It’s not a cup of soup

▪️ It’s not a cup of soup ▪️ Disabled but educated ▪️ Quick profits, fast imprisonment ▪️ Elmo, please help

In a recent discussion programme Fr Marcellino Micallef, who leads The Soup Kitchen in Valletta, told Prof. Andrew Azzopardi that “we have reached an economic situation in Malta where people need to choose between buying food or medicines”. Obviously, not all medicines are free and sick people requiring medicines which are not covered by the government scheme can incur significant financial costs.

Quite rightly, Fr Marcellino remarked that, whenever someone loses his or her dignity, one is poor.  He claimed that the number of people living at risk of poverty is “exploding”.  I believe that this was somewhat of an exaggeration.

In terms of the percentage at risk of poverty and social exclusion, this was 20.1% in 2022 and lower than the previous year but higher than five years ago, when it was 19.2%.  But perhaps Fr Marcellino is referring to the absolute number – in 2022 we had 103,000 of them, which was 15,000 more than five years ago.  The growing population plays a part in that, though it is certainly not an excuse.

If one looks just at monetary poverty, in 2022 we had 86,000 people at risk (16.7% of the population)   ̶   that’s 10,000 more than in 2017.  If one looks at the composition of those at risk, there were 14,000 aged less than 16 years while another 34,000 were older than 60 years.   That means that vulnerable people accounted for 56% of the total.

Is that acceptable?  Of course not, and so one can forgive Fr Marcellino his exaggeration.  Dr Daniella Zerafa, a senior lecturer at the University, said that reducing the number of people at risk of, or already in poverty, requires a holistic and systemic approach and that we cannot simply brush aside the problem or pretend it does not exist as long as those at risk of poverty are not dying of hunger.

Photo: Chris Sant Fournier/Times of Malta

We should stop boasting too much about how the Gross Domestic Product is growing at four times the rate in the EU.  I also hope that some people are not that concerned about it just because many of those at risk of poverty are foreigners.  In that case, let’s not call them immigrant workers but slaves. 

I am not saying that eliminating, or even reducing, poverty comes cheap.  For example, to lift 18,700 people from earning 40% of the median equivalised income to 50% of it   ̶   still below the 60% poverty line   ̶   would cost around €34 million, or 0.2% of the GDP.  To lift those same people up from the 40% threshold to the 60% one would cost around €68 million, or 0.4% of the GDP.  Or, from a different perspective, we would have had to set aside 1.8% of the increase in GDP to do the first or 3.6% to do the second.  Or again, the government would have had to spend 1.8% and 6.7% of the increase in its tax revenue.   Is that too much?  You decide, but I think it would be worth it.

“We need to ask not only whether the cake is getting bigger, but also how the cake is being shared,” says economist Maria Giulia Borg.  Indeed.

Disabled but educated

Aġenzija Sapport’s CEO, Oliver Scicluna, told The Malta Independent on Sunday recently that he would rate the quality of life of a person with a disability in Malta as being only five out of 10, meaning that so much more needs to be done. 

The indomitable Scicluna is quite right. And there is a reason for that.  It is not lack of legislation; we have plenty of that.  It is that legislation is quite often not translated into action on the ground.  We have an Equality Commission which is supposed to monitor implementation of legislation through practice, but one wonders   ̶-  as with most other authorities in Malta   ̶  whether they are so preoccupied with producing glossy annual reports and brochures that they do not have enough time to do their real job.  Or perhaps they are denuded of resources, like the Commissioner for Children?

But let me not digress.  I write this piece because I happened to come across a statistic published by Eurostat recently.  This concerned the participation rate in education and training of persons with disability by activity limitation, whether it be sex, age, and level of activity in 2022.

Lo and behold, we have an abysmal record.  While the total rate of participation by disabled people aged 18-24 years in the EU is 62.5%, in Malta it is 48.4%.  We share the shame of not even reaching the half-way mark with Cyprus.  As if that weren’t enough,  while Malta’s male participation rate is 11.3% lower than the EU’s, that of females is 17.1%   ̶   more gender inequality.

By the way, why we do not report the rate of education for those who have some or a severe disability or a total of these two categoiries is beyond me.  I suspect that, as a result of this, the rate of education of those who have no disability is 49%, when the European average is 63.3%.  Cyprus similarly reports a suspiciously low figure for the same reason.

In any case, leaving statistical aberrations aside, my point is that we are failing.  The Ministry of Education is currently drawing up a new strategy for 2024-2030 which is touted as a blueprint “to make sure that everyone, no matter the age, background or situation, gets a good education.”  Will it succeed?  I hope so, though I reserve judgment.

When he talked to The Malta Independent, Mr Scicluna said that it is futile to have a law (The Persons with Disability Act) which seemingly ‘punishes’ any company that doesn’t fulfil the 2% quota, but there isn’t enough aid for this job-carving to take place at the workplace.  Scicluna admitted that, while this law has made an impact, “it is still failing certain people”.

This reminds me of another story published in the Times of Malta recently. It concerned an autistic and non-verbal teenager who, according to his parents, has been forced to change school four times in three years as the system wasn’t able to deliver services according to his needs as he moved from junior to senior school.

The newspaper report mentioned other similar cases, which prompted Anne-Marie Callus, an associate professor at the University’s Department of Disability Studies, to remark that “it’s high time to have another evaluation of the way inclusive education is working   ̶   or not working   ̶   in Malta.”   Do I need to add anything?

Quick profits, fast imprisonment

“I fell for a scam. Now I’m being charged with money laundering”   ̶   that was the heading in the Times of Malta recently, when the paper reported that an unnamed 35-year-old man had been charged with money laundering, though he claims that he was the victim of an elaborate on-line scam. 

The man concerned says that, some months ago, he was offered a lucrative job by a company called Global Stable Growth, which promised easy money though on-line crypto trading.  Thinking he could top us his salary, he replied to the Facebook advert.  After putting down €100 to get started, he started seeing increasing crypto earnings, reaching €6,000 over several weeks, which he then deposited in his bank accounts.

Then came the sting.  He was pressured to invest more and more money as a condition for withdrawing his earnings.  By the time he realised what was going on, he was €900 out of pocket.  His ‘employer’ became suddenly hostile and refused to cooperate.  That was the end of the story, he thought.  Wrong.  It just happened that another woman was involved in the scam and had lost €70,000, some of which had found their way into the man’s account.

The woman concerned did not make the man’s mistake.  She reported the matter to the Police who, after investigations with the banks, decided to arraign the man and charge him with fraudulently earning the full €70,000, even though he said he never saw a cent.  We will have to wait and see how the story plays out in court.

A 2016 study by a group of Maltese criminologists found that only 81% of victims of computer crime reported the crime to the police. This is likely to be even higher today, with online scams becoming pervasive. The number of online scams reported to the police has nearly doubled over the years as fraudsters take advantage of the rise in virtual shopping due to the pandemic. The police Cyber Crime Unit received 608 reports in 2020, compared to 387 in 2019.

The MFSA and the Police do have an educational campaign of some sort and issue warnings from time to time but they have their work cut out by the deluge of scams, which is likely to multiply exponentially with AI.

Elmo, please help

The BBC recently had a story about Elmo, the Muppet, checking in on X and innocently asking, “How is everybody doing?”.  Thousands of users replied, sharing their grief and despair.

“Elmo, I’m suffering from existential dread over here,” wrote one user.

“Every morning, I cannot wait to go back to sleep. Every Monday, I cannot wait for Friday to come. Every single day and every single week for life,” another wrote.

“The world is burning around us, Elmo,” said YouTuber Steven McInerney.

Celebrities such as actress Rachel Zegler joined in, saying she was “resisting the urge to tell Elmo that I am kinda sad”.

The Sesame Street character then responded, saying he was glad he asked and posting the hashtag “#EmotionalWellBeing”.  US President Joe Biden agreed, posting: “Our friend Elmo is right: We have to be there for each other”.

Other Sesame Street characters also spoke up to support their friend. The Cookie Monster wrote: “Me here to talk it out whenever you want. Me will also supply cookies. #EmotionalWellBeing”.  Ernie’s best friend Bert added: “I’m here if you ever need a shoulder to lean on. I’ll make us both a warm cup of tea”.

Subsequent to the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and then the cost of living crisis have battered the morale and productivity of European workers in an unprecedented way.  According to research by wellbeing services company LifeWorks, almost half of workers surveyed say they’re feeling more sensitive to stress than before the pandemic. That’s nearly three times the share found in surveys it carried out in 2017-2019.

More than half of the respondents (52%) said that they work more than 40 hours a week, with stress levels remaining very much at the same level as previous years   ̶   with 47% describing it as poor or very poor.  The study also found that 43% had experienced excessive fear, worry, or anxiety in the previous 12 months and 40% stated that they had lost interest in activities they used to enjoy. The research showed that pressure (50%), heavy workload (43%), and tight deadlines (41%) were often experienced at work.

It doesn’t help that a third of employers do not invest in mental health and well-being initiatives.  As usual, the Malta Chamber conveniently called on the government to provide better mental health services, shrugging away the fact that its members were responsible for the pressure, workload, and tight deadlines imposed on their own employees.

Main photo: Jonathan Borg/Times of Malta

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