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Opinion & Analysis

Covid-19: POLITICAL AND OTHER SILVER LININGS OF A PANDEMIC

By Fabian Vinet

Unless an expert on plate tectonics clarifies otherwise, North Africa has not migrated significantly towards Gibraltar these past two months. And yet the Atlas Mountains now greet us each day with a clarity and splendour we don’t recall ever having been the norm; clear skies being one of the environmental upsides of lockdown.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a humanitarian disaster that has already claimed the lives of at least 300,000 mothers, fathers, sons and daughters.

These are the official figures which we all know mask an even greater number of deaths. Whatever the views of blinkered conspiracy theorists, more real devastation still lies ahead, but as human beings we have to find the silver linings amongst the figurative dark clouds surrounding us, for it is in identifying positives in adversity that we summon the strength to persevere. It is, I know, incongruous to talk about silver linings and upsides when millions of people mourn the passing of loved ones around the world, but they do exist.

From an environmental perspective, the reduction in traffic and industry has delivered less pollution, cleaner air, quieter streets; the rumbling of machinery and car engines replaced with chirping birds and the heightened voice of nature. For the business and public sectors, the pandemic has pushed many towards a steep learning curve on how to work remotely and digitally, often offering greater flexibility and efficiencies that benefit customers and service users. The challenges on the educational front have paved the way for a tentative, welcome return of the Instituto Cervantes. At a personal level, the heartache of grandparents unable to hug their grandchildren is only eclipsed by the inability to properly grieve for the dead or to visit the seriously ill in hospital and care homes, but within households we have spent valuable time with our families and we have learnt to better appreciate our relatives and friends.

Our admiration of health workers and of those on the frontline is now at a level that it should always have been. We have seen acts of kindness, the disinterested help from volunteers, more respect towards fellow human beings and much self-reflection.

Coronavirus has been a health and financial curse that has profoundly changed social, cultural, educational and economic activities for billions, but against that scenario the world has healed in some respects and we have been offered a glimpse into the potentials of a better planet, a better future, a better normal and a better version of ourselves. “A chance to finish what we started and made a mess of yesterday,” as a friend once sang.

The silver linings are also to be found in our politics. In Spain and elsewhere, it is remarkable (in the worse possible way) that even this most serious of emergencies is treated as an opportunity to inflict political wounds. Whether liability lies on one side or the other, or indeed whether blame is to be shared, the death of almost 30,000 individuals in Spain has brought even more political discord to the table.

There has never been any love lost between the PSOE and PP, but coronavirus and its trail of death and economic misery was an opportunity, if ever there was one, for the overcoming of polarisation and the acceptance of cooperation, even if just on this one singular point. Instead, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and the Partido Popular’s Pablo Casado have used the nightmare that is Covid-19 as a catalyst for more tribalism and a further entrenchment of partisan politics that no country needs or wants at a time like this. It is an approach that has failed the Spanish population.

Contrast that with the courageous embracing of inclusive decision-making of our own Chief Minister. Over the past few weeks, we have seen Government and Opposition working together constructively, for the good of our people, putting differences aside because the situation is one that merits such an approach. Keith Azopardi and the GSD have shown it understood what people wanted in accepting the opportunity, and the challenge, that consensus represents. But the bulk of the courage has of course come from Fabian Picardo, as Chief Minister, and from our Government, in reaching out.

The Civil Contingencies Act 2007, and in particular section 11 of the said Act, gives Government the power to make emergency regulations in a situation such as the current pandemic (section 10 defines a relevant emergency as “an event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare in Gibraltar”). Section 13 of the Act covers the potential scope of such emergency regulations, which confer on Government extensive discretionary powers in respect of a very wide array of matters. In other words, Covid-19 presented our Chief Minister - any Gibraltar Chief Minister - with, if not a complete carte blanche, certainly abundant authority and control.

Yet when Fabian Picardo had the most power under the Civil Contingencies Act, allowing Government to legitimately act unilaterally, he exercised depth, restraint and maturity. Government showed courage in opening the door to working together with the GSD Opposition, in humbly reaching out to find a common purpose, a common position, of putting Gibraltar first.

I seriously doubt we have seen the last of Mr Picardo’s pugilist side, fighting his corner in Parliament and elsewhere when necessary, but it is true that the past few weeks have shown a more humble slant, one that shows a maturity that has been lacking in certain political leaders in Spain and the UK, and a willingness towards inclusive consensus building where that is what we need and want.

This represents a political silver lining. Government has already indicated that “the working relationship with the Opposition so far has been positive and productive and may enable us to deliver a new style for Gibraltar going forward more generally.” We shall see. That does not mean a departure from an adversarial parliamentary system that, in truth, has served us well, but it does mean that, when appropriate, the momentum of dialogue, of consensus, of transcending the political divides, of inclusive decision-making, ought to be sustained.

Gibraltar has been fortunate in many respects these past few weeks and we have much to be thankful for. But the virus is still out there and it has the potential to deliver serious harm. Even as we traverse the process of unlocking the Rock (detailed in a thorough, unambiguous document that demonstrates the calibre and competence of our political leadership - the antithesis of Boris Johnson’s foggy messaging), we must exercise extreme caution.

Similarly, in the same way as we need to act responsibly to protect our loved ones, so too we must, together, focus on the positives, on the upsides, on the silver linings. We must ensure that when all of this is over, when we can hug and kiss and stop yearning for all the things we took for granted until two months ago and celebrate together with a warmth and passion that we scarcely knew existed, we do so in a better Gibraltar and in a better normal.