A timely reality check
Bermuda residents have embarked on a massive exercise in self-restraint — an acceptance of restrictions and the basic freedoms they usually take for granted.
They have done so in the hope that this 14-day lockdown will prevent the widespread transmission of Covid-19, and that by taking this drastic step, they will avoid a much worse alternative.
However, it needs to be recognised that these actions will not stop the novel coronavirus from spreading entirely; nor will it drive the virus from Bermuda's shores.
What it should do is “flatten the curve” and slow the rate of infection so the health services and the hospital are not overwhelmed. In many cases, people are not necessarily dying from Covid-19 itself, but because of a lack of ventilators and treatment.
That is not to say that the virus's effects are not devastating — reports in The Royal Gazette and elsewhere show that for many people this is much more than a “mild flu” — it is a profoundly unpleasant experience that is not limited to the elderly or the already ill.
What is important now is to prevent the hospital and the health services from being inundated with Covid-19 patients, and to ensure that it is not distracted by other avoidable injuries that occur in “normal times”, including road crashes, acts of violence and industrial accidents.
Although the Bermuda Hospitals Board has put a brave face on its readiness for any potential upsurge in cases, Bermuda's community hospital with its limited bed spaces is as much at risk of being overwhelmed as the great city hospitals of New York and elsewhere already have been.
Bermuda has a higher number of ventilators on a per capita basis than Britain, which is a pretty low bar, but supply is still limited.
Supplies of gloves, masks and gowns are already close to exhaustion in the private sector and little Bermuda is in a worldwide competition for these kinds of scarce resources. Again, if New York State, with its vast buying power, has difficulty procuring enough of these items, Bermuda will be much farther down the list.
To be sure, Bermuda has received some invaluable support from Britain and elsewhere, but no one should be under any illusion — as New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo, recently said: “Assume you are on your own in life.”
So far, Bermuda has recorded relatively few confirmed cases of Covid-19 — 37 as of Saturday evening, with six people needing to stay in hospital, all in a stable condition — but there is reason to believe the actual number may be higher.
That's because Covid-19 can be asymptomatic, meaning people can carry the virus without symptoms and without knowing they have it.
Because Bermuda has only had a limited number of tests, these have been reserved for people showing symptoms and, presumably, for people who may have been in close contact with a known sufferer. So there is no real way of determining if the spread of the virus is in fact much wider.
This is not being alarmist. It is why the shelter-at-home policy is justified and essential. Because no one knows who may be spreading the virus, the only way to stop the contagion is to isolate and reduce contact with other people.
Further, as noted in a recent editorial, Bermuda has not voluntarily exercised the restraint it should have. Too many people have continued to congregate.
So now Bermuda has to apply a mandatory lockdown.
It is not clear if two weeks will be sufficient time to flatten the curve. The truth is that no one knows — not David Burt, not Chief Medical Officer Cheryl Peek-Ball, not the estimable Anthony Fauci, of the United States. But based on the facts that are available, this appears to be a reasonable period of time, and may be the longest Bermuda can afford to shut down, given that the community has been at a near halt for longer than that already.
There is only one way to give this policy a genuine chance of working — and that is for everyone to adhere to it with a religious fervour.
Some people may be surprised at the relatively long list of exempted essential or “critical” workers. Be that as it may, what is important is for those essential workers to follow the same rules as everyone else — they need to leave home to go to work, do their jobs, and go home again. Everyone else needs to stay at home unless they genuinely need to buy food, medicine or petrol. For the next two weeks, there is no other excuse for going out apart from a medical emergency.
This will be hard. Support needs to be offered to the elderly, the immobile and the lonely. Every effort needs to be made to ensure they are fed and safe.
At the other end of the scale, people living in more crowded conditions need to exercise patience and restraint. Most people — even married couples — are unused to be being together for 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a prolonged period of time and being cooped up in one place.
For some, this will be the ultimate family holiday from hell.
Fortunately, in the world of the internet, there are online resources for advice and support. This may not be the optimal time to enforce a “no video games” rule on bored teenagers or to embark on that long-overdue plumbing project. Instead, trying to keep things normal in a decidedly abnormal time will be the best approach to maintaining sanity.
What is also not clear is what happens after the lockdown. If it works well, then Bermuda may well have flattened the curve. But that does not mean the virus has been eradicated; as restrictions are lifted, as they must be at some point, the number of cases will likely rise again and further restrictions will have to be applied again.
Until a vaccine is developed or tests to show immunity are widely available, Bermuda and the rest of the world will have to maintain restrictions on normal life. But if severe measures now can slow the spread, then these restrictions may be less onerous than they would be otherwise; that may be a modest goal and is hardly a rallying cry for going into battle.
But it is realistic, and that is what Bermuda and the world need now — not false optimism or empty bravado, but realism.
Lives and livelihoods depend on it.