When the first flights landed in Malta after so many weeks of semi-lockdown and the first tourists began descending the stairs, all rigidly attired with facemasks or visors, they were met at the foot of the stairs by no less than two ministers, the Air Malta minister and the tourism one, both facemask-less.
What did this signify to the new arrivals?
The ministers might have thought this meant that Malta is COVID-less, seeing that our infection rate is far below that of the European countries where the tourists were coming from. But the visitors, who were coming from countries where the battle against COVID-19 must have been terrible, would not have been impressed by this bravado.
On the contrary, they were probably shocked and scandalised.
Later, when they arrived at their hotel, one hopes that they found all the evidence of cleanliness and implementation of Covid protocols, although a cursory look at some websites did not offer complete reassurance beyond the top officials looking pretty.
But even so, they must have seen very little evidence of a population obeying the dictates of the health authorities on the streets, in shops, on the buses, even in bars. They must end wondering how come they with all this insouciance, the pandemic figures in Malta remained so low.
In a way, at least from reports, it would seem other countries have similar problems with the least restive of the population. And so far the flights from the UK, one of the most countries with a high pandemic rate, have not restarted yet.
Other countries can fall back on other sectors of the economy: for us, tourism is the mainstay of the economy, with a far greater incidence. We have to project Malta as a very safe country, as the minister for tourism tried to point out in that ‘excruciating’ interview she gave to the BBC.
You cannot project Malta as a Covid-free destination if you play around with health protection. And if, heaven forbid, Malta gets to be perceived as not safe, all our tourist effort will be in vain. Our attractiveness in these troubled times depends on how safe our country can be.
These are still early days and unfortunately, there is no uniform template for combating the virus at EU level. Still, we can learn from other countries. Visitors to Greece, for instance, are swabbed on arrival and their movements around the country are tracked. Other countries insist on visitors taking a test before they leave their home country and carrying a document to show they’re clean. To take a temperature test on entry means practically nothing.
Just like we have come a long way from the dark days of the onset of the pandemic, with everyone holed up at home and everything shut up, we must not now go to the other extreme.
The experience of other countries is showing us that those countries which relaxed controls too soon and too quickly had to bring back rules of lockdown when they found themselves overwhelmed by the second wave.
If we, unfortunately, find the second wave upon us, we will be likewise forced to lockdown and all the efforts and expenditure that went into reopening will have been in vain.