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.

Malta Independent - - NEWS -

Dr An­drew Az­zopardi Dean Fac­ulty for So­cial Well­be­ing, Univer­sity of Malta & Broad­caster – Għandi xi Ngħid­drewaz­

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.

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