Relax ... but not too much
With news on Saturday of a seventh fatality resulting from the coronavirus, Bermuda received a tragic and swift reminder that just because the lockdown was relaxed on the same day, the crisis is far from over.
And the menace of this silent killer was forcefully brought home with news that a firefighter had contracted Covid-19. This, along with the reports of high-level infection at Westmeath and the news that the majority of those at the home with the infection were asymptomatic, demonstrates how insidious the virus is.
While shelter-in-place has been hard to endure for many, and thousands of Bermudians are facing uncertain futures, all should spare a thought for those who have lost loved ones as a result of this virus.
Without shelter-in-place and without social-distancing, many more could have contracted this virus and many more could have died.
Therefore, simply because shelter-in-place is formally over does not mean that social-distancing is as well, or that the threat of the virus has receded.
Bermuda may have flattened the curve and with the number of infections not keeping pace with the increased frequency of testing, there is room to be heartened.
But that does not mean we should relax our vigilance. Bermuda has not reached this point by being cavalier or reckless. Lives have been saved because sacrifices have been made. Only by continuing to be vigilant can Bermuda quickly work through the recovery phases planned by the Government.
Too quick a return to work and too quick a resumption of normal social behaviours run the risk of extending the crisis because a spike in infections and deaths will lead to a return to shelter-in-place.
That’s because of the way this virus works. A person can contract the virus and have no symptoms. They can pass the virus on simply by being within six feet of someone else. That person may be more vulnerable, resulting in serious illness or death.
Even with the steps taken by the Bermuda Hospitals Board to increase capacity and the supply of medical equipment, King Edward VII Memorial Hospital would be quickly overwhelmed — as hospitals in New York and Italy were — if the virus were to get out of control, as it can all too easily.
From a public-health point of view, Bermuda cannot rest until there are virtually no cases and testing and contact-tracing are at a point where any cases that are identified can be isolated and contained. Only then can people resume something like normal life.
The Government does deserve credit for ramping up testing dramatically in the past week or so. It is rightly testing emergency and essential workers first, then nursing homes and other vulnerable populations such as prisons.
Given the failures at the Matilda Smith Williams and Westmeath nursing homes, testing at all care facilities should be completed before the middle of this month. While the explanations for the previous delays were rational, local authorities ignored the urgency of the situation and failed to recognise that we now live in different time.
David Burt has stated that “lessons were learnt” which is a classic politician’s get-out — and the Premier would no doubt admit that “mistakes were made” as well.
In fairness, the island’s political leaders cannot be blamed for this — it would seem they followed the medical advice, which would be normally praiseworthy. But in this case, the medical advice, while justified, was proved tragically wrong and this is why politicians cannot avoid the reality that while scientists will deliver advice and options, in a crisis it is the island’s elected leaders who must decide and be held accountable.
What is critical now is that the same mistake is not made again. Testing of at-risk populations — in nursing homes, prisons, the fire service and the hospitals — must be carried out as a matter of urgency.
Counterintuitively, this must take place before the next and most vital round of testing occurs — that of the general population. Only when this testing is done can Bermuda get a true indication of how widespread the virus is, and it is only with that knowledge in hand that Bermuda can begin to get back to a semblance of normality.
Bermuda needs to do that quickly. This newspaper’s sobering article on the economy on Monday painted a picture that was all the more terrifying for its accuracy and lack of histrionics.
Unlike many other countries, Bermuda does not have a strong domestic economy that will function regardless of trade with foreign countries. Instead, Bermuda’s economic wellbeing is entirely dependent on earning foreign exchange with which to buy everything it needs.
Bermuda has now lost the foreign exchange generated from tourism for the foreseeable future. Although tourism has shrunk as a contributor to the overall economy in the past two decades, it is still a massive employer and a major foreign exchange earner. The loss of this income will affect tax revenues, employment, retailers, restaurants, tour businesses, transport services and more.
Fortunately, international business, Bermuda’s main economic driver and foreign-exchange earner, appears to be in better shape. But much of the Bermuda economy depends not on the number of premiums written in reinsurers’ offices, but from the services provided to those offices — everything from paper clips to actuarial services. So drops in business travel and the likelihood that working from home will continue for some time will hurt the broader economy.
It has been stated that things will be different after the coronavirus and Bermuda will have to change, too. But whatever these changes are take time and it is essential that Bermuda gets something going in the meantime. That is why adhering to the social-distancing rules now is so important.
The relaxation of shelter-in-place is a bit like releasing water from a pipe when there is a high-pressure pump at the other end. The goal is to release a little bit of water at a time. But the pent-up pressure in the pipe is such that once you start, it’s hard to stop and there’s also the possibility that the cap holding the water in will blow off entirely.
Even if it doesn’t, it is much harder to cap off the leak once it is open than it was originally when there was less pressure. The pressure is the coronavirus. Capping off the flow of water is the equivalent of returning to shelter-in-place. No one wants to go back there. Let’s keep the water flowing in a regulated way until the pressure is relieved.
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