Ease restrictions but take care
“Learning to live with Covid” must be an early front-runner for the most used phrase of 2022.
It is precisely what most communities have been doing since it became clear that the Covid-19 pandemic would not go away of its own volition and that vaccines, as vitally important as they are, are not a cure-all.
But “living with Covid” means different things to different people.
The basic public health requirements — to ensure that health services are not overwhelmed and to prevent needless deaths — must remain the priority. Bermuda came within an eyelash of seeing its hospital buckle under the impact of the Delta virus last year; avoiding a repeat is critical.
At the same time, Bermuda needs to return to some form of economic stability and normal social interaction.
Balancing these two needs remains the challenge for all governments and communities, and it is a difficult balance to achieve.
The Omicron variant, despite the deaths that have occurred, has been more infectious but less severe than the Delta variant. Many people will hope that this means that if there is another variant, it will be even less severe, even if it is more transmissible, and thus becomes more like a seasonal flu.
However, Covid-19 has only ever been unpredictable and if anything has been learnt from the past two years, it is to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.
To that end, the Government’s moves over the past few weeks make sense and should be supported, with the caveat that they may change quickly should a new and different variant emerges.
This is the reality of living with Covid-19.
Living with Covid-19 does not mean accepting any number of hospital cases or deaths or applying some kind of survival-of-the-fittest test to health policy. It means monitoring the situation carefully, anticipating trends early and taking the appropriate steps at the right times.
This applies as much to increasing restrictions as it does to easing them. For now, Bermuda is very much in the mode of easing restrictions, and this is correct.
As the island again attempts to rebuild its vital tourism industry, easing travel restrictions and making everything from restaurants to tour boats more accessible must happen.
In 2021, it was hoped that being Covid-free and having controls in place to prevent the rapid spread of the coronavirus would enable tourism to flourish. These hopes proved fruitless. It turned out that people did not want tight restrictions and the controls proved to be utterly porous as the Delta variant spread like wildfire.
There is a risk of generals fighting the last war in this, especially given the unpredictability of Covid-19. But on balance, the easing of travel restrictions and the axing of SafeKey for restaurants and other public places is wise if they lead to a resurgence in tourism and other economic activity.
There is a question of why the Travel Authorisation Fee is being lowered by just under 50 per cent when the number of tests required under the fee is being dropped by more than that.
But it should be noted that the TAF almost certainly did not pay for four PCR tests, and while antigen tests can now be used — and people can pay for private tests — it may be that reducing the fee to $40 actually brings the tests and the people paid to administer them into line. In any event, compared to many other countries, $40 is not a vast expense; Bermuda has many higher costs it should tackle first.
If restrictions are being eased generally, it is fair to ask why schools continue to insist that students wear masks in classrooms.
It has been generally accepted that while children and teenagers who contract Covid-19 will have less severe symptoms, the very nature of schools makes them superspreader locations.
The risk may be less to themselves than it is to older people with whom they may come into contact.
In that sense, schools are different from restaurants and the like where smaller groups of people are likely to be gathered for shorter periods of time.
Kim Wilson, the health minister, has stated that the Omicron variant saw more outbreaks than usual among children and the data supports this. But as the spike wanes, this may not still be the case.
The proportion of children under the age of 10 who had Covid-19 as of Monday was identical to their share of the overall population. Among 11 to 19-year-olds, the proportion was higher — 14 per cent compared to 10 per cent of the overall population — but not earth-shatteringly so.
Thus it makes sense to move schools away from mandatory mask-wearing.
Covid-19 is unlikely to simply disappear. Vaccines and other anti-transmission measures such as masks and handwashing reduce its spread and reduce symptoms of those who do get it.
Natural immunity for those who have contracted Covid-19 may aid resistance, but it is not a cure-all and it is not known how long it will last.
As Bermuda and the world move forward, it needs to continue to relax restrictions as planned, but always with the awareness that should another variant or spike emerge, it will be necessary to reintroduce restrictions — and to do so early.