Failing grade on managing Covid
Governments around the world this past year have faced the unenviable task of dealing with an exceptionally challenging and unpredictable pandemic. However, when wrong decisions are made that ultimately cost lives, there needs to be accountability.
The Progressive Labour Party government was successful in managing the crisis last year, from its inception in March through to November. The Government made the difficult decisions early on, although in reality there was nothing brilliant or innovative about the approach.
We put in place protocols that were already being followed elsewhere, primarily closing the airport and initiating a lockdown, with a phased recovery period. Bermuda had the significant advantage of being an isolated island with a small population, the ideal environment to control the virus. That advantage was the primary factor leveraged in controlling the active case count.
The PLP took full credit for the success, to the point of audaciously calling an unnecessary election, ostensibly to confirm a mandate for leading Bermuda through the pandemic. And it is for that reason that the Government needs to be held accountable for the subsequent policy errors that have been made.
Once Bermuda moved to Phase 4, the so-called “new normal”, difficult decisions were required. Instead of following successful guidance from other jurisdictions, Bermuda instead gambled with a less restrictive travel requirement of a mobile quarantine, hoping to attract more visitor traffic. The trade-off was marginal visitor traffic versus the multitude of risks associated with a mobile quarantine. Bermuda could have retained its internal bubble, prioritising community health, and ensuring local businesses could fully function serving the local market, with minimal restrictions.
Other island countries that were successfully managing the pandemic chose the prudent approach of maintaining a 14-day quarantine for all travellers, combined with restricted traveller categories. For example, Taiwan, with a population of 24 million, has total cases to date of 1,100, fewer than half of Bermuda's total. New Zealand, population five million, 2,600 cases.
The most relevant comparative example is Cayman, a small island with a similar population base. Fewer than 600 total cases, no daily cases of more than 30, and two deaths. Since last summer, because of the success managing the virus, Cayman has been able to ease restrictions; for example, masks and social distancing are not required in public areas.
Cayman also fared much better in terms of financial management, recording a deficit of $38 million at December 31, 2020, compared with Bermuda's estimated deficit of $246 million at March 31, 2021. Cayman incurred $65 million in Covid-related expenses; Bermuda $127 million. And, as an aside, another performance discrepancy between the countries: Cayman government debt $249 million; Bermuda $3.35 billion — both supported by a similar population base.
Cayman is even faring better on vaccinations, 46 per cent fully vaccinated and 54 per cent with at least one dose versus 37 per cent and 50 per cent for Bermuda — before the Government's recently announced strong-arm tactic of requiring non-vaccinated travellers to quarantine 14 days at their own expense.
It should have been evident with the first spike in November-December that the less restrictive travel guidelines were exposing Bermuda to significant risk, but the Government did not act, and continued to roll the dice. There is no evidence that the Government benchmarked the performance of other countries, learning from what other islands were doing, and adjusting its strategy accordingly.
The Government displayed extreme arrogance with the perspective that it knew a better approach than other countries that were successfully managing the pandemic. The second spike in March has essentially unwound the progress made to last October, resulting in a significant increase in active cases, hospital admissions and, most tragically, Covid-related deaths. The recent lockdown and restrictions associated with the existing two-month plan will further compound the damage already done to local business.
This could have been avoided, Bermuda could have been in the same space as Cayman. Over the past several weeks, we've heard the Premier and health minister continually blame the present crisis on those who have acted irresponsibly and selfishly by not following protocols — with the ultimate irony being the Premier testing positive, apparently not because of “irresponsible” behaviour. At no point has the Government accepted any responsibility for the irresponsible decisions that have put us where we are. It is a perspective steeped in arrogance and self-righteousness.
Just two weeks ago the Premier stated that Bermuda should achieve his herd-immunity target of 70 per cent by the end of May, with the prospect of a relatively normal summer. The Premier needs to realise that Bermuda will not achieve 70 per cent in five weeks, as a vaccine ceiling likely will be reached very soon, if not already.
Apart from that, the 70 per cent is an unproven target. Healthcare experts have noted that herd immunity may be anywhere from 60 per cent to 90 per cent. The reality is, no one knows. While it’s nice to be optimistic and have a target, presenting like it is a given when it is not, by elected representatives who are not experts, is irresponsible. The obvious risk is that the government strategy is dependent on an event that has a minimal chance of occurrence. The track record over the past six months inspires no confidence. There will not be a relatively normal summer.
In the Premier's address to the country on Sunday, he stated “strong leadership requires making difficult decisions”. If one wants an example of strong and successful leadership, look to Cayman. For an example of leadership resulting in decisions that have severely damaged livelihoods and cost lives, look to Bermuda.
The Government needs to assume full responsibility for the present crisis, and the continued hardship that will result. This isn't a case of hindsight being 20/20. There was sufficient evidence last year that the travel guidelines were too risky. There was sufficient precedence with other jurisdictions that a strict 14-day quarantine was the best strategy.
The PLP ran an election campaign to get its mandate to lead Bermuda through the pandemic. It has failed, at a significant cost to livelihoods and, most critically, lives. The damage cannot be unwound, but at a minimum, the Government needs to show some integrity and acknowledge its mistakes, with a renewed commitment to manage the crisis by following the lead of those countries that have done significantly better than we have.
It’s long past the time to move beyond the arrogant, self-righteous approach that has characterised this government, and failed Bermuda.
• Tom Cormier is a finance professional and long-term resident of Bermuda