It feels like a whole lifetime ago, but the first case of COVID-19 in Malta was announced 178 days ago. Since then, a total of 1,909 people have been infected with the virus. That includes locals, tourists, expats… but not, it turns out, migrants rescued by Malta. In fact, no list in the world is currently counting these migrants.
Before we set off, let’s be real here: there’s a very understandable reason why Malta is not counting its infected migrant population along with the rest of the community, and it has less to do with racism and more to do with scientific facts and mathematical probabilities.
A large portion of the island’s migrant COVID-19 cases – especially the currently active ones – are rescued migrants who had landed in Malta by boat. As has been the case since Day One, these arrivals are immediately tested, quarantined for 14 days, or instantly isolated should they test positive. These aren’t people anyone else is going to the run into on the streets, and as such might muddy the data when it comes to accurately depicting Malta’s COVID-19 situation.
But there’s a very big, very important difference between recognising the need to distinguish between data… and completely erasing it off the face of the Earth.
Just yesterday, Malta registered 21 new patients of COVID-19, a particularly low number as far as summer’s spike of cases goes. This number of new infections was further ‘welcomed’ thanks to a whopping 87 new recoveries.
Meanwhile, 32 new migrants had just tested positive and been relegated to a footnote. Some people didn’t even notice it, and whether any previously infected migrants had finally recovered or not, the population had no way of knowing.
Amidst a back-and-forth between Malta’s health authorities and the rest of the world, migrant cases of COVID-19 on the island went from being automatically counted during the first wave, to suddenly being omitted when things got bad during the second, to Health Minister Chris Fearne saying they’ll start being counted again a couple of weeks later after checking with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
But then, just 17 days later, Prime Minister Robert Abela said this decision would actually be reversed… after even more discussions and negotiations with ECDC.
Now, 178 days after Malta’s first case of COVID-19 was recorded and listed down forever, not one single migrant case can be found on the island’s list. Or any other list anywhere on the planet for that matter.
So where are these fellow humans listed? Well, as of the time of writing, literally nowhere. As far as their role in a pandemic that has affected millions of people goes, for better (recoveries) or worse (health complications), it’s like they never existed.
Ask yourself two simple questions: Do you know how many migrants are currently infected with COVID-19 in Malta? Do you know how many have been infected in total since March? Then ask yourself one more question: Do you even care?
As Malta’s health authorities have adjusted their statistical strategy when it comes to migrants, so has the public’s perception. And through it all, the odds have always felt stacked up against the same group of people.
When eight of Ħal Far’s migrant residents tested positive back in April and the whole centre was put in quarantine, it didn’t take long for more and more patients to be discovered. And of course that happened; packed in a tiny space which left much to be desired as far as hygiene and preventive measures go, the residents stuck inside were terrified and felt like they had been locked inside an infected prison. Within days, Ħal Far Open Centre had officially become Malta’s COVID-19 hotspot.
“You see how these illegals completely ruined Malta? Do you think these people wash their hands and use sanitisers?”
“Well, that’s obvious, they’re so dirty.”
“See if Peppi wants them.”
And yes, those are actual comments posted minutes after the news broke.
But when 65 newly-arrived migrants who tested positive ballooned the island’s total COVID-19 cases earlier this summer, they quickly went from Malta’s main problem to just plain non-existent.
What started with “Malta was doing so well, now with the migrants coming here they’re going to screw everything” quickly turned into “Oh, but they shouldn’t even be counted with the ‘normal’ cases. Just cross them off the list” (two more actual comments).
And while that last argument is coming from a very valid scientific and statistical point of view, it can just as easily open a trapdoor of problematic rationale. Because the only thing worse than blaming someone for your problems is acting like they don’t even exist. Especially when they’re dealing with their own problems in your country.
This way, the message to these people is crystal clear: you are invisible. You don’t even deserve to be a statistic. We do not care about you. You’re someone else’s problem. Anyone but ours.
So what’s the solution? Where’s the vital middle ground we should be meeting each other at?
Every day this year, the world has had to traverse unknown terrain, and it’s understandable that countries might experience some growing pains and missteps on the way. But there’s a way and a way to deal with all this… and Malta might already have an example to follow this time.
As medical authorities around the world struggled to understand what COVID-19 even was and how best to keep it at bay, data scientists were scrambling to make sure everything is properly documented and analysed.
Back in February, when over 700 people onboard a cruise tested positive for COVID-19, the passengers and crew of the Diamond Princess accounted for over half of the world’s reported cases of the virus outside of mainland China. As it returned to its initial point of departure, Japan’s Yokohama Port, the massive cruise liner remained berthed inches away from land, very much within Japan’s territory.
Despite all of this, though, the ship’s total confirmed cases of 712 – and, eventually, 14 deaths – were not added to Japan’s total. That wouldn’t have made sense anyway, since these people were never in Japan’s community while they were infected or infective. So instead, in a surreal twist straight out of 2020, Diamond Princess now shows up in COVID-19 lists, alongside the other countries of the world.
What doesn’t show up in the same way on data aggregating sites like Worldometers, however, is Malta, where anyone regularly following the island’s statistics might’ve gotten confused as to how over 100 cases from the country’s total just seemed to vanish overnight.
Why can’t Malta’s migrant cases be counted in a similar way as the Diamond Princess cases, instead of just being crossed off the global list?
From a statistical point of view, if anyone who’s been infected upon or after their arrival into any country doesn’t make it into the community by the time they’re isolated, they shouldn’t be expected to add onto the community’s total numbers. But ignoring them is just as bad.
So why not have a separate list for migrants who have arrived in the country (or are technically within our territory) and are infected? You could argue that this could even be the case for incoming tourists who instantly test positive at the airport and are instantly isolated in a hotel room… although of course, the potential for transmission there is exponentially higher.
This way, though, the world’s data on COVID-19 can be complete, while our own national data will still be realistic. Add the fact that Malta plans to imminently kick off an offshore quarantine centre for irregular migrants, and the answer is staring right at you; anything is better than this, because this is nothing.
This might even create a balanced meeting point for people on either end of the argument and send a different, slightly better message to the migrants: you might not technically be our problem, but you’re our responsibility.
As the whole world grapples with a number of economic challenges, biological hurdles and social divides, Malta has been no exception. Meanwhile, the island’s ongoing problem with racism isn’t going anywhere either.
So while everything else is happening, Malta’s migrant community – which is only increasing as time goes by – keeps getting the raw end of the deal every step of the way. Their latest hurdle? Not even being counted as human beings when having to deal with a virus that currently has no cure, in a country which isn’t even their own. The least we could do right now is promote them to being just a number again.