Malta and Cyprus Attempt to Beat Back Coronavirus

The EU’s two island nations are doing what it takes to keep the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 pandemic at bay. The countries have an advantage when it comes to controlling their borders, but need to implement additional policies to minimise impact

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Malta and Cyprus are seeing a gradual but steady increase in the number of people that are testing positive for infection with the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, more commonly known as Covid-19. But both countries are doing what they can to ensure that the spread remains slow, and neither have suffered any deaths thus far.

In the Republic of Cyprus, 116 confirmed cases had been reported on Monday in the government-controlled areas, with another 33 in Turkish-controlled north of the island, bringing the number of total infected on the island to 155. The country reported its first virus-related death on Saturday.

These low numbers are relatively good news, and the government is determined to keep it that way, having announced a nation-wide lockdown starting today at 6pm. As of March 15, all ports of entry closed to anyone except Cypriot nationals. Meanwhile China is pre-emptively sending medical supplies, and a local company in Limassol, Flow Water Technologies, is giving disinfectant to the government free of charge.

“We have taken the joint decision to put aside our immediate commercial objectives and help assist with the national fight against Covid-19 infection escalation”, said Mark Hadfield, CEO of Flow Water Technologies. “Cyprus imports chemicals but it will soon run out. As Flow Water Technologies BWMS solution holds a Cyprus biocide licence for the emergency services the moral obligation was clear”.

All doctors and nurses in the nation are under the auspices of the Health Ministry. And the government is gearing up to pump money into the economy so that Cyprus can weather the rocky economic climate set to result from the widespread shutdowns needed to contain the crisis. 

“We are truly at war, and this isn’t won by enlisting our children to give or take lives by means of arms,” said Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades during a televised address. “Its a war which can only be won if we batten down the hatches.”

Health Minister Constantinos Ioannou has asked all citizens to do their part to minimise the outbreak. “No country has unlimited hospital beds to treat a large percentage of the population at the same time, and Cyprus is no exception”, he said at a press conference. “There are adequate pharmaceuticals and consumable items but I urge everyone to use them sparingly because even though we have stocks, demand is high internationally and supplies are limited”. 

“Please stay home. We want to create a shield of protection particularly for the elderly and vulnerable because they are the first to be at risk from the virus”. Though a curfew has not been declared, the government has not yet ruled it out.

Like most EU states, Cyprus has effectively shut its borders but is operating charter flights to bring nationals back home and repatriate foreigners to their countries of origin. Most of these foreigners are from the UK. More than 600 visitors were sent home from the Paphos airport alone, most of whom were tourists, and more than 1,300 Cypriots asked the government’s help to be brought home. Those on flights back to Cyprus will be taken to a special quarantine facility after they land, where they will spend 14 days to ensure they are not ill, or isolate them if they are. Forty-one UK nationals who recently arrived without papers confirming they are infection-free were also put into 14-day quarantine. 

Hotels across the nation suspended all services on March 21. Cyprus’ two main hotelier associations, the Cyprus Hotel Association (PASYXE) and the Association of Cyprus Tourist Enterprises (Stek), reported no issues with the evacuation of their hotels. Hotel staff will receive unemployment benefits once their places of residence close. 

Even so, there remains concern how the industry will fare come May, when the pandemic is expected to ease. Stek chairman Akis Vavlitis wondered “whether hotels will re-open or whether holiday bookings would start to pick up”.

“Everything will depend on developments in the countries where our tourists come from…the UK, Germany, the Scandinavian countries and central Europe, and in what state these countries’ economies will be”, he added.

The government is working on an economic support package worth at least 1.5 billion euros

The finance ministry is working to finalise a revised economic support package that will amount to at least €1.5 billion, or approximately 7% of GDP. Based on similar measures adopted in Germany, small and medium-sized businesses would be offered guaranteed loans and interest subsidies to boost liquidity. Finance Minister Constantinos Petrides also plans to consult with banks so they are set up to take advantage of the European Central Bank’s support framework. Meanwhile, the Cypriot government is expected to put pressure on financial institutions to suspend instalments, interest, and charges for a specified period to ease financial burden during this crisis.

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Constantinos Ioannou, Cyprus’ minister of health, has asked all citizens on the island nation to remain at home and practice social distancing. “No country has unlimited hospital beds to treat a large percentage of the population at the same time, and Cyprus is no exception…Please stay home. We want to create a shield of protection particularly for the elderly and vulnerable because they are the first to be at risk from the virus”, said Ioannou at a press conference. Copyright by Constantinos Ioannou – Minister of Health / Facebook.com

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Malta Works To Limit Infection

Malta has managed to limit the number of outbreaks within their borders with 110 confirmed cases, and no recorded deaths from Covid-19. To keep it that way, Malta has shut down all non-essential businesses such as bars, clubs, cinemas, and gyms. However, take-away food outlets currently remain open for business. Tough quarantine measures are in place for those who have the virus or are in danger of catching it, and there are steep fines for those who break these mandates. The fines were recently hiked from 1,000 euros to 3,000 euros, though most Maltese are scrupulously adhering to the law.

In a bid to stay ahead of the tide, Malta’s Health Ministry announced on Tuesday its interest in receiving offers to build a prefabricated fully-equipped hospital within an 8-week period, with a capacity of 90 patients and staff. 

Prime Minister Robert Abela has urged all Maltese residents who are currently abroad to return home as soon as possible. He said, “These are not the best of times. But the more we cooperate the sooner we will get out of this crisis. We don’t want to go towards the total lockdown button. So far, the health authorities are not indicating that we need to press the red button. If we go there, the consequences will be massive. If we go for a total lockdown it’s going to have to be considerably longer than three weeks. All those residents outside Malta should return at once. The tourists should leave as soon as possible”.

Air Malta has suspended all commercial flights to comply with the border closures, but will likely operate flights for humanitarian aid, repatriation of citizens, and similar crisis-related needs. They have also set up a “lifeline schedule” to help visitors return to their home countries.

“With these flights, the national airline is also ensuring continuous connectivity that is critical to the island’s supply chain. Selected flights from the outbound-only schedule will be available for individuals to book online”, Air Malta said in a statement last Thursday.

Public health superintendent Charmaine Gauci has urged people to adhere to public health authorities’ appeals to avoid congregating in large groups. “Some are still going to places where many people congregate. It is each and every one of us who has the responsibility to not congregate anywhere since there is now local transmission and it is easy to catch the virus. Meeting en masse means putting yourself, your family and the whole nation at risk”, Gauci said.

Meanwhile, the island nation was able to make use of important contacts to set up a teleconference with one of the top respiratory specialists in Wuhan – the site of the initial outbreak – thanks to relationship-building by Maltese doctor Gauden Galea, a member of the World Health Organisation team in China. That call may have helped prevent deaths in Malta, thanks to the sharing of valuable information on how the virus spreads. 

Like Cyprus, Malta has also rolled out a stimulus package. However, the General Workers’ Union has said that it would not be enough to prevent people losing their jobs and has instead proposed new incentives, including direct assistance to pay wages and tax credits.

Malta’s economy is heavily reliant on tourism, with the sector worth over 2 billion euros, and the coronavirus pandemic has brought the 2-million-a year tourist sector to a screeching halt. As a result, hotels and catering businesses are displeased with the aid thus far offered. “There is zero income and only massive expenditure, a situation that cannot be sustained for more than a few weeks. This is a reality even for the most frugal of companies, let alone those that in the last years have re-invested tremendous sums of money in upgrading their product”, Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association (MHRA) president Tony Zahra said. 
“A contribution of 320 euros per employee per month towards the payroll costs is a far cry from what was expected to help. Some operators will find themselves in a dire economic state”, Zahra added. “MHRA is indeed disappointed that the measures announced fell short from addressing the business needs at present and cannot view the outlook as positive. Without support of payroll costs, by a minimum of 800 euros per month per employee, the situation will effectively turn very difficult, very quickly”.

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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