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Learning lessons from Covid-19

David Burt, the Premier, has accepted that Covid-19 may be here to stay. What is critical, then, is whether the country is prepared to learn from past mistakes (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)

It may be difficult to believe as deaths continue to mount from the latest outbreak of Covid-19, but Bermuda is recovering from what has been by all measures the worst coronavirus crisis the island has yet experienced.

That’s not to say we are out of the woods yet. If people let their guard down now, there is little to stop a resurgence in infections, especially as schools reopen in earnest.

The slowdown in cases has several causes.

First, there may still be many thousands of people in quarantine or self-isolation after being in contact with someone who has tested positive.

Second, even those who have not been in contact have often increased their social distancing by working at home, reducing socialising and following the advice to improve hygiene and the like.

Third, schools largely being out will have limited transmission. A significant number of the cases in this outbreak have involved people under the age of 20. Yes, younger people remain less likely to get Covid-19 and the symptoms are generally less severe. But that does not mean they cannot give it to older, more vulnerable people. So not having thousands of people gather in classrooms has to have helped.

It is likely that the limited measures taken by the Government have helped as well. Even the curfew, as limited as it is, will have reduced collisions in the early hours of the morning and thus eased the pressure on King Edward VII Memorial Hospital.

The fact more people are getting vaccinated now is welcome, although it seems possible that more people having died in this present outbreak — the fourth wave — than in the rest of the pandemic altogether may have persuaded many that this is not something that happens to “other people”.

While it is difficult in the age of Covid-19 to offer guarantees on anything, it is very likely that taking steps earlier would have reduced the death toll. And a greater effort to persuade people to get vaccinated would also have helped.

Now is the time to take lessons from this outbreak so that another 59 people do not die if there is a fifth wave.

David Burt, the Premier, and others have said that it is increasingly likely that Covid-19 is something Bermuda will have to live with, at least for the foreseeable future. Those countries such as New Zealand and the Cayman Islands that have had some success in getting to zero Covid-19 cases have done so by closing their borders entirely.

That is not even a short-term option for Bermuda.

So there is an inevitable risk that a future variant will reach Bermuda’s shores and, without imposing a mandatory 14-day supervised isolation on all arriving passengers which would kill what is left of the tourism industry, it may well spread.

While there may be disagreements about just how strict the measures to prevent future outbreaks should be, few will dispute now that the way to contain them is to act early and decisively.

Bermuda failed to do this in the most recent outbreak. When restrictions came, they were too little, too late and the result was an escalating death toll, a hospital that could not handle the outbreak while meeting its other obligations and a dramatic downturn in economic activity.

Had restrictions been put in place earlier, it seems likely that the infection rate, and therefore the mortality rate, would have been reduced.

The problem, as ever, is balancing the need to contain the virus against the harm restrictions do to the economy and to other parts of the community, especially schools.

Those are the hard decisions that have to be made. At the same time, it is clear that limiting outbreaks and preventing the healthcare system from being overwhelmed must be priorities.

Bermuda came close to the hospital being overwhelmed in the spring. It was overwhelmed in the recent outbreak. That does not mean it did not continue to offer services and to treat victims of the outbreak and other critical diseases. But it was unable to offer its normal services, and this would have been unsustainable had the outbreak not begun to ease. Why it is easing is a subject for another time.

Clearly, Bermuda and the world have moved on the from a belief that Covid-19 can be eliminated or reduced to the extent that it bothers very few people. So to that extent, Mr Burt and others are right that we will have to learn to live with it.

Whether Covid-19 remains a pandemic or becomes endemic remains to be seen. Either way, it is vital to take steps to ensure that any future outbreaks are limited in their scope and damage.

More than anything, that means promoting vaccination even when cases appear to be declining. They remain the single most effective way of preventing the spread of the coronavirus and reducing symptoms. Masks remain the next most effective way of stopping the spread. What should be clear now is that these steps should be taken as soon as there are signs that an outbreak is beginning. The same goes for hand hygiene and other personal prevention steps.

Still, the main lesson from this is that if and when an outbreak appears to be beginning, the authorities should err on the side of caution and identify it as such, and then introduce any additional restrictions as soon as possible.

Mr Burt has previously stated that if people followed the restrictions the Government had laid out in late July and August, the outbreak would not have occurred. But it cannot be assumed that people will follow the rules. That is why further restrictions may be required if the intent is to contain the virus and reduce the death toll.

There is no certainty that this outbreak is Bermuda’s last. The Government and the community must apply the lessons of past outbreaks.

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Published October 14, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated October 14, 2021 at 1:40 pm)

Learning lessons from Covid-19

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