Natalie Briffa Farrugia’s face beams off Zoom. She still exudes energy and sports her trademark smile, but the enormous task she is entrusted with – to ensure the vulnerable residents in all CareMalta’s homes are protected from the coronavirus – still weighs down on her.

The last time she was interviewed for Arkati’s 2019 edition, Natalie was training for Barcelona’s half Ironman and focusing on widening the ICare concept. One year on, the triathlon has been shelved and instead, in March she found herself racing over one weekend to shepherd close to 800 staff members into care homes for what turned out to be a 10-week live-in lockdown.

Her voice fills with pride as she recounts how each employee lived up to the ICare values and selflessly volunteered to leave their families and freedom to live at the care homes to ensure the elderly, who remain the most susceptible to COVID-19 complications, were safe.

This was a gargantuan logistical job as the entire Group rallied to secure hundreds of beds, mattresses, sanitisers, pillows, and procure the necessary IT to prepare for the lockdown.

Throughout, Natalie kept her teams motivated with words of encouragement for their extraordinary commitment, generosity of spirit, and strength.

At the time, the fear of the virus’ unknown quantity spurred the Group to act, piling pressure on the government to halt home visits, and managing to close its homes just in time before the virus started to spread in the community.

“We had already witnessed how the virus had ravaged Italy, killing off the weak and the elderly, so I was always very cautious because this virus is bigger than us and overnight it can take over. We are fighting a horrible monster,” she says.

After 10 weeks, when the number of active cases started dwindling to a handful, CareMalta and HILA cautiously began to reopen their 12 homes while maintaining the strictest prevention measures.

Natalie is grateful for the government’s commitment and recognition of this hard work through the allocation of a €2 million grant for 40 homes across the islands.

Her recent appointment chairing the care homes section within the Malta Chamber of Commerce, has also put Natalie in the driving seat, using her expertise in the field to influence and lobby the government.

“We are going through very tough times… we thought the live-in was the toughest, but we didn’t know what was in store.”

What awaited was what they had been dreading all along – the virus’ infiltration in the homes of the elderly; an increase in the number of deaths of older persons, very tough times both for the people who care for them and, most especially, heartbreak for their families.

Natalie is relieved that, although intervention came a bit too slow – “a day is like a month in these circumstances” – the pandemic had exposed the importance of the value of human beings; a reminder that ageism should not renege this generation from the right to medical intervention.

“There are times when I fear the worst. Yet with everyone’s cooperation, more social responsibility and the support of all entities involved, we will continue to do our utmost to protect and care. We cannot let down our guard, or this virus will take over.”

Reflecting on 2021, Natalie feels bestowed with a greater appreciation and gratitude in life. She believes the test of the past months cemented CareMalta’s crucial function in society, highlighted society’s vulnerabilities, and propelled the Group’s determination and commitment to remain of service.

Although certain projects for 2020 had to be put on hold – such as deinstitutionalising mental health care – as the focus was to emerge from the war on the virus as unscathed as possible, Natalie is emboldened by people’s sense of goodwill to give even more.

“A lot of good has emerged and this virus brought out the humanity in so many of us. It worked to bring us closer as we all fought a common ‘enemy’ to survive.”

Looking ahead to celebrate Vassallo Group’s 75th anniversary, Natalie said the philosophy to leave behind a legacy had been brought to the forefront, making the Group’s choices in the future far easier.

“Whatever business venture we choose, we ultimately want to leave an impact for the good of society. Our motto – to be a private company with a public conscience – remains stronger than ever.”