United we must stand

READERS will have noticed that there have been no ‘Roffey Writes’ since last December. That’s because at the time both the Guernsey Press and I thought the general election was only six months away and it seemed only fair to fellow candidates to give up my public platform for the duration.

Social distancing. (Picture by rawf8/Shutterstock)
Social distancing. (Picture by rawf8/Shutterstock)

Now it seems as if, due to extraordinary circumstances, democracy has been delayed. As a result I’m able to share my thoughts with the island again – at least for a while. I really wish it was otherwise.

To state the obvious, these are strange, troubling and slightly scary times. To quote The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, our watch word during this historic crisis, facing both Guernsey and the entire world, must be ‘don’t panic’.

I know that is easier said than done but calmness and rationality represent our best chances of minimising the damage which Covid-19 will inflict on our island. Almost uniquely to this crisis, the scope of that potential damage includes profound impacts on our community’s health, civil society and economy.

I’m not soft-soaping anyone. In all three of these areas the impact will be significant but if we respond well as a community it can be reduced. By contrast, panic, blame, scapegoating and selfishness could really make a grim situation much, much worse. We desperately need to pull together and to show the inherent strengths and basic decentness of our island community.

Why is this situation so unnerving? It is hard to explain. Most of us have gone through personal tragedy. At various times in my life I have been traumatised by the loss of my stepdaughter, my wife and my parents. I know most of you will have had very similar experiences. They are hateful and distressing events but deep down we know they are facets of ordinary life.

By contrast, huge, momentous crises, which make us feel like utterly impotent bystanders to unfolding tragedy, are both surreal and confusing. Not only do they make us fear for our own safety, and wonder how we can best protect ourselves and our loved ones, but such huge, global disasters also make us feel very small, helpless and insignificant.

I have twice before been overtaken by similar, yet very different, catastrophic world events. They both made me feel just like a tiny twig being carried along, twisted this way and that, by a very powerful stream. Once metaphorically and once quite literally.

The first was when I was unfortunate/foolish enough to get embroiled in Iran’s Islamic revolution by crossing the border from Afghanistan, driving a bus load of passengers, just hours before the country’s borders were closed. In the next few weeks I had my fill of fear, tank battles, powerlessness and thinking that, at age 20, my life could well be over before it had properly started.

The second was when I was critically injured in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, having been lifted off the beach where I was eating breakfast and carried away through the jungle petrified and desperately fighting for survival.

So is Covid-19 better or worse than those other two crises in my life? The only honest answers are ‘it’s too early to tell’ and ‘it depends’.

Unlike the Iranian Revolution no one is trying to kill anyone else. Indeed many thousands of people are heroically struggling to save lives and to minimise the threat to others. That has to be encouraging and inspire all of us to play our own part no matter how small.

Compared with the Boxing Day tsunami, the scale of loss of life so far is very small. On that occasion a quarter of a million people were wiped out almost in a heartbeat and I was witness to death on an industrial scale. The piles of corpses, including the bodies of friends and acquaintances, the mass graves and makeshift mortuaries, the overrun hospitals, and the visceral grief of so many helpless relatives, these things will live with me for ever.

By contrast Covid-19 has, at time of writing, claimed about 6% of the number of lives worldwide that the tsunami did and most (but not all) of these had access to good quality medical care and attention. And yet in some ways it is just as scary. Maybe more so.

Dreadful though the tsunami was, the terrible consequences were known in full almost at once. After the shock and confusion of that first week of turmoil those of us lucky enough to survive felt that things could only get better. The wave had done its worst and the rebuilding could begin.

By contrast Covid-19 is covert, invisible and not fully understood. We don’t yet know how bad it is going to get or exactly how best to combat it. And of all possible fears, the very worst can sometimes be fear of the unknown.

With this pandemic threat there is certainly much which is frighteningly unknown but equally there are some things which I definitely do know. Some of them I learned the hard way from the other disasters I have lived through and I want to pass them on.

. Communities cope best with trauma when they work together. Selfishness not only harms others but it also eventually rebounds on you. So be generous. Don’t blame or scapegoat anybody. It may be human nature, but it does no good at all. Stand united and supportive in the face of this adversity.

. Everybody in Guernsey is part of the island’s community and deserving of our support. I well remember that in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of that dreadful tsunami the locals were feeding frightened tourists before themselves despite food being short and the future so uncertain. I recall thinking that I hoped Guernsey would respond just as generously to strangers in a similar crisis. Please remember that any guest workers thrown out of work and trapped in Guernsey during this pandemic are part of our community and deserve our full support.

. Think about the most vulnerable. The old, the sick, and those without established support networks. If we take care of our weakest really well during this crisis then the whole community will be able to hold its head up and look itself in the mirror once it has passed.

. Support our key workers. This is not a war, despite the rhetoric, but if it were they would be the troops on the front line. They deserve our support 100%.

. Don’t pay too much notice to rumour – whether on the internet or the old-fashioned ‘Guernsey grapevine’. Some of it will be true but most of it will not and very little of it will be useful or well-motivated.

. Do, for goodness sake, listen to official advice. I know we live in an age of cynicism towards government and any form of authority, but very good people are working 24/7 to try to protect us from this threat. They are as well informed as anyone can be in this situation and following their advice will save lives. Maybe yours.

Where will this all end? Frankly I don’t know. Even trying to be positive, it is likely that some islanders will die of Covid-19. Maybe quite a few.

Equally certain is that our economy is going to be knocked into a cocked hat. Tourism, construction, retail, service industries, they are all going to be devastated.

We are going into this with a big rainy day fund. If people are going to be kept well-fed, housed, and clothed during an economic downturn, the like of which we have not seen in many decades, we are likely to come out of it with a national debt.

So be it. The Bailiwick was hardly in good shape 75 years ago at the end of the Occupation but my dad’s generation overcame those difficulties and we can do so again if we show the same resilience, sense of purpose and strength through unity that our forefathers did.

We simply must do that during the extremely challenging days which lie ahead. Never has the cliché been more true – ‘united we stand, divided we fall’. Stay safe.

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