Was the Maltese Government too soft in its response to COVID?

A recurrent discussion in Malta for nearly the last year and a half revolves around Government’s response to COVID. Several commentators, particularly on social media, have consistently argued that the Maltese Government has been too lax, and this resulted in the unnecessary spread of the pandemic and resulted in additional deaths.

Medical data compiled by the European Centre for Disease Control do not seem to support this conclusion. When one compares the overall number of cases recorded in Malta with its population, one finds that 5.9% tested positive for the virus, as against an EU average of 6.9%. In countries like the Czech Republic over 15% of the population tested positive, while in another Mediterranean island, Cyprus the rate was 7.6%. This proportion may be deceptive as some countries did not carry out extensive testing programmes. Possibly more indicative is the proportion of the population that died while testing positive for COVID-19. Malta had the fourth lowest percentage of the population across the EU in this respect, at 0.08%. The EU average was double that, at 0.16%. The highest death rates were those of the Czech Republic, at 0.28% and Hungary, at 0.29%.

However rather than simply focusing on medical outcomes, one can look at specific indicators compiled just for this purpose. The University of Oxford has been compiling a plethora of indicators covering most of the globe throughout this pandemic. The results arising from these data were studied in a recent Central Bank of Malta research note. The indicators look at various aspects of the Government response, ranging from economic support to health system policies. This note explains that in the first part of 2020 “Malta had one of the highest government response indices amongst all European countries”. Despite what local commentators were saying, the internationally recognised Government Response Index (GRI) shows that “during September and October 2020, Malta’s index was very comparable to the Euro Area average”. There was a brief period where Malta’s response was lower than the EU average, but the study notes how “in March 2021, Malta’s GRI surpassed the Euro Area average once again”.

Malta had one of the highest government response indices amongst all European countries

The unfair nature of the criticism directed towards Maltese health authorities and particularly Prof Charmaine Gauci is evident when one reads that “Malta’s health response indicators out-perform European peers”.  In fact, the Central Bank researcher notes how “Malta was one of the first countries to introduce generally available testing. Malta had one of the highest scores in terms of contact tracing throughout 2020. Malta was one of nine countries to introduce the strictest measure of facial covering wearing at all times when out of home. Following the approval of the first COVID-19 vaccine in late December 2020, Malta was one of fifteen countries to start vaccinating citizens on the earliest day possible. By April 2021, over 50% of the Maltese adult population received a first dose, while around 25% were fully vaccinated.”

To further corroborate the results of this study, the Chart compares the GRI for Malta and Germany. The latter country has been lauded internationally for its policies, with praise heaped on Angela Merkel for her down-to-earth and well-thought decisions. As can be seen there were several occasions when the Maltese Government’s response was relatively stronger than that of Europe’s largest and strongest country. In fact, on average through the period January 2020 to early May 2021, Malta’s GRI exceeds slightly the German average value.

The Central Bank study also demonstrates that containment measures hurt the economy quite strongly whenever they were imposed. For instance, it notes how “the year-on-year percentage change in industrial production experienced a sharp drop during the period of elevated containment measures”, and that “following the rise in containment measures, retail turnover dropped sharply”. This explains why getting the balance between containment measures and economic activity was important.

Economic support measures index

02-May-20

02-May-21

Czech Republic

100.0

37.5

Germany

62.5

37.5

Denmark

87.5

50.0

France

100.0

50.0

Croatia

87.5

37.5

Hungary

87.5

62.5

Malta

62.5

62.5

Slovenia

75.0

62.5

Sweden

37.5

37.5

 

To reduce the impact on economic operators, Governments introduced several support measures. Oxford University has compiled indices that compare the relative strength of these measures across countries. As can be seen in the Table, at the start of May 2020, the extent of Malta’s measures may have appeared somewhat muted compared to those of some other European countries. In fact, at the time a lot of social partners mentioned the generosity of Denmark or of some Eastern European states. While this was true, most of these countries ended up lowering the scale of support even though the pandemic was still rampant and they had to toughen restrictions to control it. The Danes started above Malta, but ended below it. The most striking case are the Czechs that started as the most generous and are now the least generous. By contrast, as promised when economic support was introduced in Malta, its level remained stable throughout. For the Maltese Government this was not a sprint. It was a marathon. Many other Governments made the mistake of giving a lot at the start and then failing to continue supporting later in the pandemic when operators needed help most.

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