Now is the time to prepare for all tomorrow’s crises

To believe that our time on this planet is going to be defined by just a single emergency, is to deny ourselves the reality of a future that is not so distant

As the daily medical bulletins suggest, the strategy of the Maltese health authorities has been to flatten the curve of contagion, so as not to allow a large degree of COVID-19 cases to overwhelm the health system at once. The primary focus is to avoid precipitating a crisis in the hospital: with staff over-stretched to care for patients, and a higher risk of avoidable deaths due to the inevitable deprioritisation of the elderly, or other vulnerable categories unable to survive an aggressive bout of the virus. 

So far, this strategy has been successful, in that the two-pronged approach of encouraging self-isolation as much as possible – now with strong deterrents of €10,000 fines – as well as Malta’s high rate of testing for COVID-19, has to date succeeded in keeping that curve from suddenly sloping upwards.  

But while the WHO’s accolades for the health ministry’s efforts are indeed welcome, there is a natural flipside. For the more successful the strategy, the smaller the number of cases reported… and therefore, more people may be disinclined to take the matter with the seriousness it demands.   

Fortunately, Prof. Charmaine Gauci’s regular medical bulletins are instrumental in making people understand that self-isolation, the lack of contact with over-65s and vulnerable people, and added precautions against contagion, are all the more necessary to keep the situation as stable as possible. All the same, a minority persists in disregarding the recommendations of the health authorities… thereby putting the entire strategy at risk. 

Nonetheless, this same strategy must perforce be accompanied by a high cost: mainly (but not exclusively) an economic one.  

To keep this health risk at bay, Malta’s economy has been forced to shut down. The feel-good factor that once defined the success of the Labour administration has vanished; and now the Maltese community has bunkered down to weather this storm. 

Government therefore has to realise that the way only it can guarantee that Malta’s small businesses and self-employed will be ready to bounce back, when the time comes, is to hand them a lifeline to survive this recessionary storm. And at this stage, the only formula can alleviate the coming storm is one that guarantees a universal income for resident workers and self-employed.  

For there is no doubt that, with the world shut down by the pandemic, Malta will only witness a revival of its tourism fortunes sometime in 2021. Landlords, whose monthly rents from foreign workers were akin to a part-time salary, have lost their income; while thousands of jobs previously provided by foreigners will once again be supplied by a native workforce.  

Even the ‘trend’ of working online from afar might be impossible to change once we spend months in mandatory work-from-home situations, with remote digital work promising to accelerate changes in our working arrangements: a digital transformation that might take root even when the health emergency is over. 

Governments must therefore look to the long term. To believe that our time on this planet is going to be defined by just a single emergency, is to deny ourselves the reality of a future that is not so distant: the displacement of mass labour by AI and robotics; the cataclysmic effects of climate change on nature and cities; and other ill-effects from the inequalities that define the world economy.  

These separate, yet related crises are all the fruit of our inability or failure to pivot towards a sustainable economy and way of living. There can be no other way at looking at the historic reality we are in right now: we need to take stock of a world that will transform itself radically. 

The same goes for the Maltese role in EU discussions right now, over a eurobond supply of liquidity for member states in need. Eurobonds can be an answer to the current crisis, which is indeed different from that of 2008: as nine member states told the EU council, it is symmetrical – affecting all member states – and no single country can be held responsible for causing the pandemic.  

The problem with Eurobonds, however, is that there is no central budget that pools portions of national budgets, because politically, that would imply shared fiscal sovereignty, which is anathema to member states. 

It would be a true challenge for today’s EU leaders to answer to the pandemic with a truly politically response for deeper European integration, that can offer real solidarity, harmonised rights to health and work, and a harmonised Union of fiscal capacity paid by European taxes.  

Is this an academic point, or has the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with an inevitable recession, brought to the fore political challenges we thought would never materialise in our lifetimes?  

So far, it seems that only our leaders have the answer to that.