We have just been through the worst week since the beginning of the pandemic in terms of the number of new cases of COVID-19 detected. This is the highest incidence of cases since the beginning of April, surpassing previous numbers, with many of the cases linked to mass events, parties or socializing in crowded areas.
The figures speak for themselves. Clearly, we are now facing another resurgence of the virus.
This was not inevitable. Nor was it unforeseen. These numbers are a direct consequence of irresponsible political behaviour, disregard of scientific evidence, and conflicting messages pushed by prominent personalities which led to inadequate physical distancing, infrequent and incorrect use of masks and disregard of public health recommendations.
Just over two months ago, MAPHM issued a warning outlining what would happen if evidence-based public health advice about prematurely lifting measures were to be ignored and ridiculed. We repeat today what we said then:
“The public health authorities have consistently explained how only a gradual lifting of restrictive measures would safely transition the country to a new normal. Allowing three weeks to pass between each progressive step to observe the effects and adjust accordingly was, and remains, the only way to ensure that we do not end up right back where we started, or worse.”
Three weeks after lifting most measures and – almost uniquely in the EU – allowing mass events to go ahead as if the battle against COVID-19 had been won, we are right back where we started. Except that in some ways, we are now in a worse position than we were last April.
It is true that the number of hospitalized cases is still low, and that thus far, there have not been additional deaths. It is also true that many healthcare workers, including public health professionals, are burnt out and demoralized. All additional staff deployed in the initial surge have now returned to regular work to reinforce the semblance of ‘normality’. After weeks of cost-cutting exercises and staff depletions, testing centres are overwhelmed with requests. Despite the tremendous efforts of dozens of volunteers who deserve the nation’s respect and gratitude, effective contact tracing in an environment where each case now has tens or scores of contacts remains extremely difficult if not impossible. Malta has already been blacklisted by the Baltic countries and Ireland. Yesterday, the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) issued a travel warning advising against non-essential travel to Malta. This is not good news for the economy. This situation is simply not sustainable.
Something must change.
This is not ‘Project Fear’. Nor is it ‘Project Hindsight’, as some would have us believe. Health professionals’ advice has been consistent from the start. Lifting and reintroducing restrictive measures in response to observations remains the only ‘safe’ way to manage this epidemic. Masks should be worn in all public places, frequent hand washing observed, physical distance maintained wherever possible, and crowds of people limited to the smallest numbers possible. In this, our political leaders should lead by example, encouraging the population to adopt these behaviours, and allocating sufficient resources to enforce these regulations. Sectors which have adopted public health guidance have not been disrupted with clusters of COVID-19. In rare instances where outbreaks were identified, they were quickly brought under control.
Vulnerable individuals should be advised to avoid crowded areas and minimise contact with people outside of their immediate circle of friends and family to reduce risk. Working from home needs to be encouraged and facilitated by government and private companies alike. As in many other areas, here the government should lead by example.
All large events should be cancelled. Nightclubs, bars, discos and party venues should be closed until the outbreak is brought back under control. Social gatherings should be limited, and physical distancing maintained throughout. A limit of 300 people is simply too high-risk. English Language schools should be closed – unfortunately these have been identified as sources of sustained transmission in the community since students routinely visit entertainment venues without maintaining physical distancing.
Last but not least, a plea to the general public. Choose your sources of information wisely! Refer to www.covid19health.gov.mt for updated advice. If you are sick: stay at home, call 111.