All over the Place

Readers will excuse me today. As I wrote this, I was listening to KSI’s just-released album “All Over the Place”. So, naturally enough, my column does that. Whether you will like the result may not be important, but what the Editor of The Journal will do with it is the million-dollar question. I guess if you are reading this, then he must have thought there’s something in it.

To begin with, let me do the science bit (and this is definitely not for the anti-vaxxers, who hate science with a passion). Apparently, in our brain there are circuits that promote mind-wandering. They help us maintain a sense of self, understand what others are thinking more accurately, become more creative, and even predict the future.

Without our mind-wandering circuits, our brain’s ability to focus would become depleted, and we would be disconnected from ourselves and from others too. So, these circuits are not at all bad.

One of the things that a wandering mind is in search of is meaning. By connecting the past, the present and future, it helps us compose a narrative to connect the dots in our life. This narrative is constantly being updated. But sometimes, the wandering mind can encounter threats. Rather than proverbially “whistling in the dark,” the brain can overreact to these threats.

Without our mind-wandering circuits, our brain’s ability to focus would become depleted.

So, let’s wander, shall we?

My first brain-teaser was the news that Kazakhstan is awash in fake vaccination passports. The country’s health-care system is said to be one of its most corrupt sectors, so much so that a black market is thriving in fake exemption certificates and in forged COVID-19 tests showing a negative result. This complements another news story that more than 1,200 vendors operating in the UK and worldwide are offering false documents for as little as £25.

This is certainly a threat. It’s already worrying that many unvaccinated foreign students were allowed, indeed encouraged, to come to Malta for their English language courses, leading to a new spike in COVID cases. Imagine if a horde of Kazakhi students brandishing their fake vaccine passports, were to enter Malta singing their Eurovision song entry “Forever”. Chaos would be sure to follow.

This rather Silly threat then made me wonder whether we could suffer the same fate as England, which is facing weeks of disruption to bin collection, transport and food supply due to staff self-isolating because of the “pingdemic”. The very word, following hot on the heels of the real one, sends shivers down my spine.

Imagine. More than 800,000 people in the UK had coronavirus last week and more than 600,000 in England and Wales were pinged and required to isolate by the NHS app. Some companies reported that as many as 15-20% of their staff were absent because workers were required to isolate for 10 days either with COVID or as a close contact of a confirmed case.

No 10 has been scrambling to set up a system to let more key workers take daily tests rather than isolate for 10-days, over fears that large parts of the economy could grind to a halt over the pingdemic. Will Palazzo Messina similarly quiver, now that Maltese employers are also getting worried about staff absences, compounding the already-serious lack of workers? I imagined the phlegmatic Charmaine Gauci trying to calm everybody’s nerves. Consider, though, that I find her stolidly calm disposition an unnerving experience in itself.   

Which now compounded my wanderings, leading me to the taper news that financial markets are rattled by fears about the rapidly spreading delta variant of COVID-19. Another threat looms: can the economic recovery survive the end of emergency stimulus?

In “Game of Thrones”, the fantasy drama, a duel takes place between Khal Drogo, a fearsome warrior, and a rival. Khal Drogo comes off barely scathed, suffering only a scratch to his chest. But the wound festers, weakening the fighter. A few scenes later, he falls off his horse and eventually dies.

Many economists, including myself, are worrying that the incipient recovery in the EU economies could face a similar fate. At the beginning of the pandemic, governments were quick to launch universal, generous stimulus schemes. Taken together, these schemes have prevented much of the economic scarring usually seen after a recession. So much so that the past 18 months of restrictions and lockdowns have left surprisingly few economic scars. The task now is to scale those back, while protecting those in need. I don’t have any idea what our Government’s plan is. But with the budget looming, the question may soon be answered. Patience is needed.

By now, my wandering mind was replaced by a grumbling tummy. I remembered that I had a piece of mouth-watering strawberry pie left over from Sunday’s bbq with my family. I took it out and started eating it. But, damn it, my wandering mind would have none of it. Remember, it said, that global food prices have been piping hot since last autumn.

Whoops. An important statistic leapt into my mind. An index of key agricultural commodities by Bloomberg is 57% higher than it was a year ago. The surge is partly due to demand. China has been splurging on imports since losing much of its pork to swine flu. The reopening of economies, and restaurants, means more consumption of animal products, which require more grain to produce. There are supply factors too, including droughts in North and South America, more expensive oil (meaning that foodstuffs have been diverted to make biofuels) and snags in supply-chains. 

Oh God, spare me this constant Madness. Couldn’t you, at least, have stopped this constant stream of threats from depriving me of the joy of gobbling down those delicious strawberries? 

But no. My radio happens to be tuned to the BBC World Service, and suddenly I get hooked listening to a psychologist bemoaning the fact that children experiencing poor mental health are three times less likely than their peers to pass five GCSEs including maths and English. Researchers are warning, he said, that pupils are facing a “double hit” to their educational prospects as the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted their learning and affected their mental health.

A study by our own Centre for Resilience and Socio-Emotional Health at the University of Malta has found that 11% of some 455 students aged between 11 and 16, failed to make progress in their studies during the first wave of the pandemic. Student well-being, however, decreased across all age groups, with the lowest level of well-being reported in year 10. The study also found that after four months, there was an increase in students’ likelihood of experiencing negative moods.

By now, my wandering mind had exhausted me. All of a sudden, I heard through my sub-conscious the penultimate track in KSI’s album, Sleeping with the Enemy. Normally, this is not something that the epidemiologist Dr Chris Barbara would recommend. But, to tell you the truth, however morbid the thought is, I decided that if you cannot beat COVID, sleeping with it might be the next best thing.

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