In small places, everything is amplified. The highs are higher, the lows lower. Three months ago, I was living in the country with the world’s highest COVID rate. Today I’m in the safest place on Earth—and my home hasn’t moved an inch. Yet on a deeply personal level, the return to normality feels more than a little disturbing.
Countries don’t get much smaller than Gibraltar. The tiny Mediterranean peninsula of 2.3 square miles surpasses only the Vatican and Monaco in size. Technically it’s not even a country, but rather a British “overseas territory,” albeit a proud one.
I relocated here with my family in 2019. We soon found out that the last thing we would ever need was a car. Walking to my office takes 8 minutes; 10 to my son’s school; 12 to the hospital; 20 to the airport. There’s one single main street aptly named Main Street. And yes, that guy we sometimes meet in the supermarket is indeed the chief minister.
Our daily life is closely tied to neighboring Spain. Each day, about 15,000 Spanish workers cross the border to Gibraltar, where well-paid jobs are abundant but affordable housing scarce. Watching the first COVID wave roll over Spain in March 2020, we knew it was only a matter of time before it struck us too.
When it happened, the government was ready and handled things better than most, right until the end of the year. A strict spring lockdown was followed by a relaxed summer and reasonably controlled autumn. Anyone who sneezed was ushered to a COVID swab, resulting in the highest number of tests per capita in the world. Infections were kept at bay, casualties remained in single digits. Watching how badly Europe and United States got hit, we felt blessed. We felt safe.
Everything changed just before Christmas. As the holiday season approached, COVID cases gradually increased to the point when I didn’t want to send my son to school anymore. The government, however, didn’t dare to deprive businesses of the most lucrative sales period in what has already been a tough year. Restaurants were restricted, but shops stayed open and locals flowed en masse over the border to Spain for food.
The winter was a crash course in exponential growth. Gibraltar went from 60 active infections in mid-December to more than 1,200 just three weeks later. Hospitalizations and deaths soon followed. During the whole of 2020, Gibraltar lost only 7 people to COVID-19. The score for January alone was 71.
These numbers may seem negligible on a global scale, but keep in mind that our pocket-size territory has less than 35,000 inhabitants. Fear became palpable. Boneheads who mocked masks and distancing on social media suddenly fell quiet. As the number of admissions into St. Bernard’s Hospital increased, many among us wondered what would happen when Gibraltar ran out of staff and ICU capacity, as neither Spain nor the U.K. had contingencies to spare. A tough lockdown eventually brought the situation under control, but the damage had already been done. Gibraltar’s per capita death toll soared to the very top of the global ranking, where it remained until the last week of April.
Just as the infections avalanche culminated in mid-January, the first shipment of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines arrived from Britain. Then soon came another, and another.
Authorities didn’t leave anything to chance this time. The registration was simple and inoculations moved at a blistering pace. By the end of March, about 85 percent of the adult population had received both jabs, well over the strictest thresholds of herd immunity. Several thousand cross-border workers from Spain got vaccinated, too. (This is why Gibraltar confusingly has a 106.7 percent vaccination rate.) With the arguable exception of the even smaller Vatican City, Gibraltar became and to this day still remains the only fully vaccinated country in the world.
We feel blessed and safe. Some of us also feel a bit strange, though. The rest of the world scrambles to get every available dose of the vaccine. My septuagenarian mother back in Czech Republic is still waiting for her second round. Why did we of all people enjoy the luxury of enough jabs to protect even nonresidents? More importantly, does my vaccine mean that someone else who needed it more died unnecessarily?
Perhaps this is too harsh. I didn’t twist the arm of some guy in Soweto to give up his jab. My 9-year-old son deserves a healthy, living dad just as much as kids in the favelas of Manaus. I did nothing wrong.
Yet here it is, a slightly chilling sensation that my luck is someone else’s death sentence. A single COVID vaccine can easily be the difference between life and death. Many of the most vulnerable people in most parts of the world are still desperately waiting to be protected, while my current homeland somehow had enough to vaccinate all the thirtysomething yuppies from gambling companies, shouting their boozy odes to Friday night under my terrace as I write this text.
Our city-state now looks almost as if the pandemic was just a bad dream. Nonessential shops have been opened since mid-February, followed by schools one week later and finally restaurants and bars at the beginning of March. The bars here are packed again. Facial coverings are still required indoors, but not anymore on the streets. Spectators are allowed to attend sport events, albeit in limited numbers.
After two months of more or less unrestricted life, one thing is clear: Vaccines do work. There have been no active cases among Gibraltarian residents for three weeks now. The COVID ward of St. Bernard’s Hospital has seen two hospitalizations and zero deaths since March 14. If anyone still needs convincing that vaccination is worth it, they won’t find a better case study than “Gib.” Forget about the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s about leaving the tunnel far behind.
Despite overwhelming optimism, it would be wise to remember Bob Dylan’s “the first one now will later be last.” Whatever the limits of vaccine protection, chances are we’ll know it first, as several factors make Gibraltar the ultimate COVID challenge: constant influx of workers from Spain and travelers from Britain, extraordinary density of population, and also growing complacency. If the virus finds a way to overcome current vaccines, Gibraltar is the perfect battlefield.
Perhaps that’s what this tiny city under the Rock is meant to be—mankind’s canary in the mine, a sentry destined to weather the first attack. Perhaps that will be our redemption.
In small places, the highs tend to be higher, the lows lower. Life in Gibraltar seems pretty ordinary these days. In my books, that’s as high as it gets.