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Goodbye 2020, hello 2021!

Social-distancing measures, including mask wearing, and Black Lives Matter protests made 2020 a year that will not long be forgotten (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

The obituaries are being written for 2020.

The common theme is good riddance and bring on 2021. This has indeed been one of the most difficult years in living memory. Only people who are in their mid-eighties or older will recall 1940, when the future of the democratic world hung in the balance, or 1930, when the global economy was on the brink of collapse. Only centenarians remember the last major pandemic of 1918.

For everyone else, there has never been a year like 2020. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, curfews, the closure of the airport, shelter-in-place regulations and the consequential economic crisis have changed Bermuda and the world in ways which are still revealing themselves.

Globally, how different countries have dealt with the crisis has been informative. In general, populist and authoritarian leaders have, perhaps counterintuitively, done a poor job. US President Donald Trump’s mismanagement of the crisis was the leading cause of his November election defeat.

Other democracies such as Germany and New Zealand, not coincidentally led by women, have done better. Trust in government and a commitment to following the facts has proved to be a successful formula for managing the pandemic, as has early and decisive action. Despite the tragedy of Covid-19, this is cause for optimism. The trend towards populist and nationalist governments can be reversed as governments that are honest with their voters and promote cohesion and not division have proved themselves.

This was also the year of Black Lives Matter. It is a symbol of how connected we all are that the death of George Floyd in a midwestern American city caused the Black Lives Matter movement to spread around the world and raise awareness of issues of racial inequity.

The other major international event was the United Kingdom reaching a last-minute exit agreement with the European Union. Whether Brexit will help or hurt the UK or Europe remains to be seen; either way, 2020 will be remembered as the year Britain left Europe.

For Bermuda, these events have had different impacts. The Bermuda Government has rightly been praised for its management of the pandemic, but its success would not have been possible without community consent and co-operation. As Bermuda has learnt in recent weeks, it takes only one individual or event to cause mass spread of the virus, and it requires the community to exercise mutual restraint to prevent it.

Despite the first death in Bermuda since May, the mortality rate has remained low, and with vaccines now becoming available, there is reason for cautious optimism but no room for complacency. It will take months for the community to be vaccinated and there is still much to learn about the virus.

Despite that, the successes of managing the pandemic should be applied in other parts of governance. Sharing information with the public in a timely manner, listening to those who have technical expertise and applying their recommendations, encouraging people to put aside their differences to work together for the common good are all lessons in leadership that can be applied more widely, including in education and health reform.

There are also lessons about what not to do. Putting politics ahead of good policy has consistently failed in those countries that have tried it. Playing political games and trying to one-up your opponents has also been unsuccessful.

David Burt, the Premier, has been praised for his big election win in October, but it is debatable whether the additional seats have helped him to govern better and he may yet come to regret having so many restless backbenchers with idle hands.

More importantly, however long it takes to get the community to something like immunity, the economic consequences will be with Bermuda for much longer. The economy has shrunk more dramatically than at any time since the Second World War and the Government has taken on unprecedented levels of debt.

Bringing about a recovery will take time. Righting public finances will take even longer. The economy was sluggish before the pandemic and the tasks the Government had set itself of diversification, expanding opportunity and balancing the budget are more urgent than ever. They will also be even harder to achieve.

It is indisputable that the downturn has affected different segments of the Bermuda population in different ways.

While those who work in areas connected to international business have been relatively unaffected, the downturn has been catastrophic for those who work in the tourism sector or in areas connected to it. Other parts of the “local economy” have also been hit hard.

Bringing about social change and narrowing the wealth gap between whites and blacks while ensuring that all Bermudians feel they have a stake in the island’s success is a massive challenge and not one that will be realised right away.

This ties in with the world’s reaction to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and the need for a profound re-evaluation of race relations. Bermuda, too, needs to first acknowledge its history and find ways to narrow differences based on race.

This must also encompass the island’s schizophrenic approach to immigration, which at present equates immigration with displacement. The Government’s introduction of the digital nomad policy is a tacit admission that the existing policy is failing. The argument that a digital nomad doing work for an overseas company while working in Bermuda is somehow different from an expatriate worker doing work in Bermuda for a company that may be based here is a thin one. Both bring income and value from which Bermudians benefit.

And at the same time, Bermudians have benefited from carrying British passports, most visibly and recently on the pitches of professional football leagues in England, but more widely as well. How Brexit will affect Bermuda is unclear, but it is a reminder that what happens in the world will be felt here.

Socially, the pandemic has changed Bermuda. Enforced isolation has shown why interpersonal relationships are so important and how much families matter. This experience may also bring about a desire for a simpler and perhaps a more spiritual life, although the aftermath of the Spanish flu epidemic, which itself came on the heels of the First World War, was just the opposite — there was an explosion of consumerism and socialising.

But a return to simpler behaviours and values would be a welcome change, especially in a more complex world where the speed of communication and the profusion of social media can overwhelm many.

The pandemic has caused many tragedies, but if it leads to a more united community in which people put the less fortunate before their own desires, that will be a small but vital blessing.

Bring on 2021!

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Published December 31, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated December 31, 2020 at 8:20 am)

Goodbye 2020, hello 2021!

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