Lessons from the Pandemic

Fifteen months into the COVID-19 pandemic, can we say that we have learned some lessons? Some people may think it is premature to ask the question, considering that we have not, in any way, won the war against the coronavirus. With over 70% of the population vaccinated, one might be tempted to think so, but we all know that the virus is still out there, mutating and trying to hit back.

The pandemic has revealed our all-too-human vulnerabilities. It has highlighted the importance of good leadership and well-functioning government. It has shown that a universal social and health care system is a key factor. 

The initial focus was, quite rightly, on responding to the pandemic and on coping with its immediate socio-economic effects. We may all feel justifiably proud about the response to the crisis. There have been some wobbles, some silly remarks, even some mistakes, but not just in Malta. Nobody had the magic formula, nobody had fail-safe tools. 

Now that we have reached herd immunity and the infection rate is minimal, it is as good a time as any to take stock. The lessons we collectively learned from this crisis are important, since we know that the next global crisis – the climate one – is already well under way, building up its destructive potential around the globe, including Malta. 

We know that the next global crisis – the climate one – is already well under way.

This is of particular relevance for the younger generations. They will inherit the political and economic systems that have been reshaped in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their future has been mortgaged with substantial debt as the government mobilised an unprecedented stimulus package to avoid a deep recession.  

The Five Lessons

So, I think that the first lesson we have learned is that our wellbeing is closely tied to the health of the planet. Our industrial-era mindset of ‘growth at any cost’ has become a recipe for self-destruction. It has to stop. The Government says that its post-COVID strategy will place the environment on an equal footing with economic growth. Seeing is believing.

Thus, our policy-makers should be rethinking the design of neighbourhood environments to facilitate outdoor activities. That means more places to sit, more green spaces associated with the health status of older people, and safer routes and paths. It is impossible to overestimate the value these outdoor spaces have on reducing stressful life events, improving working memory and adding meaning and happiness in people’s lives. 

My daily exposure to fb is still dominated by posts about new roads, resurfacing of old roads, shortening of car journeys, and car-centric improvements. Whilst I do not deny that the transport infrastructure badly needed a revamp, I wish I could read more about a greener environment. At the moment, what I am seeing is increasing traffic.

I wish I could read more about a greener environment.

The second lesson is that we should not go back to normal. “What”, you might say, “are you crazy?” Well, if going back to normal means that we stay in a society where those that have the least continue to be impacted the most — a society where older adults are marginalised and less-well-off people are socially excluded — then count me out.

Yes, “It’s outrageous that somebody could work full-time and not even be able to pay rent, let alone food and clothing.” A protest from Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize–winning economist, but one which I fervently share.

I am sick and tired of hearing so-called socialists saying that we need Business, that we cannot upset employers. Who says we should? But there is a difference between making it easy for Business to expand and prosper, and capitulating to it on issues ranging from competitive practices to tax equity. My gut wrenches when I remember that people who work for a living pay higher taxes than those who speculate for a living.

The third lesson comes from the forced frugality over the last twelve months or so. Thanks to the restrictions imposed throughout most of the pandemic, the savings rate — the average percentage of people’s income left over after taxes and personal spending — has skyrocketed. Our spending levels and patterns changed. Of course, nobody is suggesting that we continue to deprive ourselves of the things we love to do and consume. However, I think that most of us have realized that we need to augment our retirement savings system, to put away emergency savings for a rainy day.

So, now is the time for the Government and Business to innovate by offering employees a rainy-day savings account funded by payroll deductions. Well, it’s not exactly an innovation, because it has existed in several countries for many years. But, as usual, Malta tends to catch up a decade later. In any case, introducing voluntary opt-out savings schemes is crucial. Putting away a little a month helps employees build up a stash, without feeling too much of a pinch.

Putting away a little a month helps employees build up a stash, without feeling too much of a pinch.

For our fourth lesson we go to technology. Before the pandemic, standard operating procedure for most older Maltese was to buy apples at the greengrocer, try the shoes on first before buying, and have their doctor measure their blood pressure.

Of course, the world has long been going digital. But there is no doubt that the biggest long-term societal effect of the pandemic will be that the digital solution becomes the first choice of many Maltese for handling life’s tasks.

If nothing else, COVID has shown us how resilient and adaptable humans are as a society when forced to change. We have been forced to learn new technologies that, in many cases, have been the only safe way to continue working, to live our lives, and stay connected to our loved ones during the pandemic.

There are many other lessons I could talk about, but I would like to conclude with a fifth one. I think it could be “Truth matters, but it requires messaging and patience”, as historian John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza, has said.

In this age of misinformation, alternative facts, fake news and lies, even tackling such a pernicious virus has been hard. Thank God that in Malta we have been spared the vaccine-deniers. But that does not mean that we haven’t had problems with divisions on the pandemic, often reflecting or even instigating political differences.

Even in the era of ‘OK, boomer’ and ‘OK, millennial’ — memes that dismiss entire generations with an eye roll — divides can still be bridged. The scientists and health care professionals have shown us the way. Engaging with people for a common goal makes you trust them. 

So, verify facts and then decide. Check reliable, balanced news sources and unbiased fact-checking sites before clamping down on an opinion. Perhaps most important, be open to changing conditions and viewpoints.

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