If anything, COVID-19 has taught us that a global pandemic is not just a health crisis, but also an economic crisis, an education crisis, an inequality crisis, and so much more. With COVID-19 still far from behind us, though, Malta must pay close attention to fault lines it has highlighted and deepened, and that lie ahead. Our political leaders have decisive choices to make that will determine whether the current state of our nation is sustainable going forward.
Equity and inclusivity
Issues of equality, in spite of the great progress already registered in our country over the last years, have sadly regressed due to the pandemic. There is still no place or part of life where girls and women are treated equally to men and boys — and COVID-19 has made that discrepancy worse. We should all be horrified that domestic violence increased during the pandemic as women were quarantined with their abusers. Even the ubiquitous hospital-blue masks were bizarrely designed to fit a man’s face, not a woman’s — despite 70% of care workers being women and front-liners. Gender inequality is the unfinished business of our time. More needs to be done to build back fairer and more inclusively. But we should also pay closer attention to intersectional inequalities that COVID-19 has highlighted. Another area of burgeoning inequality is education, which should be the central equaliser. With classrooms going remote or shifting online, a sizeable section of our student population, lacking a basic internet connection or computer, was put at an unfair disadvantage, one that will only worsen over time.
Sustainable Development Goals
These goals aim to deliver a world of greater opportunity and prosperity for everyone on our small island. We face an uphill climb. The pandemic has set back human development by as much as 20 years. Yet at the same time, it has clarified why the sustainable development goals are so important to begin with — this past year crystallised how interconnected our challenges are. We should be pushing the frontiers of sustainable development. We will have to drive new solutions and forge new partnerships, in as much the same way as in the midst of a pandemic. We will have to see evidence of enterprising grassroots efforts at the local level to meet sustainable development targets. Local action, local implementation, and local leadership on sustainable development goals should be flowering in exciting ways. Indeed, lately, we have already witnessed positive signs in that direction.
Malta’s small contribution for a green and blue planet
Pandemic and other related problems aside, we are facing a broader ecological crisis as ecosystems are collapsing, biodiversity is disappearing, and our marine waters are acidifying. Even though the slowdown in economic activity due to the pandemic created a brief drop in Malta’s carbon emissions, we cannot escape the cumulative effect of generations of unchecked human activity or ever afford to return to our pre-pandemic emission trajectory. The coming years will be decisive for determining the health of our country for generations to come. More and more companies are placing sustainability at the heart of their business models, while investors are hastily moving out of fossil fuels. The economics of clean energy are getting more attractive these days, which further enhances the opportunity for our future governments to make clean energy a driver of post-pandemic economic recovery in our nation.
The fight against irregular migration
In 2020, the European Commission presented its plans for the future of migration and asylum in Europe (the ‘migration pact’). A new approach was then urgently needed, but the European Commission’s plan looked like just a repackaged version of Europe’s failed ‘hotspot’ approach. The irregular immigration phenomenon will continue to heavily test Malta in its ability to safeguard security through border control, to provide fair, just and humane treatment of migrant and asylum-seekers, to expedite determination of asylum claims, to relocate, resettle or repatriate as the case may be, as well as to build and enhance cooperation with third countries of origin and transit.
Further political and social challenges
What I am going to list here might not be at the top of the priority list. Still, they are directly and indirectly interdependent on the specific challenges mentioned above. Increasing digital literacy rates and decreasing the incidence of early school leavers, reducing material and social poverty, increasing the number of internet users, increasing the GDP per capita, increasing the number of women in Parliament, improving energy efficiency, controlling population growth, addressing income inequality, formulating sound infrastructure and planning policies, and fine tuning the fight against corruption are all issues that cannot be neglected.
The way Malta will deal with these challenges will determine its success. In the past, we have experienced failures. Past administrations of whatever colour made errors in calculation and judgment and got the rug pulled off their feet as a consequence. Yet they got up to try again. Our country’s recent history shows that we have had leaders who were resilient, meaning having the courage to bounce back and take risks despite adversity and initial setbacks. Future leaders will have to be as resilient in the face of different and new challenges in the coming decades. It is the essential key to success.