The pandemic leadership challenge
My first thought was to write an analogy of the animals walking into the ark just before the biblical flood. However, I will use another more recent analogy of animals behaving in a peculiar way.
In December 2004, I recall hearing of wild animals hurrying around as if there was some perplexing, invisible emergency. What was unknown to humans at the time was that there had been a devastating underwater earthquake in the Indian Ocean and a destructive tsunami was only minutes away.
It was determined after that nature equipped these animals with sensors and instincts so that they were not just running around aimlessly; they were running for higher ground.
I am inviting us to think about what we are witnessing with the coronavirus is a monumental global underwater earthquake and the tsunami wave is crashing all around in other countries and it is inevitable that it will wash up on our shores sooner rather than later.
In keeping with the earlier analogy, let us observe what some of the other “animals” have done to date — the animals being other countries and those with scientific, political, economic and other resources to better determine what has and is about to occur.
This coronavirus originally unfolded in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. The Chinese Government not only quarantined tens of millions of people but it built permanent hospitals and quarantine centres. We should pause to consider why. One may presume it is because China is not expecting this to be a passing disaster.
The governments of South Korea and Hong Kong mobilised massive medical and economic resources to respond in what seemed to be disproportionate context to the number of confirmed cases there. The discerning may conclude that they expected the situation to get much worse before it got better.
In Iran, government leaders who seemed to be in good health got sick and died because of the virus. Governments in the Caribbean were forced to turn away cruise ships for fear of contamination. Leadership in the United States has taken the drastic step of banning flights from out of continental Europe. The Italian Government has literally closed down the whole country and Germany has declared that up to 70 per cent of its population may be infected. The World Health Organisation has also been forced to declare that Covid-19 infection is a pandemic.
Meanwhile, Bermuda Government officials met in Parliament last Wednesday. When listening to the debate it was business as usual. The analogy of animals scurrying to higher ground has been fairly unremarkable in Parliament. In fact, our politicians didn't resist the usual opportunity during debate for one Progressive Labour Party politician to accuse a One Bermuda Alliance counterpart of racism seemingly to deflect a perfectly reasonable question.
Our government response to date has been centred around the airport. The Minister of Health has stated that they are looking at incoming travellers to see who exhibits visible symptoms and that fever testing and self-quarantining measures are being imposed. We are apparently relying on a company in Trinidad to laboratory-test samples with a five-day turnaround. We have a helpline in development and the drumbeat of the Government is to patronise us and tell us there is nothing to fear.
On Thursday, the Cabinet press conference assured us that we should keep calm and that government departments had plans “just in case”. The Premier also said that test results are due to return and that testing kits are on the way.
For all that it is worth, I am writing this because I believe the Government's response to date is entirely out of sync with the reality we are facing. This very serious problem should demand that there is an equally strong response, literally by the minute.
Are we prepared to have an influx of patients overwhelming our hospital numerically and how will we protect and prevent it from spreading? Schools and universities across the globe are closing. Are we prepared to have an influx of our Bermudian students return home in the midst of this? Do we have a plan to receive them and address their health concerns? Thankfully, they are of an age where they will likely be able to fight off the virus. However, what about the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions that reside here?
Simply asking people to self-quarantine is meaningless, especially as symptoms can lay dormant for up to two weeks. These persons may not live alone, so does everyone in the house need to be quarantined? Fortunately, we know the virus is not a death sentence for most of the persons who contract it or come in contact with it.
There are at least five pertinent issues that we should keep in mind:
• Bermuda has a small landmass
• We are one of the more densely populated countries in the world
• Bermudians travel extensively and we habitually have far more visitors to our shores than our population
• We rely on the tourist and business traveller to support the pillars of our economy
• Our economy is dependent on the health, vitality and relationships with other nations because we produce very little of what we consume and we are heavily reliant on international business
One only needs to look at what has happened to the stock market over the past two weeks and we can predict what is likely to occur here. If the economy of the US, our chief trading partner, has blossomed over the past decade and our economy remained stagnant, then you can sensibly predict that if the US economy starts to decline what that will mean for Bermuda.
We should be able to clearly see a tsunami coming and we have only started to feel the tremors so far that will precede it landing on our country very soon.
Is there a plan for the expected shortfall in revenue and expected increase in expenses?
We are going to have to deal with the economic ramifications of this, and burying our heads in the sand and wishing it away is not wise.
Cruise ships are unlikely to be coming here, especially at the start of the season. Even if they do, they are not going to be bringing as many visitors like they did last year. Air arrivals are quite likely to be significantly affected as well. The hospitality industry, made up of mostly Bermudian labour, will bear the economic brunt of this new reality. The knock-on effect is quite likely.
What economic measures are being put in place by our government? My view is the “just in case” philosophy is not sufficient and a public-private partnership needs to established like never before.
We have heard from other countries that they are at war with an invisible enemy. Although Bermuda is “another world”, we are a part of humanity that is facing this invisible enemy, which does not care how remote and unique we are. We are on the front lines, whether we like it or not.
We need to trust that Bermudians are sensible and mature enough to govern ourselves to our collective advantage, if sensibly led, and not resort to mindless panic. We just need to know what the plan is.
• Vic Ball was a One Bermuda Alliance senator from November 2014 to July 2017