David Leonard is a consultant and writer who lives in Toronto.
Every person I talk to in Barbados knows the numbers. They know the fines for a visitor skipping their mandatory COVID quarantine, they know the penalties if a restaurant breaks protocols, they know how long it takes between a traveller’s preflight negative test and the negative test here that frees them from quarantine. Most importantly, they know the historical case count on their island since the first documented case in March. As I write this, that number is 259, with 11 cases active and isolated. There have been seven deaths.
There’s an ease here, knowing that they have been doing well at containing COVID-19. Like Taiwan and other islands that have managed to curtail the reach of this plague, they’ve relied on co-operation and sacrifice from their citizens to keep everyone safe. It’s not that this is a place free of worry or people who are unaware or cavalier. It’s that the low level sense of anxiety about fluctuating case numbers, which has infected so many of us in Canada, isn’t here. They know the numbers, they know the risks, and both are comfortingly low.
There is still risk, and Barbados has approached it seriously and, so far, effectively. There are mandatory mask rules; no large gatherings; limited service and distancing at restaurants; and sanitizer stations, temperature checks and contact tracing at entrances. It’s consistent, it’s not politicized and people are following the rules. In the heart of Bridgetown, and in the smallest towns, mask signs are on every door, and everyone is wearing one. They see it as a small sacrifice to make to keep businesses open, and to allow the tourists to keep landing. The fear of COVID-19 is still here, but it has manifested as precaution.
This leads to a feeling that I’m safe here, and it it is safe for Bajans for me to be here. After months of deliberation, I decided to spend November working from Barbados instead of Toronto. In a pandemic reality where my work is all on a laptop and phone, that laptop and phone can be anywhere. I’ve been careful to live a quiet, pandemic-aware life over the past nine months, and I’m not a careless traveller. Before committing to this trip, I read obsessively about airplane air filtration. I spent months reading local Barbados newspapers online, looking at comment sections and refreshing the country’s health information pages. I asked my family in Barbados for their perspective. Was it safe for me to come? Did the people want tourists here? Was it the right thing to do?
Making decisions is complicated during these strange and disarming times, and the anxiety that weighs on us during this pandemic is not to be dismissed. I consistently hear from people in Canada that they are slower and less able to deal with complexity, that the loss of routine caused by an uncertain future and unknown timelines is stifling them, that the pain they feel from losing a loved one or from knowing that others have is a daily distress. Anyone who has dealt with grief and trauma will recognize these common signs. It’s important to recognize that these are traumatic times. We need to look for ways to soften our edges and to put our attention to things we can trust.
Barbados acted quickly after their first case with a series of progressive restrictions, from public closings to nighttime curfews to a full month of a 24-hour lockdown with residents only able to leave home for medical trips and essentials at small, local stores. They’re also thoroughly testing and isolating everyone who enters the country, so any case they find is isolated in a monitored quarantine. These things are easier on an island, of course, because you can limit those arrivals and the risk, and in a country the size of Canada, this is an obvious challenge. Until PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador left it earlier this week, we had our much vaunted Atlantic bubble, which operated under some of the same principles. But newly enhanced restrictions in Halifax owing to a rise in cases and the recent suspected community spread in Arviat, Nunavut, have suggested that without the extensive testing that’s happening here, any bubble will be fragile.
My COVID anxiety is lessened here by knowing that the Barbados response is driven by the best available health data, and not by political agendas. Their information is clear and centralized, and people are paying attention to updates as they come out on social media. Prime Minister Mia Mottley and her health team are setting the agenda, and they have a unified response. At the community level, people understand that their role as citizens is to work together to protect their elderly population, to take precautions to reduce risk, and to keep their country safe and solvent. They haven’t chosen short-term economic reopening instead of strict health measures. With strong government support of business, and an engaged population, Barbados has found a way to do both at the same time. They’re really all in this together.
Ms. Mottley said that staying ahead of COVID required “each and every one of us playing our part,” and the people of Barbados have chosen to put their trust in each other. It shows. People are diligent, careful and community-minded, and they’re rewarded with having less to be anxious about. I feel it too, and it’s a welcome change.
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