2020 - A Year like no Other

Jonathan Scott - Tuesday 29th December

The pandemic has completely dominated 2020. That’s true for GBC, for Gibraltar and for much of the world. The World Health Organisation says it is a once-in-a-century health crisis.

Gibraltar is currently experiencing its worst surge to date. At the time of writing, there are 580 active cases in Gibraltar with over 1800 people in self-isolation. The Contact Tracing Bureau has been overwhelmed. When things were going well, they were informing close contacts to isolate within hours. Now, such is the volume of calls they need to make, it’s taking up to five days to follow up on a positive contact.

Worldwide, Covid-19 has been found in over 70 million people and possibly infected hundreds of millions more who were never diagnosed. It has caused almost 1.8m recorded deaths. Apart from direct deaths, for which COVID-19 is recorded as the cause, the science journal Nature also lists ‘direct-but-uncounted deaths’, in which the virus was responsible but wasn’t officially noted, and ‘indirect deaths’, which occur because of other changes wrought by the pandemic.

Although the Gibraltar government, like most, is releasing daily statistics, because of the time and effort needed to compile and analyse death certificates, it will take time (years) to properly understand the full toll of the pandemic.

Many survivors are living with longer term effects. The NHS says a growing number of people who contract COVID-19 cannot shake off the effects of the virus months after initially falling ill. Symptoms are wide-ranging but can include breathlessness, chronic fatigue, anxiety and stress. For me, it’s been headaches, which persist five weeks after I tested positive. 

For others, the long term effects of the illness have already proven to be debilitating and the NHS says this is true even for young, fit people, and those who did not go to hospital when they originally had COVID-19 symptoms.

Economically, countries across the world have suffered and will continue to suffer. Gibraltar is no exception, government revenue has plummeted. World economic output is at least 7% lower than it would otherwise have been, according to The Economist: the biggest slump since the second world war. The global recession is expected to be long lasting, with no country escaping its impact. Just how bad the Rock’s recession will be remains to be seen. But recessions mean less money in the economy and - usually - fewer jobs.

Among the lessons we could take from this challenging year is the sense that life and the everyday things that we may have taken for granted - such as meeting a friend for a coffee or spending time with the extended family - are to be cherished.

Another, is that things can be different, if we as a society want them to be different. You could hear the birds singing like never before as construction activity and traffic all but stopped. The clean air that accompanied lockdown reminded us that Covid-19 is a new crisis within another. Like the pandemic, climate change is an issue the whole world needs to tackle and it needs investment now - otherwise it will be much more costly to deal with later.

2020 has also highlighted injustice. As a result of the lockdown and other restrictions, people of all ages and backgrounds have endured loneliness, anxiety and depression. But while isolation and lockdown have been tough for all of us, one can only imagine what it must have been like for the poor people who Action for Housing have shown us live in desperate conditions, without a proper kitchen or a bathroom of their own. This thought certainly made my own 19-day isolation period much more tolerable.

As for the virus itself, the suffering it has inflicted has been skewed by race. Patients from ethnic minority groups are disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Yet another inequality is seen in employment. On public health grounds, the Government has had to shut down whole sectors, forcing people out of work. It has compensated many businesses and employees through BEAT payments. But some have been deemed ineligible and/or slipped through the net.

And, as Unite has highlighted, many workers in the hospitality industry are paid weekly, are on or close to the minimum wage, and are employed on zero hour contracts. The union asked the Government to pay compensation to workers based on what hours they were rostered to work over the busy festive period, not what they are contracted to work.

The public health advice is also that we should work from home if possible. Generally speaking, better paid jobs are more likely to be doable from home. Those on lower pay will not have the luxury of working from home.

In short, for those who care about inequality and want to help the needy, 2020 has left them with more to do.

But in some ways, the pandemic has also helped to shine a light on progress. Faced with such difficulty, people and businesses have had to adapt and innovate. Browse Hungry Monkey, Rock Hero and Nom Noms on your mobile and you’re overwhelmed by the choice of food. You can buy an increasing range of goods locally via Facebook, WhatsApp and websites. Government services are moving online too, slowly but surely.

Almost overnight, organisations - like the GBC Newsroom - began to be run from kitchen tables at home. It’s an experiment and will take time to fine tune. But it’s happening.

2020 has seen a lot of learning about the virus itself, how it spreads and how to protect against it. Doctors have new treatments. Vaccines have been created: Gibraltar is set to receive its first batch in the coming days. If we manage to get enough doses and enough people take it (particularly those more at risk), then the vaccination programme should mark the point when we start to move definitively towards a better, more normal place.

In health care, we have also glimpsed more systemic change. Today, more is being done remotely than ever before. And more will need to be done. The Government and the GHA cannot lose sight of the fact that none of the other health problems we had at the beginning of 2020 have disappeared.

In an interview with the Gibraltar Chronicle, the Acting Medical Director Dr Krishna Rawal said he had no doubt there are people with medical conditions that are not as controlled as they should be as their appointments have been delayed by the pandemic.

Others will have (non-Covid-19) diagnoses for new health problems made later, complicating treatment. The Health Ministry and the GHA will be conscious of this and eager to redouble efforts to catch up, as much as possible, as soon as possible.

And, then there’s mental health. The Gibraltar Mental Welfare Society has warned that, as a result of Covid-19, some people with mental health issues locally are feeling more abandoned than ever and are struggling to get the support they need. Even in the most difficult of cases, the worst outcome - suicide - is preventable, but action needs to be taken to protect people’s mental health.

The Government’s ability to raise funding to deal with this health emergency could also recalibrate public expectations about what is possible for governments to do. For example, might campaigners demand an increase in spending on mental health and more urgent investment in dealing with the climate emergency?

The demand for action to avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage featured prominently in local news in 2019 and also at the start of 2020. But for most of the year these voices have not been heard anywhere near as loudly - perhaps partly because large gatherings like the sort we saw in the prominent school strikes 12-18 months ago have been banned on public health grounds.

As we look to 2021, we should be mindful that pandemics can be followed by social upheaval. The International Monetary Fund says unrest tends to surge about 14 months after the onset of widespread disease, peaking after 24 months. The more unequal a society, the more upheaval. Think about Gibraltar as a community, but also about our neighbour La Linea.

The uncertainty surrounding movements on Line Wall Road has been outlived and certainly outweighed by the continued uncertainty around Brexit - or more specifically, Gibraltar’s future relationship with the EU and in particular Spain. The UK and EU did not seem likely to agree a deal, but did so on Christmas Eve.

At the time of writing this, the Chief Minister had said he was still optimistic a deal could be done. But no Gibraltar deal had yet been done. Spain’s Foreign Minister, Arancha Gonzalez Laya, also believes a post-Brexit deal is possible in the next three days but has warned there will be delays at the frontier if not. As negotiations continue, we all await news with baited breath.

The sheer scale of the challenges 2020 has brought us all, and the suffering it has inflicted on some, had not been experienced for decades. Covid-19 has exposed and tested us in a way that nothing had since the frontier re-opened. But the pandemic has also brought with it the promise of innovation: businesses and government departments moving their offerings online, government and opposition parties collaborating, individuals working from home, schools supporting more learning at home. Could 2021 be the year when we work together to fully deliver these promises?

On a more personal note, during lockdown and my prolonged isolation period, I found myself considering what it is in my life that matters most. You may have gone through something similar. That reflection seems important and could help us bring more meaning and happiness to our everyday lives in the coming weeks and months.