Statistics, lockdown, fear and hope

Monday 23rd March - Jonathan Sacramento

I’m not a medical practitioner. It seems like an obvious thing to state, but in these troubling times I thought it was important to start with that disclaimer.

What I am, however, is a journalist with twenty years’ experience of researching the facts and presenting them in a way which people can understand.

Statistics – the tip of the iceberg

At the time of writing, there are just under 350,000 confirmed cases around the world, and 15,000 deaths. This places the mortality rate at around four percent. But this is a very unreliable statistic. We know that the majority of cases aren’t even tested. Some cases are so mild people don’t even know they have it. Some countries don’t even have an established testing regime.

Medical professionals estimate the number of cases are probably in the millions, which brings the actual mortality rate to under one percent. Take Germany for example, where the testing regime is rigorous. There are just over 26,000 cases reported, only 111 of which have died – just under half a percent.

How will this translate to Gibraltar? We’re a very unique case, with high population density and a friendly, social, tactile people. But by and large, people have been following medical advice. People aren’t shaking hands, kissing or hugging. When we interviewed the Public Health Director on 2nd March, his warning that children should be kept away from grandparents was met with derision. Things have moved on very quickly though. The message appears, for the large part, to have sunk in.

That said, we’ve heard the warnings from our politicians. We’re planning for the worst, while hoping and praying for the best.

The Curve

We’ve heard a lot about how important it is to stay ahead of ‘the curve’. This is the most critical aspect of managing the pandemic.

We’ve heard the Public Health director state repeatedly that nearly everyone in Gibraltar will get this virus. For the vast majority of people, symptoms will be mild and they won’t require hospitalisation. They can recover at home.

The main factor is how many get it at any one time.

We’ve seen and heard the horror stories in countries such as Italy where the health services have been overwhelmed. The virus is highly contagious and, with no containment measures, it afflicts a massive amount of people at a time, hospitals fill up. Medical professionals quickly become overwhelmed. They themselves begin to fall ill, leading to further stress on the medical services.

With containment measures however, the curve is smaller. It can be kept beneath that critical threshold, the ‘safe zone’ where the health services can cope.

What will Gibraltar look and feel like in the months to come?

This crisis will be a marker in our development as a people. The evacuation generation created a new Gibraltarian. Strong-willed, proud and stoic. The closed frontier years saw us turn in on ourselves, become self-sufficient and determined.

The Covid-19 pandemic is showing new sides to our national make-up. The community is rallying around the emergency services. Nearly 1000 people have now volunteered to help the Government, and individuals and organisations are setting up support services for the elderly who are confined at home. Everyone is finding ways to help in their own little way.

There is also an ugly side emerging. People flouting government advice, spreading unconfirmed rumours on social media sending others into panic, and buying excessively, leaving supermarket shelves empty, to the point that one supermarket has had to suspend its online delivery service.

At this time, the internet has, paradoxically, become both a crutch and a crux. In times of isolation, it’s been the only way for loved ones to keep in touch. Essential information is transmitted swiftly and efficiently into people’s devices (gbc.gi stats show a massive surge of user engagement), and streaming services are keeping them entertained. But it’s also making it difficult to switch off, and misinformation goes viral very quickly.

The stark reality of our current crisis is becoming the new normal. And it may be this way for some time.

Planning ahead has become impossible. We’re living this one day at a time.

This crisis will test our community to its full. We can only get through this if we all take responsibility. Caring for our loved ones in a way which seems hardest – staying away from them.

When it’s all over, we will have learnt lessons. Mourned for those we may have lost. But importantly, we will have learnt to appreciate everything we have ever taken for granted.