The ‘Okella Agius’ Syndrome
This is a country that fascinates me for so many reasons (mostly good ones). That we have so much going on that is positive cannot be denied.
Dr Andrew Azzopardi Dean Faculty for Social Wellbeing, University of Malta & Broadcaster – Għandi xi Ngħid www.andrewazzopardi.org
Most citizens have a decent quality of life, the weather is tepid, people in general have a respectable sense of wellbeing, relatives remain committed to each other, the country is generally accessible (even if the traffic is becoming a major pain in the neck), our welfare, health and education system seem to respond to the needs of the community.
However, when one starts scraping the surface, some issues start emerging and it’s no perception! In fact, I would consider that we are a country with an ‘Okella Agius Syndrome’ – and this is why...
Dr Michael Farrugia, the Minister for Family and Social Solidarity, fittingly, has decided to engage in the renovation of the infamous and iniquitous ‘Okella Agius’ flats (if you want to call them so) that are situated in Ħamrun, probably amongst the last standing buildings that would still merit the status of ‘slums’, even though along the years they’ve had the occasional facelift. I remember filming these flats, (apologies I meant ‘slums’), when I anchored Għandi xi Ngħid – TVM. The people living there, although resilient and beautiful characters talked about the lack of hygiene, rampant and in-your-face drug trafficking that happened in the hallway, systematic vandalism, squatting, people were coming into the property without having the right to do so and any other vice that one could think about was happening in that old derelict, dilapidated, neglected, abandoned and ruined building on a daily basis (oh and inhabited by cockroaches obviously) – fit for anything but to host people!
Somehow, however in this pretty little country of ours we still get bouts of systematic amnesia thinking that in this dayand-age in Malta and Gozo we do not have such social conditions, that the economy is all nice and rosy and that people are doing well for themselves – in other words the ‘Okella Agius’ of this world do not exist because they are a thing of the past. We cannot be wider off the mark than that!
In many ways it is a fact that the economy is passing through a decent phase; a great deal of work being generated, takehome is improving, unemployment is down and so on and so on. It is also very true that this country, considering that our only natural resources are the ‘people’ and the ‘sea’, tends to run the economy on ‘our’ efforts. We don’t dig any oil wells (much as we have been promised this would happen) but we do dig, prod, nudge and work increasingly hard, giving it all we can, trying our best to get through. The truth is that ‘Okella Agius’ is an uncomfortable ‘remain-awake’ call, because;
‘Okella Agius’ should remind us that we still have a ‘South’ in every town and village;
‘Okella Agius’ should remind us that there are people who do not have enough money to see them through the essentials;
‘Okella Agius’ should remind us that education and welfare are not leaving the desired effects and people are wedged in this cycle of poverty – and please note not out of their own choice;
‘Okella Agius’ should remind us that some people are born lucky whilst others are not and that society is designed around the needs and expectations of the middle class;
‘Okella Agius’ should remind us that even though we are dedicating so many millions of Euros every year to welfare, we still see that people who are at the bottom of the heap remain that way.
And the usual mantra is hummed once again: ‘these people are ‘benefit cheats’, ‘if they had to try hard enough they would manage to see through the day’, ‘all have equal opportunities to access the community we live in’ and so on and so forth.
But we all know that this is not true and with all due respect we do not need anyone for that matter to tell us that we are a selective and discriminating society, that the way our communities are designed provide more opportunities for certain people than they do for others, that some are hard done and cannot cope with the challenges they face. If we are not careful, the wealth that is being generated will only serve to create a bigger divide. Social justice is about ensuring that everyone has equal chance, and this so far is still not happening.
The irony of it all is that I cannot understand how we speak of limited resources and then we have free of charge medical services for all without batting an eyelid, or that post-secondary and tertiary students all receive the same amount of stipend when we know well enough that some do not need so much whilst others need much more, that our welfare services are a give-away and not an occasion to develop and take our communities forward, that our educational system is free for all indiscriminately whether there are students whose parents can contribute or not.
Sad indeed because resources are what they are and if we want to address the imbalances we need to start with using our resources assiduously.
It is gloomy, because at the end of the day most of our decisionmaking is simply conditioned by the short political shelf life. If we really had the courage we would see the political class getting serious about poverty and social exclusion by bringing their heads together and finding long-term solutions to the many issues that keep allowing the ‘Okellas’ of this world to popup. Back to ‘Okella Agius’. If we thought that €300,000 worth of paint, new furniture, roof compound and other maintenance will replace the deep seated issues in these Ħamrun slums, I’m sorry we are missing the whole issue here. If no youth worker is included in the plan, no family therapist, community workers , Jobs Plus officers, Sedqa social operators it will take that neighbourhood less time than it took to paint the walls for all to return as it was. If we do not try and take a comprehensive urban strategy to this neighbourhood, the building will crumble yet again, very soon, much sooner than we think – and the same old story will resume – because the nub of the problem is a lack of sense of citizenship and a need and longing to be part.