a lock-down, the contagion rates could realistically be brought down to manageable numbers in time for a healthy Christmas season.
Telling bars to close by 11pm is like telling people to dry themselves after a shower. Under most circumstances, especially in the present environment, he’s ‘ordering’ something that largely happens anyway without his intervention. The same goes to getting people to wear masks. Most people will do that even more consistently than even he ever would.
But in order to avoid irritating anyone with any meaningful change of behaviour, Robert Abela won’t even admit that the current contagion figures are a matter of ‘concern’. ‘Concerning’ is what President George Vella called the covid situation. Robert Abela says it’s under control and he accuses anyone who dares think otherwise as saboteurs, fear-mongers and, the nastiest insult of all, ‘nazzjonalisti’ who are daring to ‘politicise’ covid.
The administration of public health is as political as anything can ever be. With education and national security, health is the policy function at the innermost core of modern government. If we can’t criticise the government for falling short of delivering on public health, for fear of being branded fear-mongers or ‘nazzjonalisti’, our basic ability to hold the government to account would be incinerated.
It is not for me to say what the government should do to stop contagion. Like Robert Abela I haven’t had a day of training in medicine, let alone epidemiology. But I am endowed with basic logic and I have learnt something from the interminable sermons every day on TV by Chris Fearne and Charmaine Gauci from last March and April.
Our knowledge of the virus since then may have grown and changed. But the principle that “the curve must be flattened” in order to avoid overwhelming our health service provision can’t have changed since then. Understanding the virus’s behaviour better may mean that the means we use to flatten that curve have changed.
Closing the airport may have made sense in April when anyone could bring the virus from any place where contagion was more rampant than in Malta. Within Europe at least there is now no other place where contagion is more rampant than here, so closing the airport would seem silly, at least from our point of view.
But contagion in the community clearly needs some form of containment asap before too many people show up at Mater Dei, in greater numbers than Mater Dei, its resources, equipment and above all, its staff, can handle.
In spite of the government’s rather hollow reassurances, the suspicion that contagion has now run out of hand seems to be eminently reasonable. Does anyone have the courage to tell Robert Abela this and if, as is likely he were to ignore them, to tell the rest of us?