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No time to rest on our laurels

Just when you thought it was safe to go back … in the past ten days, Bermuda has recorded five new cases of Covid-19.

That is disappointing because, to all intents and purposes, Bermuda had appeared to have succeeded in flattening the curve of Covid-19 cases and in containing the virus.

But the reports of new cases show just how difficult containment of the virus is and how great the risk of a second wave of infections will be as Bermuda relaxes Covid-19 restrictions and opens the economy and invites greater social gatherings.

Bermuda had appeared to have contained the virus with no new cases for 11 days and the number of active cases dropping rapidly. Despite the jump in new cases, we have moved into “Phase 3B” of the relaxation, with Phase 4 beginning on July 1.

All of this proves, as this newspaper has stated previously, that the reality of Covid-19 is that no one really knows very much about it, so no steps can be taken with absolute certainty. Every decision is a shot in the dark.

To be sure, more is known about the coronavirus than was the case four or five months ago, and that knowledge needs to be applied.

So it is clear that Bermuda has done much to contain Covid-19, but new cases having been confirmed proves that containment is imperfect. And it is not yet clear if the cases were transmitted during the Black Lives Matter marches in which social-distancing was not practised, even though most participants were masked.

It is also undeniable that Bermuda cannot continue in limbo indefinitely. The island's survival depends not just on containing Covid-19 but on returning to a semblance of normality.

It is also known that while infections are unpredictable, the worst-affected victims are the aged or those with underlying conditions.

So any relaxation programme must protect these vulnerable groups while the rest of the community gradually opens up and cases are monitored carefully.

Public health expert David Katz was recently quoted in The New York Times saying that once sensible precautions for the vulnerable are taken: “Then the rest of us can go about our business, but with policies in place to regulate any interactions we might have with higher-risk people, so we protect them, and with reasonable precautions for our own sakes, like wearing masks, practising social-distancing and avoiding crowded indoor settings, that limit exposure to high doses of coronavirus and our ability to pass it along.”

Those are not unreasonable or difficult practices, although the need to avoid crowded settings is critical.

The real question is: what happens next month when Bermuda opens the airport and welcomes in larger numbers of people from overseas?

The plan now is for any traveller to be tested before they leave for Bermuda and to be able to demonstrate that they are negative, to be tested again on arrival and to then be quarantined until these results are known.

Obviously, this is a cumbersome and unsatisfactory invitation for leisure and business travellers alike, and will rule out many people planning to come for long weekends or business visits — and they make up a large part of the visitor base.

For people planning longer stays, it is probably workable, and where accommodations are self-catering, Airbnb and guesthouse operators will no doubt find innovative ways to supply food and so on.

Further, some signs of a lack of government planning were revealed when tourism minister Zane DeSilva said visitors' tests would be free and David Burt, the Premier, executed a rapid about-turn 24 hours later to say visitors would be charged.

That will not be the last misstep, although if Bermuda wants to get its tourism industry going again, charging already nervous visitors seems to be an unnecessary additional burden.

But it is a start. Bermuda residents suffering from “rock fever” will face similar requirements for their return.

There are reasons for caution. China has just reimposed restrictions after a new cluster of Covid-19 cases was recorded. That shows that a second wave is likely and probably inevitable.

American states that either reduced limited social-distancing requirements or opened for business early are now seeking spikes in new cases.

So caution and policing is necessary. Health minister Kim Wilson has already raised concerns about lapses in physical-distancing.

At the same time, the damage done by the lockdowns is becoming clearer by the day as different businesses announce they are never reopening. At the very least that means that more jobs are being lost, possibly permanently. The economy and people's health and security cannot wait for a vaccine that may never come.

The question will arise of just how many deaths from Covid-19 are sustainable.

As Bermuda reopens, despite the best will in the world, there will be more infections and when that happens, the risk of some people dying will rise as well.

It will be ultimately up to the Government to decide how many deaths are sustainable, and no one wants to play God. But there is a way to avoid having to make that decision, namely, to continue to practise social-distancing as responsibly as possible.

That is why, as regrettable as it is, Cup Match is cancelled. It is also why other public events will not happen. It is why shops and restaurants will have to continue to limit numbers and, therefore, employment. And it is why responsible employers will have to continue to impose social-distancing requirements on offices and other workspaces.

The alternative is a dramatic spike in cases and deaths, and a reversion to shelter-in-place. No one can want that. Compared with some countries, the United States among them, Bermuda has shown admirable self-restraint and discipline in tackling Covid-19, but this has come at a high cost.

Now is not the time to throw that sacrifice away.

The last word: David Burt, the Premier, got involved in the back-and-forth last week over fees for visitor testing (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

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Published June 23, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated June 23, 2020 at 8:54 am)

No time to rest on our laurels

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