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We Really Need To Talk About Robert Abela’s Dangerous Spin Of COVID-19 Statistics

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Amidst a raging debate of whether Malta’s current COVID-19 situation is solidly under control or spiralling well out of it, the island has one very commendable statistic and a couple of rather worrying ones. And wouldn’t you know, our Prime Minister is selectively – and consistently – quoting only one of them.

Whether you believe in waves, vaccines or conspiracies, these are the facts:

In the last 31 days, Malta registered an increase of over 13,000% in COVID-19 cases. As far as the actual numbers go, that’s going from five cases to 699.

In the last eight days alone, Malta registered 425 new cases. That’s more than the country’s absolute maximum number of active cases during the “first wave”, 352 on 15th April, in just one week. In fact, every single day since 9th August, Malta has set a new national record for active cases. Every. Single. Day. We are currently on Day 11.

As far as that big picture is concerned, Malta’s total cases per one million (3,191, or 3,020 if you had to remove every single migrant case) now outranks the global average (2,828).

But that’s not all the statistics. Because while all this is happening, Malta is also in the midst of a rigorous testing procedure that has seen upwards of 2,000 swabs being carried out on a daily basis.

For context, when the country had just five active cases (this time last month), we were testing just over 800 people… sometimes even less. Malta’s previous record of testing stood at just over 1,700, but daily test averages now easily hover over 2,000. Just today, a record-breaking 3,030 tests were conducted. This translates to an increase in daily testing of anywhere between 30% and 350% (depending on whether you’re comparing to our previous lowest or our previous maximum, which in turn depends on what point you’d like to prove). On average, though, that’s about a 200% increase.

This has helped boost Malta all the way up in the global list of testing rates, with our tiny island yet again ranking third in the whole world as far as new tests per thousand goes.

And whichever way you put it, that’s an extraordinary feat that’s definitely worth shouting about.

Ahead of the rest, twice: a tale of two very different statistics

Ahead of the rest, twice: a tale of two very different statistics

But while both statistics are needed to paint Malta’s full picture, Prime Minister Robert Abela has consistenly gone on record to only paint half of it.

Time and time again, right up to a televised interview last Sunday and a current sponsored post on Partit Laburista’s official Facebook page, Abela has happily scaled up the nation’s per capita testing rate… but conveniently forgotten to do the exact same thing to our new infections per capita.

In other words, Abela is gladly comparing the testing rate of an island of about 500,000 people to those of countries with populations of tens of millions… as he should, after all, because that’s how one compares statistics, and it’s always important to see how the rest of the world is faring with the global spread of an infectious virus that does not have a cure yet.

At the same time, though, Abela is choosing not to do the exact same thing to our 699 active cases, our 1,510 total cases, or even this week’s current average of around 60 cases per day. Of course that’s going to make our cases look negligble compared to, say, Italy’s total of 255,278 cases or Spain’s 370,867. But that’s not the point of ratios and per capita comparisons now, is it?

And Abela knows this all too well, because that’s not what we’re doing with the good number. It’s just what we’ve chosen to do with the bad one.

“This forms part of the politics of honesty and transparency that we believe in,” Abela explained in last weekend’s televised interview, after putting newfound stress on Malta’s testing per capita – graphs and all – when he was questioned on the current situation of increasing cases. “We don’t throw things under the rug. We are transparent and honest with people.”

But why is this worrying, dangerous even?

In a tumultous time when tensions are high and many people’s daily lives have dramatically changed, the world’s leaders have a golden opportunity to provide clarity amidst the calamity.

It’s understandable (although still not great or particularly smart) for citizens to be selective with the statistics on their private Facebook profiles or when talking to their family and friends.

Maybe all this talk of doom and gloom will have a worse toll on them than any microscopic virus with a very high recovery rate ever could, so choosing to focus on the positive numbers is how they get through this. After all, Malta really is testing a bunch of people every single day. Way more than most countries.

Maybe they have someone vulnerable to protect back home, and they feel that unless they really keep stressing on how shitty the current situation is getting, not enough people around them will take this seriously enough and put their loved ones in danger. After all, Malta really is registering new record cases every single day. Way more than many countries.

But for our Prime Minister to feed into this spin – and indeed be its main catalyst – is downright reprehensible. 

It’s not like we haven’t already seen what happens when the leader of a country is this open to spin. We’ve seen the effects of this particular argument come up more than once just last weekend.

Labour Party president Daniel Micallef last Friday said Malta is being punished for its high testing rate.

Meanwhile, prominent businessman Michael Zammit Tabona went a step further, claiming that “the virus isn’t killing us, testing is”.

And this keeps trickling all the way down to the dozens of comments on Saħħa’s daily Facebook posts. To the hundreds of daily conversations on workplaces. To the TV sets and dining table arguments inside thousands of households.

Now more than ever, governments should be leading by example, and not be spinning numbers… especially in a way that’s so blatantly one-sided. 

We shouldn’t even be debating numbers right now. These numbers aren’t some subjective argument based on personal beliefs and opinions. At the end of the day, we’re talking about a virus that has so far infected 22 million people and killed some 788,000… and the statistics which reflect how each country is faring in this months-long storm.

This, of course, doesn’t even go into the merits of what happens when you actually do put both statistics next to each other: in the past month, testing has increased by at most 350%, while cases have increased by at least 10,000%. Those, unfortunately, are two facts which don’t add up and which you can’t debate.

When you open yourself up to accepting both sides of the coin, you’ll quickly realise that Malta’s current situation has both commendable and worrying statistics. But these statistics should be weapons in our arsenal, not crutches for our arguments.

The commendable statistics are clearly a direct result of government-sanctioned bolstering of resources, fresh and regular restrictive measures, and a nationwide effort to not spread the virus.

The worrying ones are most likely a result of a hotchpotch of fuck-ups that range anywhere between Malta being one of the quickest countries in the world to reopen as soon as new cases dropped, to people getting way more relaxed with personal measures as soon as we started dropping to double, then single, digits.

But when everything is said and done, both of these statistics, good and bad, belong to us, and us alone. Not mentioning the bad numbers won’t make them go away… and pointing them out doesn’t make you “anti-Malta”.

Besides, Malta should already have the tools at hand to beat this. We’ve been here before… just a couple of months ago.

When the virus first hit our shores back in March (which, side note, now feels like an eternity ago), the country’s authorities mobilised resources, people, restrictions, and had even floated around the idea of erecting a makeshift hospital in record time.

As a result of all this, the nation’s hospital beds and respirators were left mostly stocked up and unused, and the tiny island quickly ended up being commended and hailed an exemplary country by everyone, from our neighbouring countries to the World Health Organisation.

But it is these same countries – and the global health bodies guiding everyone – who are now putting Malta on their Red Travel Lists (over a dozen at the time of writing) and flagging the island as “high risk”.

So now, with a second wave (or spike, or explosion, or whatever you’d like to call it) very clearly in full swing, it’s even more essential to understand that some people need to be looking at statistics to check where we’ve come from, observe where we currently are, and properly plan where we want to go.

But if we’re going to be looking at statistics, please, for the love of clarity and true transparency, let’s look at all the statistics.

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