Speaking candidly to Dayna Camilleri Clarke, Howard Keith Debono, President of Malta Entertainment Industry and Arts Association (MEIA), shares the harrowing psychological impact the pandemic has taken on many artists and how MEIA have lobbied to be one united voice.
“Artists simply cannot go and find another job”, explains Debono, “Their craft is something they have perfected over the years, often an extension of their personality. In many cases going on stage, the performer is a totally different character. It’s an escape. Being an artist is who they are. Having this squashed for a year has taken its toll on many artists, not to mention the uncertain path that lies ahead. At MEIA, we have received messages from members who were on the brink of suicide, feeling lost with no hope. I’m also aware of cases where certain authorities received some death threats related to re-opening. It’s no easy task from either side, but a road map was and still is key.”
“Locally, the arts and entertainment sector equates to 7.9% of Malta’s GDP, with over 10,000 people working in the creative industry. Closing it off is no joke. Everyone has worked so hard to raise the profile of Malta’s art sector.”
Debono explained how ordinarily new and emerging artists tour and promote through live performances, “Naturally, for any new artists, for example, those appearing from last year’s X Factor had all the build-up, and then the momentum just stopped. Live performances are how artists develop, obtain their following, and how they test new material.
I have artists I manage who have several new singles backed up, but there’s little value in releasing them without the typical performances to support those releases.”
When it comes to arts education, Debono explains that MEIA were the first to highlight the voice of many performing arts schools who wish to re-open, which have not returned to full operations.
“Arts Educational schools have been operating safely following health protocols since July 2020. Our schools are not considered a source of virus spread. They have offered huge relief to the mental well-being of thousands of students of various ages who have had their lifestyle so drastically changed as a result of the pandemic.”
We are carefully assessing risk, hand in hand with the government, to understand the way forward, safely and as soon as possible. It’s our prerogative at MEIA to be that voice and communication channel between various stakeholders”.
Debono has played an active role in establishing many ongoing protocols with the government, “Things are going forward, albeit slowly”, he added.
The arts educational sector is one area he feels irked by, where consultation was missing in prior decision making. “When industry associations like ours are not consulted prior to public announcements, it creates chaos amongst the community with questions which remain unanswered as well as not being able to do our part to buffer the situation.”
“The ongoing closure of schools proposes the risk of losing thousands of students to the arts, resulting in the closure of several schools and a void in the arts sector. Together we want to ensure that arts education remains an essential part of our education system and provides for the development, growth and nurturing of well-rounded individuals. If nothing but the pandemic exposed on a global level what society regards as essential and non-essential and MEIA has no intention to have any of our sectors side-lined or left behind.”
On the hot topic of mass events, Debono revealed, “Malta is not closed to the idea of trialling mass events with safety protocols in place”. He acknowledged it’s not as simple as following another country that has trialled mass events. “We can’t copy other countries, say, for example, those have opted to close their borders. We need to also take into context our small footprint.”
He continued, “Locally, festivals and events are a big part of our culture; this is just one area where we need to proceed with extra caution. Getting a mass event wrong would be catastrophic. We understand rapid testing for events might not be a viable option through our consultations with the government and health authorities.
I believe vaccination is the only solution on top of herd immunity, whereas the idea we brought forward last December related to Passport Vaccination seems to resonate well with the EU. There isn’t a quick fix with a pandemic as there are so many variants and new strains emerging. This is barely scraping the surface of the issues related to reorganising mass events. Ultimately, we have to learn to live with the virus and start to move on with our lives. Hopefully, we can look at 2022 as a realistic full-scale return with or without measures.”