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Opinion & Analysis

The iceberg is there, not even lurking

Eyleen Gomez

By Nick Cruz

Gibraltar should celebrate how it has handled the coronavirus pandemic so far. Indeed, we should be very proud of our leadership’s tough decisions at crucial moments. We should recognise the opposition parties who should be credited with putting Gibraltar first.

There may be those on either side of the argument of whether we have unlocked too early, or indeed whether we could have unlocked earlier.

These are judgements that cannot be right or wrong and are best made by those who are in possession of all the facts.

In fact, we are extraordinarily lucky to have a leadership in Gibraltar which understands adversity, challenge and that the only constant, is change. We have been doing this for decades and doing it well.

In that sense, we are as a community, battle hardened and thus well prepared.

Be it Spanish aggression, British apathy, war, evacuation, closure of the dockyard, closed frontier, defamation, fiscal challenges, co-sovereignty agendas, Brexit we are always in training.

Clearly Fabian Picardo and his team have been exemplary, but this leadership extends further, to past and present figures: Sir Joshua Hassan, Sir Joe Bossano, Sir Peter Caruana, Keith Azopardi, Marlene Hassan Nahon and their respective teams.

But I go further. I have witnessed, as a member of one of the Government committees, CELAC, an extraordinary solidarity of purpose. The trade associations, the unions, all have demonstrated an understanding, so far, of what is required to navigate this process.

However, right from the start of this pandemic it was my view that the health risk of coronavirus, which in statistical terms is small, will come no way near what will follow in terms of socio, political and economic which equally impact on our well-being and health.

Interestingly, the Times on the 4th June 2020, based on actual statistical information, made clear that the risk of death from the virus was 1,800 out of every 100,000 infected for those over 90. When you went to younger groups such as say those in their 40’s it was less than 10 in every 100,000.

Life is precious and hindsight is a wonderful and sometimes dangerous thing, but I think most people would agree, or may acknowledge that the global reaction to the pandemic may threaten their families’ welfare and that of their communities, in a manner that too is unprecedented.

The worse and very much worse is still to come; a disastrous economic tidal wave that will be enduring. Whatever your view on whether this well intended act of economic global self-harm was required, to address the health threat, that debate is now entirely academic. It happened, we all in effect shut down, with only a pulse remaining for a long time in economic terms. This was no Easter break!

The global economy has been brutalised like never before. A little, like the patient who suffered the worst of the Coronavirus with intubation, it may have taken days to catch but it will take months to recover.

The global economy (of which only the delusional would suggest we are not part of) has taken months to catch this economic and social virus, and will take years to recover. This is fundamental to understand.

They say, when the US sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. The US today, with as many unemployed as the population of Spain, has caught the flu, we can all expect pneumonia.

Estimates of likely unemployed in Europe are horrific. The suggestion is as many as 7,000,000 may find themselves without a job in Spain, that is twice those unemployed during the 2007 recession (which many suggest Spain has not recovered from).

The Brexit and Coronavirus combo will be likely to deliver unemployment levels in the UK, that whilst not as bad as Spain are likely to surpass those seen in the 80’s. Many other countries will suffer similar fates, it is suggested.

Company closures again are likely to be extraordinary. Indeed, historically viable and successful companies that have been built over decades and even generations will be likely to fall prey to the lockdown consequences and those that are deemed necessary legacy lockdown measures, that will persist.

Governments are taking measures to mitigate damage and here in Gibraltar much like the health threat, the Government, with others’ support, are leaving no stone unturned, including the recent Parliamentary measures to create a moratorium in relation to some insolvency measures that exist in our Insolvency Act.

The purpose, much like oxygen for the C19 patients, is to allow the economic patients time to try and survive the economic disease.

To their extraordinary credit, Government, others and Industry have recognised this threat and have not been idle.

Whilst still dealing with the health onslaught and uncertainty in March, our Chief Minister and his team established think tanks, both in relation to the immediate aftermath and the future.

Task Force Future led by the economic Ministers: Isola, Licudi and Daryanani had, by late April received feedback from the entire industry, as to what industry required to make Gibraltar, not just function, but prosper in the new world order. Very few countries can do this.

However, it is this distinction and as I have said, our battle-hardened approach to adversity, that places us in a unique position to employ that agility to best effect.

If we give effect to changes that are required, and do so immediately or at least very expeditiously we may well swim against that economic tidal wave, and do so successfully or at least successfully enough to preserve our blessed way of life, or part of it.

I believe no one can argue that socialism; namely the distribution of wealth, can only work where wealth is created.

Sir Joe Bossano understood that in 1988 and it was the land reclamation, education of our young and privatisations of the early 1990’s, that sowed the seeds of prosperity. It was precisely that visionary understanding of how Gibraltar could function after life as a military base that was required.

All of us have rightfully thanked our public sector and specifically the health sector for their efforts during these months, but none should doubt that it is, the perhaps less celebrated private sector, that has kept the economic pulse going, many without assistance.

It is Industry, importantly in harmonious partnership with the public sector, that must now operate and be given the tools, to in the first instance survive, and thereafter create that wealth that powers our community.

The solidarity that we have witnessed, and I have commented upon as having seen first-hand, is more important now than ever. However, it is far more difficult to maintain solidarity in the aftermath of the health crisis, than in the middle of it.

If part of your neighbourhood is on fire, the neighbourhood will come together with buckets to put out the flames, scared by the possibility of all homes being destroyed, but when the flames are gone there is far more room for disagreement about the next stage of the rebuild, particularly from those whose houses have been spared. This is natural, human instinct.

It may seem to many in Gibraltar, having lived through the lockdown and who still in gainful employment have seen their bank balances swell. They may see no good reason to change anything, or otherwise worry.

The reality is, other than boredom and an overdose of Netflix’s, many are probably better off and quite rested. In fact, many of us may even have quite naturally enjoyed this extraordinary experience. We have had time to do those things that life rarely affords.

Of course, we now wish for normality, but certainly there has been much gained in some respects by this process. I have thoroughly enjoyed spending so much time engaged with teenage children which would otherwise be elsewhere.

That enjoyment does not however deliver to them, a living, or a way of life that we have all thankfully come to enjoy in Gibraltar. We should avoid aping the characters in one of those American disaster movies where everyone is in wilful denial before the tidal wave hits. The iceberg is there, not even lurking.

It would not be an exaggeration to say, we are currently living the calm before the storm and must see the ripples starting to hit.

We must resist the temptation to be in denial or to deride or criticise those that are arguing for necessary preparation and change.

The approach and preparation for the economic consequences of the pandemic, should be equal or more aggressive and urgent than the pandemic itself. These consequences will affect many more than 2% of the population.

It is real, it is here and getting worse. There will very few who will be asymptomatic or have mild symptoms and we will not be cured by Netflix’s and sanitiser. From cradle to grave no one will be spared, be it the risk to our ability to educate, employ, house, keep healthy and safe it will meaningfully touch all of us in some way or another.

If, as the Government are so actively doing and promoting, we all come together as one.

If we make the sacrifices and embrace the changes we must, then we can make Gibraltar even more special than it is.

In a competitive global market, we must build a landscape that attracts the wealth creators that can flourish and allow for continued wealth distribution to our community. Indeed, get it right and this challenge will be an opportunity.

I do believe, much like we have done before, a little like Noah’s ark, after weathering the storm, we may float gently to safety, to fertile land on even higher ground.
Nick Cruz is a barrister.