Gibraltar leaves pandemic behind with "Operation Freedom"

How about some good news on the pandemic front for a change? What if I told you there’s a place where almost nobody is wearing masks and virtually all of the businesses are fully open without restrictions? It’s also a place where there are barely any new cases of COVID and basically all of the residents over the age of 16 will be vaccinated in the next three weeks. That place is Gibraltar, the British territory bordering Spain at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s also home to a rather famous rock. Authorities there have announced the beginning of what they are calling “Operation Freedom,” designed to get their citizens back to the normal life they enjoyed before the COVID pandemic struck. It almost seems too good to be true. (Associated Press)

Maskless parents pick up smiling Cinderellas, Harry Potters and hedgehogs from schools that reopened after a two-month hiatus just in time for World Book Day’s costume display. Following weeks under lockdown, a soccer team resumes training at the stadium. Coffee shops and pubs have finally raised their blinds, eager to welcome locals and eyeing the return of tourists.

There’s an end-of-hibernation feeling in Gibraltar. The narrow British overseas territory stretching between Spain and the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea is emerging from a devastating virus surge. COVID-19 has killed 93 people, nearly all of them in January and February this year, and infected over 4,000 of its 33,000 residents.

But the compact, high-density geography that is blamed — together with new virus variants — for the surge of infections has also been key to Gibraltar’s successful vaccination campaign, with word-of-mouth facilitating the rollout.

There’s an understandable temptation to immediately ask how they managed this feat and see if we can’t duplicate it in America. Sadly, that’s not going to happen. (Sorry to throw cold water over the good news.)

The main reason for Gibraltar’s success is the fact that it’s so tiny, both in physical size and population. The country has a grand total of 33,000 residents. I’m not sure if the United States has any counties with fewer people than that. The Brits have been shipping generous numbers of vaccine doses to Gibraltar and there is almost no vaccine hesitancy among the population. Less than four percent of residents have refused the vaccine. They also have a non-resident workforce, primarily coming in from Spain each day, but those workers have all been getting vaccinated as well.

Gibraltar also isn’t a hub for international travel aside from tourists coming to visit. They will still be restricting access to their nation from the outside, requiring either a negative COVID test or an immunity passport to enter. But with so few points of entry and egress, that’s not that much of a challenge to manage. While not entirely finished with reopening preparations, they seem to be well on their way and the streets look mostly like they did in 2019.

Health Minister Samantha Sacramento told the Associated Press that people “have to go back to being a little bit more human, being able to breathe fresh air.” That’s what Operation Freedom is all about, though Sacramento added that it’s going to be freedom “with caution.”

So is there nothing that we can learn from Gibraltar in terms of how we get back to normal in the United States? I’m hard-pressed to identify anything that would be a real game-changer for America. Their word-of-mouth “whisper campaign” to reduce vaccine hesitancy seems to have been very effective, but once again, that’s a lot easier to do in such a tiny, densely populated place. Rolling out the vaccines is another apples-to-oranges comparison. They only needed roughly 100,000 doses to finish the job. We need closer to half a billion for most of the country to get two jabs. And we have so many people coming in and out of America every day that we’ll never be able to manage the level of control and testing that Gibraltar can enforce.

Still, I wanted to highlight this story for our readers today if for no other reason than to shine a light on a place where human beings are putting the pandemic behind them. Life in Gibraltar is almost back to pre-pandemic levels of normalcy. Our road will be longer and more difficult, but we have to get there too. We can’t go on like this indefinitely. We need an American version of Operation Freedom and we need it very soon.