▪️ WhatsThat ▪️ Help that child ▪️ Costly care

The widespread use of WhatsApp for communications between ministers and between them and other persons, including non-public persons dealing with the Government, is raising questions in many countries as to whether the platform is appropriate for exchanges leading to important decision-making and whether it is conducive to proper process.

The problem has also become evident in Malta, where several controversial cases   ̶   such as the hospitals deal, the revelations about corruption at high levels by Daphne Caruana Galizia, the transport licences scandal, and others   ̶   were the subject of WhatsApp communications between ministers and high government officials themselves as well as with third persons.

These include exchanges between a former Prime Minister and a former EU Commissioner regarding Steward Healthcare’s takeover of the hospital concession from Vitals Global Healthcare; chats between Transport Ministry personnel regarding irregularities in the issue of driving licences; chats between Keith Schembri, Joseph Muscat’s private secretary, the former chief investigator of the murder of Mrs Caruana Galizia, former MFSA CEO Joseph Cuschieri, and the alleged murder mastermind Yorgen Fenech; and chats between disgraced former Minister Konrad Mizzi and Jorgen Fenech regarding various projects falling under Mizzi’s remit, including highly confidential documents.

One can only wonder how the complexities and nuances of any government policy, decisions or projects can be conveyed in a WhatsApp exchange.  It is understandable that WhatsApp messages might fulfil a useful function in certain circumstances   ̶   for example during the Covid crisis when there was limited face-to-face contact   ̶   but it’s something different when such exchanges become the norm.

Add to this the question about the ethics of sharing government information, some of which is highly confidential, with private third parties and how such parties can obtain an unfair advantage over their competition, undermining the public interest in the process. 

The public interest has been described as referring to considerations affecting the good order and functioning of the community and government affairs for the wellbeing of citizens. It has also been described as being for the benefit of society, the public or the community as a whole.

Acting in the public interest is a concept that is fundamental to a representative democratic system of government and to good public administration. Experience has shown that there will be times when ministers and public officials will need to balance conflicting or incompatible conduct standards or objectives  –  where a decision has to be made that will serve one objective, but not another, or one more than another.  Are these discussions which ought to be discussed with private parties?  Certainly not. 

The question also arises whether it is in the public interest that decisions are properly made and recorded.  Very much so.  There can be no transparency and accountability if the government’s work is not officially recorded but takes place in WhatsApp messages that can be deleted; rather, there would be unwarranted intrusion into the workings of government by vested interests.  

In the UK, the Cabinet Office has published guidance allowing the use of WhatsApp and other non-corporate communications channels as long as “significant government information” is officially recorded. This is information that “materially impacts the direction of a piece of work or that gives evidence of a material change to a situation”.

The more significant or contentious an issue, the greater the importance of ensuring that the basis for the decision is properly documented.  For example, where a decision or a course of action is being considered by some third party   ̶   be it an interest group, Opposition MPs, journalists, regulators, watchdog bodies, tribunals or courts   ̶   if the basis for a decision is properly documented, this supports the credibility of the decision-maker and the decision-making process in the eyes of that third party, even if there is disagreement on the merits of the decision made.

This generally increases the chances that any debate will focus on the merits of the decision and not the conduct of the decision-maker.  All too often, analysis of decisions being taken by governments and their bodies is being conducted on the basis of who made the decision, rather than why they made it.  Thus, the justification for the building of a gas-powered energy plant has been severely impaired by the conduct of the persons involved in it.  Yet, there is ample evidence that the plant concerned was in the public interest, in spite of the controversy regarding illicit gains that may have been made by certain individuals.  One cannot say the same for the hospitals deal.

It is fairly obvious that we in Malta too need to have proper safeguards as to the use of WhatsApp as well as the preservation of information exchanged on it.   

Help that child

Overall, the world-wide evidence on the impact of childhood poverty on life outcomes shows that children and adolescents who experience poverty have worse cognitive, social-behavioural and health outcomes.  In part this is because they have lower family incomes and having a lower family income is correlated with other household and parental characteristics.

Eurostat recently published some statistics about poverty and social exclusion among children aged 18 years or less.  In 2022, 24.7% of such children in the EU were at risk compared with 24.4% reported in 2021.  The situation is as bad as 42.5% in Romania at one end, and as good as 10% in Slovenia. Malta has the tenth-lowest rate, of 23.7%, slightly lower than the EU average.

At risk of poverty is defined as those falling below 60% of median income.  Since median income can change considerably depending on GDP growth, it is no wonder that the poverty rate can change significantly over time.

Thus, in Malta, the rate of poverty and social exclusion (AROPE) among children went up from 25.2% in 2008 to 33.4% in 2012.  This horrendous setback could be attributed to the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, but not solely.  By 2022, the rate had thankfully gone down to 23.1%, but before we congratulate ourselves we need to remember that over that period the GDP had gone up by almost 93%.  I would still say that it is a problem, including because it is even higher than the rate of 20.1% among the population as a whole.  It means that one in almost five in the population at risk of poverty and social exclusion is a child.

Poverty affects multiple outcomes for children at the same time. Evidence shows both the lack of ability to purchase resources for children and the stress on parents and children resulting from low income are pathways influencing negative outcomes.

Children born to parents living in poverty are more likely to have a low birthweight.  They are also more likely to suffer from asthma and other childhood diseases. Children who grow up in poverty may, as a result, also experience poor health in later life and are more likely to have poor mental health and suffer the risk of psychological distress. 

Other evidence shows that children growing up in poverty on average do less well in education.  Gaps open up very early – even before children start school – and persist and even widen after that.  Children from the lowest income families are less likely to achieve the standard benchmarks at age 11, make slower progress in secondary school, and are much less likely to attend higher education institutions. This has an impact on levels of educational attainment and later job opportunities and wages.

Child poverty costs the country money, directly and indirectly.  Having so many families and their children in poverty draws huge costs from other government budgets: poorer physical and mental health impacts the health system, poorer educational attainment reduces workforce skills, and additional public services are needed to cushion the effects of living in poverty. 

Unfortunately, about 19,490 children in Malta live in low-income families (incomes below the poverty line or poverty threshold   ̶   a measurement that has been shown to underestimate the needs of working families. Research shows that, on average, families require a household income of about twice that amount to cover basic expenses. It is no secret that poverty is a problem that must be constantly fought.

My personal view is that, while we have made progress in the fight against poverty and childhood poverty, it is far from enough.  I understand that a new national anti-poverty strategy is in the making, and one augurs that it will provide a robust framework for future action.  The objective must be to build on the progress made since 2012 and deepen it.

Costly care

Care workers are instrumental in maintaining equilibrium within homes. Their role is indispensable for the survival and well-being of nations.  According to the United Nations Economist Network, caregiving is no longer just a personal or family obligation but a public good that yields far-reaching benefits for society and the future.

Today’s family dynamics have evolved, with both parents typically working to provide for their families. Consequently, the demand for care workers has significantly increased, whether it’s for childcare, supporting sick relatives, assisting ageing parents, or providing postpartum care for mothers and infants, etc.  The absence of caregivers would lead to crises in homes, organisations, and society at large, forcing individuals to quit their jobs to provide care. This reduction in family income would impact purchasing power, affecting businesses and, ultimately, the nation’s economy.

It’s important to note that the increased participation of women in the labour force has led to a reduction in unpaid family care. However, poor working conditions and low wages have created a shortage in the paid care sector.  Last February, the Health Ministry launched a study to understand what is keeping young Maltese away from a career in healthcare as a shortage of professionals threatens future capacity.

The care crisis also directly affects caregivers, who are overworked, underpaid and underappreciated.  From some research on the Internet, it appears that the average caregiver earns around €17,000 per annum, though this can range from a low of €12,000 for a semi-skilled one to a high of €22,000 for a professional one.  The work can be exhausting and difficult.  However, we often devalue this work by thinking of in-home caregivers as “help” rather than as medical professionals.

Who can afford to pay even the average salary of a caregiver?  Only the higher-income families.  For example, employing a full-time professional carer for somebody suffering from ALS could cost over a hundred thousand euros from the time of diagnosis to premature death.  For somebody on an average salary, that’s equivalent to five years’ salary.   

Photo: Kampus Production

There will be some people who make the sacrifice of caring for a loved one for as long as it takes, but their number is fast decreasing.  They are the ones who find caregiving rewarding, but it also involves many stressors. Since caregiving is often a long-term challenge, the emotional impact can snowball over time.  It can be particularly disheartening if there’s no hope that the family member will get better, or if, despite one’s best efforts, his or her condition is gradually deteriorating.

Private caregiving is exorbitantly expensive, even as more Maltese will need paid care in the coming years. The pandemic revealed how much our society relies on caregivers, but we have failed to make changes to our insufficient caregiving system.

The Government currently pays a maximum of €5,154 – €6,482 a year for a caregiver’s service to a disabled person, depending on the degree of disability.  It is, of course, a considerable improvement on previous levels of assistance, but clearly inadequate.  Political action to make home care more affordable needs beefing up considerably.  Both major political parties should commit to a care agenda that would recognise the importance of caregiving to thousands of people as our society ages.

Photo: Andrea Piacquadio

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