When will this pandemic end? The effects of Lockdown 2.0 and Operation Freedom

Jonathan Sacramento – Monday 1st February

For many people, a second lockdown was almost too much to bear. The first lockdown back in March was accepted with a degree of calm, stoicism, and community spirit.

The nightly applause for health and emergency workers brought a sense of purpose and enthusiasm to residential areas, even though hospitals were empty and there were relatively few serious cases to deal with. This was extended to patio concerts, online musical performances, buglers and pipers at sunsets and zoom parties.

The community was on a high at what appeared – at the time – to be the darkest moment.

The Lockdown 2.0 experience has been somewhat different.

The news has been far bleaker. Deaths reported practically every day. The virus has run rampant among ERS homes, Covid wards have been full to capacity, and the stratospheric numbers of active cases (1317 on 8th January) made the 9th April peak of 63 (at the height of the first lockdown) seem like a minor outbreak.

So where is the applause now, at a time when it is most needed, when doctors and nurses are facing their hardest moments and ERS carers cry into their masks at the end of every shift?

The answer won’t come as a surprise. The fatigue of a year of uncertainty has taken its toll. A rather interesting opinion piece in the Gibraltar Chronicle by student Carmen Anderson suggests lockdown has lost its novelty, and the appeal of home yoga lessons, learning a new language, and reaching out to loved ones via video chat has worn off.

Even the announcement of a de-escalation of measures at a press conference last Friday was somewhat subdued, with a weary and battle-scarred Chief Minister confessing the weight of 77 deaths had taken the gloss off what would have otherwise been good news to impart.

Every household has its own story of despondency

The Gibraltarian who can’t afford to purchase a house in Gibraltar and rents in La Linea, and is worried about crossing the border.

The parents who don’t have enough hours in the day to juggle home schooling and working from home.

The shop attendant who has been surviving on BEAT payments, finding it hard to make ends meet.

The café owner worried about his business.

The mother of a child with autism, who is suffering at the absence of stimulus.

The person who lives alone in a tiny one-bedroom flat, is suffering from cabin fever, and hasn’t had human contact for weeks.

The fiancés who have lost deposits on their wedding and haven’t even been able to see each other.

And all these problems seem trivial compared to the pain and suffering of those who have lost loved ones, and haven’t even been able to say goodbye at their bedside. But they’re not. All the suffering is real.

So when will it all go away?

But here is the good news. The pandemic will end. All pandemics do. History tells us that.

It won’t end with a bang of course. There will be no single day when humans emerge from the homes, wipe the crust from their eyes, breath the fresh air and say ‘it’s all over’. It will all just sort of fizzle out.

This will happen when the virus can no longer find enough healthy hosts to infect. If this is because the virus has already spread around the globe, the death toll will be catastrophic. And that is why all hopes are pinned on the global distribution of the vaccine in order to generate enough of a herd immunity to halt it in its tracks.

In order to understand the spread of the virus, researchers have re-opened the history books to analyse the 1918 Flu Pandemic (we can’t call it the Spanish flu ok? It’s just as unfair as calling it ‘the UK variant’ just because it was discovered there).

There are many aspects of that pandemic which will instantly seem familiar. Social distancing, isolation, mask wearing, an emphasis on the use of media to distribute public health advice on frequent hand washing and quarantining, the deadly second wave just when everyone thought things were getting better. There were even the doubters and conspiracy theorists back then too.

That pandemic fizzled out after two years or so, and it became a seasonal flu strain.

But there were differences too. The 1918 pandemic was an influenza strain affected by seasonal ebbs. A coronavirus is a different virus, and this one has been unrestrained by the heat of summer.

On the plus side, medical science and resources are a far cry from what the world inherited from the devastating effects of the First World War. Even though we knew next to nothing about this virus when it emerged in December, we’ve managed to produce and commence distribution of vaccines within a year.

Thankfully too, public health departments have a huge arsenal of hyperconnectivity to spread essential information. Something that did not exist in the early 20th Century

And – so far – the global death toll of over two million does not even begin to approach the fifty million toll of 1918.

When (not if) we do emerge from this pandemic, lessons will have been learnt about the way we live our lives. In the same way as we looked back at 1918 for a model on how to deal with this pandemic, we will have a template in place for future ones.

One final thought

We’ve learnt in the last month that, in Gibraltar we do not live in a bubble. The tragic loss of life (78 at time of writing) is something many never believed would happen.

The heartbreak will never mend, but as the Chief Minister said in his press conference on Friday, there will be a time to mourn.

In the meantime, we look to hope, and to counting our blessings. We’ve received an extraordinary supply of vaccines, a recognition by the UK of our dire need as numbers skyrocketed. The vaccination programme has been swift, efficient and well-organised. The GHA was prepared for this since December, and it hit the ground running.

Living for the day has taken on a new meaning. The gods of fate laugh when humans make plans for the future.

So in the words of Muhammad Ali, “don’t count the days, make the days count”.