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Tales from the Lockdown: The Plight of ‘Vulnerable’ Gibraltarians

Charles Gomez

Between the 17th of March and 29th of April 2020, citizens of Gibraltar who were born before 1950 were prohibited from going outside altogether.

Recommendations for isolation continue to this day.

The curtailment of freedom of movement of these fellow Gibraltarians was imposed by law, and I do not think that there is a precedent in the annals of our great City.

Indeed, the constitutionality of these restrictions is debated by some in the United Kingdom.

For those of us who were not directly affected, this particularly stringent aspect of the lockdown probably meant little more than something that we heard or read about in the news.

However, since the 29th of April, when those over 70 were finally allowed to leave their homes, I have made it a point of talking to absolutely every affected whose path I have crossed.

What struck me immediately was the expression of resignation in the form of eye rolls, but the stories that I have been able to gather have been harrowing.

I am not saying that there should not have been a lockdown – that is for the medical experts to justify – but, I can say from my own conversations that the effects on many of our elderly people have been awful.

Widows and widowers, or other people living alone, have had to endure the isolation in the bitterest of loneliness.

Several individuals told me that they had lived through terrible trials and tribulations affecting our community in the past, but none quite like this.

Some recalled the beginning of the evacuation in 1940, when thousands of Gibraltarians were packed into dirty troop ships and taken to Casablanca, where they were promptly imprisoned by the furious and potentially violent French garrison there.

Joe-Gingell-Between-the-Devil-and-the-Deep-Blue-Sea-Reach-Alcance-4

The French military, at that time, were spoiling for revenge against the British for the treacherous attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria, where thousands of French sailors were killed.

The Gibraltarian women and children were able to get away from this dangerous situation by sheer luck, only to have to brave the long journey half-way into the Atlantic and back into Northern Ireland, under constant threat of German ‘Wolfpack’ U-Boat torpedo attacks.

This was at a time when thousands of tonnes of British shipping were being indiscriminately sunk.

Many of those who I have spoken to in the last few weeks ended up no less than in London during the Blitz, i.e. packed into air raid shelters, under daily bombing and away from their fathers and husbands in Gibraltar.

Others recalled the cataclysmic explosion of the Bedenham ammunition ship, whilst carrying 500 tonnes of explosives, in 1951 when docked by what is now called Queensway Quay.

Bedenham Ship Explosion 1951 | Credit: The People of Gibraltar

Most drew comparisons also with the 13 years from 1969 to 1982, when Gibraltar was under siege…

None of them appear to have been exaggerating when they said that the lockdown, away from loved ones and in complete isolation, was worse than their previous experiences which I have just described.

Those generations of Gibraltarians are not given to hyperbole.

The human being is obviously better able to endure hardship, whether it be on a rust-bucket in dangerous French Casablanca or under a shower of Nazi bombs, so long as they are accompanied by others.

I have no doubt that many elderly Gibraltarians have suffered mental harm as a result of the lockdown.

Again, I am not saying that it was not necessary. I am just reporting what I have learned.

But it is not just mental damage that we are talking about; many have suffered physical deterioration from the lack of exercise and fresh air.

Some, including younger members of families, have reported how their elders have aged in the last few months.

One retired professional lady who suffers from severe arthritis and other serious illnesses, told me how she cried when she was told that ibuprofen was not a COVID19 risk after 2 months in which she had been advised not to take it and had had to deal with her pain as best she could.

One or two of the octogenarians that I met had refused to comply with the lockdown and were detained and cautioned by the police – some on numerous occasions.

All spoke highly about the professional conduct of the Royal Gibraltar Police, but expressed strong feelings of resentment and rebellion at their imposed isolation.

One gentleman, who, in his early teens had worked in London during the German bombing raids, said that the only reason he eventually relented and agreed to go home was because the police officer had asked him kindly to keep off the streets as “a favour” to him.

That is the measure of our older generations.

A small minority of those who I have spoken to expressed real fear about the COVID19 pandemic.

The official statements have clearly worked, but at least those who I saw gingerly venturing into town for the first time after several weeks, wearing masks and giving the impression that they thought that they had come out into a hostile world, had had the courage to face the so-called “new normal”.

Of course, government initiatives have been developed and put into place since April, such as the Golden Hour scheme, which allows the elderly to safely exercise at certain times of the day in areas exclusively cordoned off for them.

Gibraltar Golden Hour
First day of Golden Hour scheme in Gibraltar

But I am extremely worried that there are still hundreds of elderly and not-so-elderly but vulnerable people who have been traumatised by recent events and international doomsday media coverage and are still not willing to brave going outside.

These people have been feeding on a 24/7 diet of the most appalling, if contradictory, international media coverage, and may not be aware that the world outside, certainly in Gibraltar, is nothing like the horror stories that they have been told.

Their health is at risk.

This is happening despite the fact that everyone knows that a strong immune system requires exercise, fresh air and sunlight.

The Government of Gibraltar has been widely praised for making the very best of a bad situation.

@Fran Montes, Reach Alcance

The statistics so far indicate that Gibraltar’s response to the pandemic has been exemplary. As of today (16.06.2020), only 2 people have been recorded as being ‘active’ COVID19 cases – one Gibraltarian and one Spanish cross-frontier worker. Both are recovering at home.

The fact remains that, thankfully, there have been no deaths or serious illness because of COVID19.

But make no mistake, a lot of people have suffered tremendously at a time in their lives of their greatest vulnerability.

Last weekend, I ventured into Sotogrande and Puerto de la Duquesa, and I have to say that the impression that I got from my conversations on the other side of the frontier was that, if anything, the Spanish lockdown, necessary and successful as it has been, has also left a forlorn legacy…


Charles A Gomez is a Gibraltarian lawyer and political commentator

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