Jean Monnet Professor
Institute for European Studies
COVID-19 SHOOK SOCIETY BUT NOT THE POLITICAL SYSTEM
In his introduction to the Muqaddimah, the fourteenth century North African scholar Ibn Khaldun, recounts how the plague which had devastated North Africa in 1348-49, taking his parents away with it, had dramatically changed societies by ‘swallowing up many of the good things of civilization and wiping them out’, adding further that the general change of conditions which it triggered off, was ‘as if creation had changed and the whole world been altered…a world brought into existence anew’ (p.30). For Khaldun, the historian’s main task is to chronicle such ‘game changing’ events and describe the transformations that they brought.
Sitting as we are on what might be the tail end of the COVID-19 pandemic (optimistic view), or on the cusp of a second and more devastating wave (pessimistic view), we do well to chronicle, but not to claim to be writing history. We still know very little about this pandemic. A lot has been said and written, but only a fraction of it counts – that based on scientific knowledge and empirical facts such as the declining macroeconomic indicators and the growing lines of the unemployed. The death toll from the pandemic remains controversial in an age of huge scientific advances. Ironically (or should I say cynically) ‘true’ and ‘fake’ news still struggle for supremacy. It is too early to predict the political outcomes that may result from this crisis. The itch to make hasty predictions nevertheless persists. Political figures around the world have suffered reversals in public support as a result of their mishandling of the pandemic while others have won public kudos. But will such reversals/gains persist or be re-reversed? Only when the dust settles, and with the benefit of hindsight, we will be able to measure the full effect of COVID-19 on our politics and society and perhaps begin to write its history.
The chronicle of Malta’s COVID-19 emergency begins on 7 March 2020 when the first case was reported. Quarantine measures were immediately implemented. Given its small territorial size and high population density, estimated at 1,548.3 persons per km2 (compared to the EU-27 average of 108.8) in 2018, it was crucial to deal with the pandemic right away. A fortnight later, all inbound passenger flights were stopped and restrictions were imposed on seaports. By the end of March all educational institutions were closed; sports activities stopped, banks and government offices curtailed their operations, hotels were empty, bars and restaurants pulled down their shutters as tourists disappeared and locals stayed away. In the month of March alone, tourist arrivals dropped by as much as 57%. Outbound tourism stopped from 12 March onward since the airport was closed. Only essential services remained open and subject to certain safeguards such as maintaining social distance and wearing masks or visors. Online purchases exploded, supermarkets and restaurants provided home delivery services. Preparations were completed in earnest in all hospitals and some University halls were transformed into make-shift wards, to prepare for an increased influx of patients. Ventilators became a subject of public interest. Old people’s homes were tightly quarantined, in many cases staff was obliged to live-in on the premises while people over 65 were advised to stay at home. Swabbing, testing and contact tracing became widespread and proved effective in containing the spread of the disease. It was not a total lock down as the opposition Partit Nazzjonalista (PN) had wanted, but it proved to have been effective as the facts subsequently showed.
New COVID-19 cases peaked on 7 April with 52 cases. Active cases peaked on 15 April, but started declining from there on. The government did not use the emergency powers provisions in the Constitution or the Emergency Powers Act to manage the situation, but used instead the Public Health emergency laws. On the economic front the effects of the pandemic became immediately visible: the unemployment rate edged up from 3.4% in January to 4.0% in April. Just a week after the first COVID-19 case, Government responded by a series of tax and economic measures aimed at keeping the economy afloat. At the end of March, Parliament authorized government to borrow up to €2 billion to be used to prop up the economy. Local borrowing was preferred to foreign loans. Less than three months into the crisis, on 3 June, Parliament approved a series of Legal Notices to start the gradual easing of restrictive measures. A few days later it approved a mini-budget to help the post-pandemic economic recovery.
Malta has contained the health aspects of the pandemic. By 28 June, figures provided by the health authorities showed that no new cases had been detected in the previous four days. Cumulatively 700 cases had been recorded by then, of which 636 recovered, 9 mortalities leaving 25 active cases. Game over? The virus is still in the community and as restrictive measures are eased and transport links with the rest of the world are restored, fears of a surge may be well-founded. In general, public sentiment is that the authorities have managed to contain the problem. Public opinion surveys by leading Maltese newspapers continue to show strong support for the governing Labour Party (PL) despite the fact that it has been rocked by various scandals linked to key (now former) ministers and parliamentarians and which in January of this year forced the Prime Minister (PM) Joseph Muscat to resign. He was replaced by Dr Robert Abela as PM and PL leader.
These troubles are related to the revelations made in the ‘Panama Papers’ and amplified by the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia who was assassinated in 2017. Several investigations and judicial inquiries are taking place, three persons have been charged with killing her by an explosive device placed in her car, a leading business man thought to be the main conspirator who commissioned the murder is in detention and facing a judicial inquiry and a ‘middle man’ has been given a Presidential pardon to provide evidence that would incriminate the perpetrators.
The country is also struggling with the reform of its institutions following the 2018 recommendations by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. The fading away of the PN as a credible political force has permitted civil society and the free media to fill the vacuum to counter-balance the government. Civil society and the media have also been the main ray of hope during the pandemic: they behaved as the main scrutinizers of the executive and the interlocutors par excellence between the ruling elite and various sectors of society. Civil society has also been helped by progressive elements in the PL, who, aided by the public angst generated by the assassination of Caruana Galizia and evidence of widespread corruption which has been repeatedly compared to a mafia, acted to clean their party and perhaps the country. The COVID-19 emergency was not the catalyst of reform. It could have delayed the process.
Continuing with our chronicle, the COVID-19 emergency churned up some other dramatic moments. The intensification of the civil war in Libya and the arrival of COVID-19 there strengthened the push factors of irregular migration. Both Italy and Malta closed their ports to all except the movement of essential supplies. The Maltese government asked fellow EU governments, whose citizens are involved in the rescue of irregular immigrants in the central Mediterranean, to stop their operations both because this would serve as an incentive for further migration and because few resources could be spared to save immigrants in Malta’s Search and Rescue Area (SAR) or to care for them once on land. The pandemic had generated fear and new pressures on human and material resources. The situation was aggravated when on 4 April, more than 1,000 migrants at the already over-crowded Hal Far Refugee Centre were put under lockdown after cases of the disease were discovered there following random swabbing.
The Maltese authorities kept rescued migrants at sea on hired cruise vessels just outside Malta’s territorial waters. Numbering around 425, they were eventually allowed ashore on the 6-7 June. Some of them had spent more than 40 days at sea. NGOs criticised this maltreatment of migrants, but Malta felt abandoned by the EU member states who refrained from sharing responsibility for them. Meanwhile, bilateral cooperation with Tripoli intensified during this ‘crisis within a crisis’ and an estimated 1,500 immigrants rescued by the Libyan coastguard and private vessels allegedly hired by Malta were forced back to Libya.
Immigrants with regular work and resident permits were also affected by the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. Some returned to their countries before flights and sea routes were stopped. Statistical data is not yet available on how many of them were left stranded in Malta. Mid-June the media reported that Indian nationals were encountering difficulties in being repatriated. When the pandemic struck, foreign workers who for many years had been welcomed and their contribution to the economy publicly lauded, suddenly became a “burden” to be returned home. On 17 March a Maltese Minister told Parliament that “Charity begins at home. Our primary focus are Maltese and Gozitan workers. The moment foreign workers lose their job they will have to go back to their country.” This drew criticism from 14 NGOs forcing the Minister to apologise. From there onward, the authorities started including them in relief measures although reports of a rise in xenophobic sentiment against foreigners were reported.
In conclusion, there are signs that while life styles have been changed by COVID-19 and that these will persist until this danger is over, national politics have not been affected a lot by it. Politics is driven by its own dynamics rooted in the pre-COVID situation. If the constitutional reform movement persists, the Maltese may for the first time since independence finally taste a true res publica in the Machiavellian sense (Discorsi), where the rule of law finally stands above all citizens alike and safeguards their liberty. It is only if the economic problems related to COVID-19 grow in the medium to long-term that they may start to impinge on the political domain.
 Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, Princeton University Press, 2015; Dale F. S. (2015), The Orange Trees of Marakesh: Ibn Khaldun and the Science of Man. Harvard University Press.
 Eurostat (2020). Population Density.
 National Statistics Office (Malta) (2020). Inbound Tourism at
 National Statistics Office (Malta) (2020). Unemployment Rates at
 The Sunday Times of Malta, 20 June 2020 at
Malta Today, 9 December 2019 at
Malta Today, 21 June 2020, at
 The Guardian (UK) “12 die as Malta uses private ships to push migrants back to Libya”, Tuesday 19 May 2020 06.10 BST, last modified on Tue 19 May 2020 06.20 BST.
 The Sunday Times of Malta. “‘Go back to your country’: How coronavirus xenophobia is driving foreigners away”. Sunday, 21 June, 2020.