SiGMA – raising the specter of summer 2020
Robert Abela has some explanations to give. The Prime Minister delivered a speech at the SiGMA Europe 2021 festival in Ta ‘Qali earlier this week, after which he posted a beaming photo of himself, without a mask, shaking hands with a woman, also without a mask, flanked two other bare-faced delegates.
Sufficient complacency oozing from every pore, he seems to have forgotten that we are in the midst of a devastating pandemic that shows no signs of abating anytime soon.
As successful as the iGaming industry in Malta was before Joseph Muscat and co. have their dirty mittens on, reports of this week display at the SiGMA rally suggest the five-day event could serve as an example of the depths the industry has fallen into in recent years.
The participants describe scenes of almost total disregard for the rules, the well-being of others, the limits of decency. They shared stories of blatant violations of Covid-19 measures: most people weren’t wearing masks, they weren’t practicing social distancing, and for at least a few days temperatures weren’t checked at the entrance and they weren’t asked for vaccination certificates or any other type of documentation related to Covid. Security at the entrance was better at the weekend, but inside the room nothing had changed.
And all this in the presence of the Prime Minister and a handful of other government officials, including the Minister of Economy and Investment. But instead of calling for the application of adequate measures, Abela became lyrical about the feeling of “optimism” among the investors present – apparently 600 from around the world.
It’s possible, of course, that Abela was just so high up her behind that he just didn’t notice the lack of masks or the crowds jostling each other.
After all, he made no statement expressing his disappointment or dismay that the event saw thousands of people gather, drink and dance and totally ignore the fact that Europe is on the brink of a fourth devastating wave of the pandemic which has claimed millions of lives around the world.
One person who described these scenes to us said that there was a lecture somewhere, but that it was “well hidden” from the party, where open bars handed out free-flowing drinks, plentiful platters of bites, and Appetizers circulated, DJs made music dance and scantily clad hostesses drew visitors to the exhibitors’ stands.
A linked party held at another location was closed by police for violating Covid rules, but within the location itself, lawlessness reigned unmistakably. The organizers made an effort to act in the case of one of the participating companies which present a vulgar and offensive sketch between an almost naked “actor” and his colleague, a dwarf.
But otherwise, by everyone’s opinion, the event was an unfettered manifestation of rejoicing, with little or no consideration for the risks of infection or transmission of Covid. “Everyone was joking that they would be leaving the event with Covid,” said one of the people who contacted us about it.
Perhaps suitable for an industry based on gambling, an activity widely seen as shady, dangerous and immoral. And not just because of the age-old questions around morality and legitimacy, or the dangers posed to vulnerable players. The widespread use of gambling, casinos and online gambling by criminals, and in particular organized crime gangs, as avenues of money laundering makes these activities dangerous on a much larger scale. .
Indeed, many countries have periodically banned or severely restricted gambling in all or more of its forms – betting on horse races or football matches, backstage poker games, casino roulette tables or machines. who swallow pensions whole to pieces, but rarely spit them out. .
IGaming, and the huge sums of money to be made out of it, seem to have broken the resistance of most countries to the game, including Germany, which has been one of the longest in Europe. But the whiff of immorality and sordidity not only persisted but, in Malta at least, intensified into an inescapable stench.
Since the local industry arose nearly two decades ago, the island has attracted hundreds of game companies and associated service providers such as game development companies, specialist recruiting firms, law firms and business services, to settle here.
Any lingering dislike of such a risky business activity quickly dissipated, with most people, as they began to figure out how much money they could make if they embraced it. Lawyers, accountants, consultants, IT professionals and the like have almost universally lifted their qualms and bought bigger and bigger piggy banks.
In 2019, the industry accounted for almost 14% of GDP, contributing up to € 1.8 billion to the Maltese economy. Even the Covid-19 pandemic couldn’t disrupt him much – it slipped only slightly to 12% of GDP in 2020.
It may have helped reconcile otherwise disapproving professionals with their decisions to let go of their qualms – after all, popular wisdom tells us, “if you can’t beat them, join them.”
But the pigeons are slowly coming home to roost. In September, The Shift published an article titled “A Country Built on Dirty Money,” which highlighted that “the success of the gambling industry depends on links to the Mafia, underground criminal networks, financial crime and fraud ”.
Of course, not all iGaming companies are involved in crime, or even most. But those that are is one of the reasons Malta was put on the FATF gray list – a development which, ironically, could lead those same companies to leave Malta.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that so many industry delegates at the festival felt pressured to follow the rules. Including Prime Minister Robert Abela.
But with Austria returning to a full lockdown, the Netherlands are in partial lockdown and Germany on the verge of imposing restrictions on unvaccinated people without ruling out a full lockdown, it really isn’t the case. when neglecting preventive measures.
Across Europe, the number of infections and deaths is rising rapidly again, including in Malta, where the number of new cases is increasing every day, and reached 79 yesterday, up from 66 the day before. There are currently over 750 active cases. In total, there have been 38,000 infections and 462 deaths from Covid since the start of the pandemic.
The specter of summer 2020, when a big party sparked a devastating second wave of covid, once again shimmers before us. Thousands of people were expected at the SiGMA festival. The implications are alarming and maddening. I doubt anyone can forgive Abela for a repeat of this tragic blunder.