Of waves, mechanisms and loopholes

I cannot help but remember our country’s reaction to the beginning of the pandemic. Schools had just been shut down and the panic started to rise. Slowly but surely, the rest of the country shut down too: shops, restaurants, gyms, hairdressers, the airport. Every public space imaginable was completely deserted. The authorities initially received much praise for the measures they took to combat the virus. However, 8 months later, it is safe to say that the government has since been subjected to a lot of criticism for their handling of the pandemic. We used to panic about 5 cases a day, and now we boast when it is fewer than 200. That things could have been handled better is especially true from the perspective of a student. The Ministry of Education in particular has received much backlash for delaying the start to the school year, failing to provide adequate online schooling in primary and secondary schools, and poorly handling post-secondary institutions such as Higher Secondary School in Naxxar. 

When in May the Prime Minister was asked in an interview about the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 hitting the island, he responded with “waves are in the sea”. Critics repeatedly mocked this line, and for good reason. For the Prime Minister to dismiss the possibility of a second spike meant that precautions were lifted haphazardly, and as a result, a second spike occurred, especially due to a reliance on imaginary mechanisms.

One particular move by the government that outraged a lot of people was the announcement that fines received for breaking quarantine rules had the possibility of being refunded. What is the point of having rules in place if these are not enforced?

This summer, Malta enjoyed a good six weeks of a low coronavirus infection rate. Everything seemed to be back to normal. However, it is now November, and the situation is at the worst that it’s ever been. We are at over 2,000 active cases, averaging around 100 new cases a day. At the time of writing, more than 120 people have died of the coronavirus. 

How has all of this affected the students? It should come as no surprise that people my age initially found it difficult to cope with the change in routine with regards to education. This was unfortunately inevitable, and no one was at fault for this. However, it can definitely be said that the situation was handled very poorly, and schools were extremely unprepared for the beginning to the new scholastic year.

The scholastic year started off with a one-week delay. State primary and secondary school students were told to either show up to school or not to come at all – no system of online learning was provided whatsoever. This led to many at-risk students missing out on their education entirely. Thankfully, online learning is now being introduced for such students, albeit six weeks late. 

And let us not forget about the situation in post-secondary institutions, such as that of Higher Secondary School. On the first day of school, all online lectures were cancelled due to the fact that these were not working properly. Furthermore, once these online lectures did start, students on campus found it extremely difficult to participate in them. Not only was the Wi-Fi on campus not strong enough to connect to the lessons, but students also found themselves struggling to find seating and thus ended up following their lectures on the floor. 

Students at Junior College started lectures much later than other schools, putting them at a big disadvantage. In fact, I remember being quite shocked to hear that most students were enjoying their midterm holidays, while I, a Junior College student, had only been attending lessons for a week. 

The pandemic has had an incredibly negative effect on us students, made even worse by the incompetence of our authorities. There was ample time to prepare for the opening of schools and it shouldn’t have been as rushed as it was, let alone delayed. Adequate online learning for students of all ages should have been provided from the start. Furthermore, post-secondary institutions should not have been left to fend for themselves in such a difficult time.

It seems a price was paid as we have yet another Minister for Education. One wonders what the result of the latest round of musical chairs will ultimately deliver. One thing should be clear, however. Amongst all the mixed messages, vague promises and half-measures, it seems like ultimately government is betting everything on this vaccine. The country cannot keep staking all its hopes on this vaccine, however. 

Even if one reaches the country in the next few months, and assuming everything goes according to plan, then it will take time for people to be vaccinated and longer still for things to start approaching anything like the old normality. In the meanwhile, people are going to keep dying and people with pre-existing or underlying conditions, regardless of age, are going to remain at risk. There is also the danger that this fast-mutating virus will require successive vaccines, just like one has the flu vaccine every year, and that COVID-19 will never really go away. It could become as endemic as the annual flu. So, with all due respect to the need for the country to keep working, perhaps it is time to stop playing games with people’s lives, and actually listen to the experts.

Katrina Cassar
ADŻ Public Relations Officer
Published in the Malta Independent – Sunday 29 November 2020