By Prof. Andrew Azzopardi | Dean, Faculty for Social Wellbeing
As Dean of the Faculty for Social Wellbeing I note with concern the rise of COVID-19 infections that have taken place over the last weeks with the highest number of cases (at present) being registered on the 16 September 2020, at 106 cases. I call on Government and the public health authorities to take the necessary measures to curb the rise of cases and urge cooperation from the public-at-large to adhere to the directives of the respective authorities.
It is a reality that the impact of COVID-19 is not distributed equally amongst the Maltese population with segments of the population being particularly vulnerable (for different reasons), namely, the elderly, disabled persons, children, migrants, the digitally illiterate, persons suffering from mental health, people in poverty, the unemployed and small business owners. Naturally front-liners are exceptionally exposed to disproportionate risks and fallout from the disease.
Bringing the number of COVID-19 cases down is not merely a public health priority but needs to be seen as a social priority as well.
We praise the initial stance of the Government, that guided by scientific advice, took courageous and painful decisions that resulted in success in containing the disease and keeping the mortality low. We note unfortunately that this success might have bred an attitude of exceptionalism, immortalised by an unfortunate political dialect. While no professionals advocated for complete and continuous shutdown, the unrestrained pace with which sections of the economy re-opened has resulted in the complete loss of the gains that the initial sacrifices made by various stakeholders had provided.
Underlying these rash political moves and messages we believe lie four misunderstandings that have allowed the situation to escalate to the current level of crisis.
- The first is a misunderstanding on the biological properties of COVID-19. Contrary to a number of irresponsible pronouncements by parties with no expertise on the matter, the disease is much more fatal than we might know. Additionally, it seems that a minority of those who are cured of the disease still suffer moderate to severe effects many months after the disease that might not be detected in the beginning. One need not mention the risk of re-infection to understand how truly dangerous this disease is.
- Secondly, implicit in government messaging and day-to-day parlance has been the idea that the deaths to date were already very vulnerable people and therefore nothing to panic about. This has the negative effect of shielding the majority of non-vulnerable people from the severity of the situation thinking that being on lower side of 65 and not being immuno-compromised is a guarantee of weathering the disease without side-effects. Assumptions which we know to be patently untrue from the experience of other countries facing the same pandemic. Most importantly this discourse betrays a callousness in our regard to the elderly and the immuno-compromised. All persons including those who are more prone to the virus deserve to have their life valued and protected. Having underlying conditions which are manageable but are made critical or fatal due to COVID-19 means that the cause of death was COVID-19, not the underlying conditions. Using causal conditions to devalue people’s life to avoid the moral outrage and subsequent call-to-action that would occur had a young person without underlying conditions died is utterly reprehensible and betrays an ageism and ableism that this Faculty has long decried but has never faced in a such a patent and on-the-nose manner.
- The third misunderstanding relates to the false dichotomy between health and the economy, as if they are sparring and contending interests. Health and the economy are in fact two sides of the same coin, without health, there is no economy. Scientific evidence has as yet to be provided as to how financial liquidity intrinsically protects one’s health from COVID-19, yet it is entirely self-evident that without health and with additional mortality the economy is terminally impacted. This should not be taken to advocate for draconian measures but to quell naysayers and help the general public understand that all sacrifices to preserve health are in fact the shortest way to prop up the economy.
- The final misunderstanding relates to the law of exponential growth. Exponential growth does not labour under the laws of perception and of “positivity/negativity” but unfortunately follows its own internal regulation. Numbers of infection cannot be seen in isolation and one needs to see what the implications of such numbers are, with the law of exponential growth dictating that numbers will rise in factors and magnitude that is not easy to predict or control. Exponential growth guarantees that this virus cannot be talked or politicked away, but can only be contained through decisive, strategic action.
I therefore call on government to listen to public health professionals.
I urge government to issue coordinated, comprehensive, responsible and proportionate responses to the rise (and hopefully future decline) in cases of infection placing public good as the main priority as opposed to listening to loud voices with private interests.
I augur that through humility, listening to science, resilience, solidarity and, swift and comprehensive action, we get through these very dark days in our Country’s history.
Disclaimer: Opinions and thoughts expressed within this article do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Malta.