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One final push for a return to normal

Cheryl Stafford gets her vaccination shot during the drive-in and walk-through centre at the Fairmont Southampton last week (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

The effort to contain the pandemic has often been compared to a war. Although imprecise, the comparison is apt.

In that context, there is, despite the recent and tragic surge in cases and deaths, a sense that Bermuda is moving to the beginning of the end of this war and that to some extent, the third wave — which was far and away the worst — may turn out to be the last-gasp effort of the virus to overwhelm the community.

That Bermuda now appears to be winning this last battle is because the vaccination programme is taking hold and because the Government and the community now know how to deal with surges in cases. The tactics are well established.

That is not to say that there is not also a sense of weariness and frustration with the pandemic and the social-distancing protocol that is required, not to mention the massive financial strain that many individuals and businesses are under.

In that sense, this may be also the most dangerous time for Bermuda. If a return to near normality is close, so is the need for discipline and guarding against complacency. Typically towards the end of a long campaign, war weariness sets in; the novelty of lockdowns and the like have long worn off, to be replaced by ennui and exhaustion. And this is exactly the time when carelessness can cause disaster, when defeat can be snatched from the jaws of victory.

In the Covid-19 context, this is true for those — now the majority of the population — who have set off down the road to immunisation, but also for those who are still holding back and may feel that having got this far, they are young enough or lucky enough to do without the vaccine.

The immunised may think they can drop all precautions even though there is a much reduced risk they can contract the virus and pass it on. The non-immunised are much more dangerous: they may have the virus with no symptoms and pass it on to all and sundry if they also drop all precautions. They are literally a walking time bomb.

The evidence for this is all around us, if only we would open our eyes and see. More people — 17 after Saturday’s sad announcement — have died in the past four weeks than in the previous 13 months of the pandemic.

A few days ago, more than 900 people had Covid-19, and many will suffer the consequences for months or years. Although the UK variant has proved to be somewhat different than the original coronavirus, the harsh reality that it affects the elderly and the vulnerable most severely remains true.

Those in their twenties or thirties who may believe that they can contract Covid-19 and survive with little effect should consider that they may give it to one of their elders and play a hand in their deaths. Does anyone want this on their conscience?

In this context, the Government has rolled out its road map to normality with a goal of getting there by the end of June.

This newspaper has been broadly supportive of the Government's efforts and is deeply sympathetic to the individuals and businesses who have been devastated by the pandemic. As the Green brothers said this week, Bermuda cannot afford another lockdown. Too many people and too many businesses are on the cliff edge, if they have not fallen off already.

The planned roll-out and criteria seem to make sense, although they are relatively ambitious. To return to normal safely, two things have to happen:

The first is that the import of Covid-19, particularly of new variants, has to be prevented.

The second is to reduce transmission of the virus within the community to as close to zero as possible.

Certainly the need to eliminate cases where the cause of transmission is unknown is critical.

Of course, none of this is new; it has been the goal since the beginning. But the recent spike in cases and the 17 deaths that have occurred since April 1 show how critical it is, how failures to prevent either factor can be literally fatal and how easy it is for the virus to spiral out of control.

To prevent the importation of the virus or its variants, the Government is right to put in place the requirement that any non-immunised travellers must quarantine in isolation for 14 days and at their own expense. For those who view this as coercion, the counter-argument is that any community must protect the vulnerable. The alternative is the horror of the past month. Compared with 17 deaths and hundreds of new cases, giving people the option of getting immunised or being isolated is a small price to pay.

It can be argued that waiting until June puts the island unnecessarily at risk in the interim. This is valid, but some fairness needs to be exercised when it takes at least five weeks to be fully immunised and when access to vaccines elsewhere is still more limited than it is in Bermuda.

Assuming that the quarantine regime works for imported cases, domestic transmission must also be stopped, both for the UK variant, which is very much still here, and in the event that cases still slip through.

Short of another lockdown — which Bermuda must avoid at all costs — the only real means of achieving this is through immunisation. Any other approach requires degrees of social distancing, which will need to be enforced and which is unsustainable over the long term. Bermuda, today, can achieve herd immunity. The only reason why it is not close to happening is because residents have not registered for the vaccine.

The survey published in Saturday's newspaper helps to explain why people are unwilling. Of the 16 per cent who have said they probably or definitely will not get immunised, 2 in 5 don't believe it is necessary to take it, 3 in 10 are concerned about side effects, and 1 in 5 don't trust the vaccine.

The good news for policymakers is that the 2 in 5 — 6.4 per cent of the total population — who don't think the vaccine is necessary can still be persuaded that they should get it, along with those who state they are undecided, if not for themselves, then for the vulnerable.

But to do this, the Government needs to become more assertive in persuading people to get the vaccine. It is not enough, as the Premier has done, to ask people who are uncomfortable with taking the vaccine to talk to their physicians.

They need to be urged and encouraged to, yes, get informed from respected medical experts, but then to take the vaccine because it will protect them and, as or more importantly, it will protect loved ones around them who may be more vulnerable to the virus.

Half of the 29 people who have died from the coronavirus are over 80. No doubt many were parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles and so on. They got the virus from someone else, perhaps someone younger and healthier who is still alive. Bermuda must reduce the risk of giving the virus to the most vulnerable, and that can occur only when 70 per cent of the population is immunised so those who cannot be vaccinated have very little chance of receiving it and passing it on.

Bermuda will never return to a semblance of normality until herd immunity is achieved. The island has experienced a year of lockdowns, working and studying from home, few or no social functions, limited sporting events, no concerts and so on. Much has been missed in the past year. Much more will be missed if Bermuda does not end the cycle. The power to do so is in our hands.

Get vaccinated. Save lives.

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Published May 03, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated May 01, 2021 at 9:41 pm)

One final push for a return to normal

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