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MALTATODAY 26 December 2021 LOOKING BACK edition

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17 maltatoday | SUNDAY • 26 DECEMBER 2021 NEWS Christmas specials ti-vaxxers. A decent amount of COVID-sceptics hail from the Italian community, themselves witnesses to mass anti-vax pro- tests in Italy, one of the worst- hit nations in the pandemic. In October, thousands of an- ti-vaccine demonstrators mo- bilised across the country, and in Rome leaders of the far-right New Force and other gang members were arrested. That kind of violence is unheard of in Malta, but members of the far-right and anti-immigration protagonists can be found in these crowds – like Raymond Ambrogio, a former police of- ficer who convened a coun- ter-protest to the Black Lives Matters memorial to Lassana Cisse in June 2020. Today Ambrogio is a member of the new right-wing Partit Popolari led by Paul Salomone. Despite attending the first an- ti-vax protest, Ambrogio still got vaccinated against COV- ID-19, but is against the use of face masks and 'green passes' that discriminate against un- vaccinated. Partit Popolari itself pro- moted a 'People's Choice for Freedom' protest on 18 De- cember under the aegis of its association with Tom Meert's Europeans United – a lobby that militates against COVID passports, rather than the vac- cine. Nobody wants to die from COVID. Similar to PP, armed with equally religious conviction for its conservative cause, is Ivan Grech Mintoff's Partit Abba, who also led anti-vaxx- er protests in Valletta together with recruit and ex-gay activist Matthew Grech from the River Of Love evangelist congrega- tion. On his Facebook, Grech celebrates the absence of face- masks at an airport in Hungary even for the non-vaccinated. Like him, River Of Love pas- tor Gordon John Manché is an avowed sceptic of COVID transmission and facemasks. But the presence of these right-wing, religious conserva- tives in the 'anti-vax' or COV- ID-sceptic movement has not excluded participation of ecol- ogists like the lawyer Rudolph Ragonesi and an array of lib- ertarians who are openly op- posed to the right wing. Clearly, their mistruct of health restrictions mandated by COVID-19, and the power emergency measures confer to governments and civil servants, reflects a similar mistrust of in- stitutional power elsewhere: the scientific establishment for one, which enables the wealth and influence of Big Pharma; a natural partner of that sci- entific establishment is often secularism, for it is here that science finds its political plat- form; and more often that not, where science and secular val- ues are revered, humanism and civil rights follow. It is no surprise then that Malta's anti-vaxxer minor- ity is weaponised by fringe right-wing parties as another 'culture war'. Like right-wing Catholic cleric David Muscat, who rails against the discrimi- nation of vaccination passepar- touts as 'bourgeouis', when his own advice "to defeating the pandemic is... prayer, penance, and amendment of life." To Muscat's ilk, the concept of hu- manist ethics or science-based policy, is seen as 'bourgeou- is' privilege because it poses a threat to religious fundamen- talism and a perceived system of white, patriarchal, religious, heterosexual and cisgender norms. When suddenly that system is upended by the entire elector- al programme of a centre-left government – equal marriage and civil unions, IVF for all women irrespective of mari- tal status, same-sex adoption, gender identity rights – even a serious pandemic becomes a rallying point for illiberals. As Marlene Laruelle of George Washington University (IERES) comments, reactions to the pandemic have largely depended on certain features of national cultures, such as individuals' compliance with collective habits, sense of civic duty, public trust, and respect for government decisions. That explains Malta's high vaccine take-up and compliance with public health restrictions and lockdowns in the context of strong support and trust in the governing Labour admin- istration, and a strong social spending programme during the pandemic. Indeed, Malta lacks any of the "entrenched defiance of state decisions" one sees in the Unit- ed States, with opponents of state-funded healthcare start- ing with the 'Tea Party'; or in France with the 2018 'Yellow Jackets' protests on rising fuel prices and tax burden. In these countries, Laruelle writes, the COVID backlash revealed "so- cioeconomic lines of friction rarely exposed in pre-pandemic times. For instance, blue-collar workers, who are already the most economically vulnerable, have been the ones whose jobs could not be shifted online." But in Malta, a €1 billion pub- lic spend on wage subsidies and other economic programmes for businesses, transfer pay- ments to keep consumption up, and even subsidies on en- ergy and rents, helped balance out the restrictions of freedom brought about by COVID-19 with job security. In Laruelle's word, illiberal- ism can be seen as "our own in- ner ambivalences toward how we live together and which rules should regulate this to- getherness." Only that in Malta, a social pact that strikes the right bal- ance between security and privacy, popular approval for Maltese doctors and its pub- lic health system, and a strong press that amplifies knowledge of science, as well as abuse or unfairness on COVID meas- ures, have been key in keeping a sense of national cohesion. It is no wonder that, shorn of real motivation to oppose vac- cines or public health restric- tions, Malta's COVID sceptics belong to the same groups that the Equality Act, the reli- gious zealots who support "an- ti-woke" firebands like Donald Trump, post conspiratorial links on COVID-19 vaccines by Maltese far-right activists like Moviment Patriotti Maltin, and view any sort of govern- ment regulation in favour of equality as "communism" or "cultural Marxism". "A €1 billion public spend on wage subsidies and other economic programmes for businesses, transfer payments to keep consumption up, and even subsidies on energ y and rents, helped balance out the restrictions of freedom brought about by COVID-19 with job security"

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