Imagining a different world
EARLY ON in this crisis, the daily 4pm press conferences at No.6 Convent Place had a calming effect on growing collective unease.
Ministers and officials offered information and guidance on how Gibraltar was preparing to cope with the nightmarish scenes unfolding in hospitals across much of the world.
With a lump in the throat, we awaited news of the first local case as frontline agencies ramped up their readiness, propped up by a community that pulled together to help.
The first case came, swiftly followed by the second. The numbers began to rise steadily, though thankfully slowly. We waited with baited collective breath for news of hospitalised cases, or the first fatality we were told was inevitable.
The 4pm press conference was like a daily sedative, soothing doubt with the reassurance that Gibraltar was working full pelt to prepare.
Lockdowns were imposed here and in Spain, businesses shut down and restrictions on movement enforced. Trade went into hibernation and our streets emptied of visitors and locals alike. As a community, we withdrew behind closed doors and hunkered down until the Levanter lifted.
And the days dragged on.
Now the 4pm press conference, while essential, has a touch of repetition about it. The news, such as it is, comes in small snippets wrapped in a mix of comforting language and stern warnings, a sometimes biting contrast.
DR SOHAIL BHATTI, the Director for Public Health and the man on whose advice the government strategy hinges, has insisted repeatedly that, for most us, coronavirus “will just be a cold”. But he has raised eyebrows too with a plea for each of us to make our peace with friends and loved ones. Just in case.
Despite his occasional lapses into gloominess, I have deep admiration for Dr Bhatti, who probably has the most unenviable job in Gibraltar right now. His role is to look forward and stare into the abyss, then advise accordingly using science as the basis for decisions that are sometimes hard to comprehend for us laymen. The fact that other countries follow different, often conflicting strategies doesn’t help.
And therein lies the biggest challenge, because this is a new virus about which we know little other than the fact of its virulence. And that includes the experts.
We monitor statistics in other countries - how awful to see human lives reduced to numbers - and compare them with our own, counting our lucky stars that Gibraltar has so far escaped the worst, but riven with apprehension about what lies ahead.
We take comfort that Andalucia, our nearest physical neighbour, has one of the lowest mortality and infection rates in Spain, a country shaken to its core by the horror of this virus.
But it’s all a matter of perspective.
In the Campo, the death toll stood at 18 at the time I was writing this, and 41 people were in hospital with Covid-19 symptoms. Just think about that for a minute. Eighteen families torn apart.
Then factor in that the scale of testing is still limited, so the prevalence of the virus in the Andalusian community is probably far more widespread than is known, a fact that is also applicable anywhere in the world including Gibraltar.
There is room for hope, but little more at this stage.
Dr Bhatti captured Gibraltar’s predicament vividly. Even if we manage to suppress the spread of the virus here - and it’s a big if - Gibraltar, he said, is like a dry bush caught between raging forest fires in the UK and Spain. “All it takes is a spark to jump across and it will spread like wildfire,” he added.
Every day at 4pm, journalists try to elicit answers to the key questions on all our minds. Some can be answered easily. We have daily updates, for example, on numbers and such like. We are told of ongoing preparations in healthcare provision, changes in laws, and the work of other frontline agencies including the police.
But the deeper questions remain unanswered because there are no answers. When will this be over? When will we have antibody tests, vaccines? What if we flatten the infection curve too much? What if there’s a second wave in the autumn? What shape will release from lockdown take and what will we find when we step out? How badly will our economy be hit? How will it recover? What will be of our Spanish neighbours and the UK, and other countries around the globe hit hard by the virus?
The uncomfortable truth is that we simply do not know.
THIS IS NOT the end of the world, even though it may sometimes feel that way. But it is the beginning of a new one, or at least, it should be.
After four years of Brexit drama - Remember that? Oh to return those simpler, comparatively carefree days! - we were tired and drained when this crisis crept up on us. Our initial response rode on a surge of adrenaline and urgency. Now, four weeks in, the focus must be on stamina and pace. This is not going to go away in a few weeks or even months, and we must maintain and sustain our readiness throughout.
Society must guard too its precious freedoms anchored in democracy and the rule of law. Already the lockdown measures have infringed on some of our most fundamental rights, an understandable and justified step that the Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, described as the most painful political decision he had ever taken.
But the government is doing a good job of managing this crisis, working in lockstep with the opposition, which has offered support and advice throughout. So we are in a good place where everyone, conscious of the gravity and enormity of the situation, is pulling in the same direction. There will be time enough for disagreement in the future.
Imagine the damage if all that energy was spent quarrelling instead, as is happening in other countries, or on populist political posturing when health services are strained to breaking point. We have thankfully avoided that.
Yet in a world filled with self-appointed experts and misinformation, where decisions in one country impact on another, there is no room for complacency, and guarding our freedoms is a duty we must all shoulder collectively.
The Israeli philosopher and author Yuval Harari, writing in the Financial Times recently, looked at the global landscape and put it succinctly. “The coronavirus epidemic is a major test of citizenship,” he wrote. “In the days ahead, each one of us should choose to trust scientific data and healthcare experts over unfounded conspiracy theories and self-serving politicians. If we fail to make the right choice, we might find ourselves signing away our most precious freedoms, thinking that this is the only way to safeguard our health.”
CIRCUMSTANCES will impose change on us, and the hardest part will be to stay grounded. But it’s also the most important part.
We each have our own realities to deal with, some on the front line of the public health response, others ensuring the essentials are provided for. Some just staying at home.
But all of us face the same fears, a common anxiety about an invisible killer that could lurk anywhere, a deep, unshakeable sense of uncertainty about the future.
For some of us, getting through the day is easier than for others. For journalists, there is round-the-clock creativity as we strive to keep up with the news in an online world. It’s a drain, no doubt about that, but it’s a lifeline too that helps maintain focus and a sense of purpose, and thus sanity.
Others are preparing for a worst-case scenario, channelling energy into a collective goal even while hoping against hope that it’s all an overreaction and their efforts will be a waste of time and money. But knowing, deep down, that the work will be vital, and looking ahead with grim determination and more than a hint of foreboding.
The little things become precious. A kind word or gesture, a Facetime call asking how you are, a home-cooked meal and a glass (or three) of wine. Where we can, we snatch moments of silence from our physical and online worlds, an hour with a good book, a run in the evening, yoga in the morning. We learn to treasure these moments if we didn’t already do so, to slow down as much as possible and recharge.
We take comfort in the humanity of a shared problem that transcends borders, a universality that should give us food for thought. We lap up stories of recovery, of people overcoming adversity, of others going out of their way to help and encourage.
We remain stoic, applauding one another for our efforts no matter how small, but understanding deep down that the nightly 8pm show of support for our frontline services is as much an act of gratitude as it is collective therapy from the balcony.
Outside, Gibraltar has become a ghost town. And yet, even while the sight of empty streets is sad, there are are silver linings too. It’s pleasantly quiet without cars, and the air is cleaner. Streets are filled with birdsong normally drowned out by the exhausts of cars and motorbikes.
In the silence, there is a clue as to what we each might ponder from the safety of our homes over the coming days and weeks, for when the time comes. It is a glimpse of a more tranquil Gibraltar that we should not lose sight of.
Getting though this nightmare will require a change of chip. We’re not just going to be let out and everything is ok. This is a game changer for everyone and everything. Gibraltar in a year’s time will - and should - be a different place, and we must be the ones who shape it. We must decide what form it will take.
There are jokes and memes doing the rounds about people putting on weight in lockdown. But the reality is we have to come out of this leaner, both physically and mentally, as individuals and collectively.
This is an opportunity to rethink everything and trim the fat. And we must grab it.