Change your life to save a life

Avoiding far worse restrictions to contain the spread of coronavirus depends on islanders playing their part. Most will willingly do so, says Richard Digard – if government stops the divisive panic buying...

Left to right: Chief minister Gavin St Pier, director of public health Dr Nicola Brink, chief executive Paul Whitfield and chief operating officer Jason Moriarty explaining the new travel restrictions at a press conference at Beau Sejour on Tuesday. (Picture by Sophie Rabey, 27518933)
Left to right: Chief minister Gavin St Pier, director of public health Dr Nicola Brink, chief executive Paul Whitfield and chief operating officer Jason Moriarty explaining the new travel restrictions at a press conference at Beau Sejour on Tuesday. (Picture by Sophie Rabey, 27518933)

HOW much are you prepared to modify your normal life in order to, well, hang on to it?

Or if not your own existence, that of those around you? Family and friends, perhaps? Even those strangers sitting opposite on the bus or queuing for a packet of pork scratchings and a pint of Monty’s?

I ask because a friend of ours is currently on lockdown in a small Spanish town on the Andalusian coast unable to leave the house unless it’s to buy food, medical supplies or other defined essentials.

This, by the way, isn’t voluntary. The army, all branches of the police plus private security firms, whose staff have been commandeered by government, are rigorously enforcing these restrictions.

That’s to the point of demanding receipts to prove you’ve actually been buying essentials – fines of up to 600,000 euros (no, not a typo) can be imposed if not. That’s why a young lad who thought it would be fun to jog along Malaga seafront was confronted by six – yes, six – patrol cars and hauled off.

Spain, you see, is facing a catastrophic spread of the coronavirus. Having been slow to react to the outbreak in Madrid, it compounded that error by announcing 24 hours before the event that it would be restricting access to and from the city.

That triggered kilometres-long traffic jams as Madrilenians fled lockdown – and many of them headed to the Costa del Sol, where our friend lives and other islanders have homes. So cases of the disease are now exploding and the authorities have closed beaches, cafes and bars in the world’s No. 2 tourist destination to try to regain control. Shutting all airports has not been ruled out.

Switch to Bergamo, the most infected province in Italy, and an entire generation of residents are losing their lives because the hospitals are overwhelmed. To the point where patients are being treated by doctors, nurses and health care workers who themselves have tested positive for the virus.

I mention this not to alarm folk but to emphasise the significance of containment measures – the best defence against this previously unknown epidemic is not to catch it. Forget herd immunity or vaccination. Time is needed to prove whether either even exist.

Meanwhile, although Covid-19 is in the island, there is just one confirmed case and everything that the authorities have done to date is aimed at keeping it that way.

The decision effectively to close the island’s border – arriving here means a 14-day self-isolation period – was necessary because some people weren’t following advice. Not being good neighbours, if you will, and one young man actually argued with chief minister Gavin St Pier that since he was only coming in for a few days at a time restrictions shouldn’t apply to him.

It’s not often that government deserves our wholehearted and unequivocal admiration.

This is one of those times. Those leading the response have acted in a timely and proportionate manner based on scientific advice and what’s in the best interests of the island. They have also – to date at least – taken islanders with them.

To come back to my opening question, how well the island’s containment strategy works is going to be up to us all. Look at it the other way around, and the authorities have given us a lot of assistance in doing our bit through self-isolation and social distancing.

By that I mean the effective cordon sanitaire appears to be working so, with care, we can continue living with a degree of normality. And businesses have been offered a package of measures for the areas where we cannot.

Spain, which bungled its initial response, fears it could be looking at a death toll of 86,000. Modelling in the UK suggests 20,000 deaths would be a good result but, uncontrolled, that could explode to 260,000.

Pro rata that to Guernsey’s scale and that makes a difference between a theoretical 20 virus deaths here – or 260. Since around 550 islanders die every year from other causes, the significance and consequent impact on health facilities is obvious.

While the measures taken so far have made it easier for us to maintain a degree of normality, what’s missing so far is government, as opposed to industry, assurances on essential supplies being maintained and available.

By that, I mean islanders have to have confidence that what they need, even if just the basics, will be there when they or those helping them require it.

Anything less will mean more panic buying. There’s already a lot of that around, and islanders making unnecessary and multiple journeys to source food and, yes, toilet paper. Unchecked, it will be exceptionally divisive, giving those with money and easy access to shops a significant advantage.

In particular, those reliant on weekly incomes have to be assured that food and medicines are available – and affordable – come pension or pay day, and they will not be left looking at empty shelves because more-fortunate others have got there first.

I’m surprised the supermarkets haven’t been more robust on this already – an assistant at one major outlet said last Sunday was ‘worse than Christmas Eve’ – so government has to be prepared to step in at short notice, as it has elsewhere, to control those who refuse to respect fellow islanders.

As I asked at the start, how much are you prepared to modify your life in order to hang on to it?

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