OK, so this is a super-quick and very personal round-up of how the island where we live (Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands) is dealing with the, er, C word. I’m sorry that I have not tried to deal with the devastating effect of this virus on individuals here, or how scary this time is. I simply lack the talent to tackle those topics in a way that remotely does them justice, so I won’t try.
The first thing to say is that so far, there have only been three confirmed cases of coronavirus in the British Virgin Islands (“BVI”). The other key context is that the BVI is a group of islands in the Caribbean, with a population of around 35,000 people. It is a British Overseas Territory and has an elected government led by the Premier, Andrew Fahie. It also has a Governor, Gus Jaspert, who is Her Majesty’s representative in the territory.
COVID arrives on the island
In mid-March, there had been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in the British Virgin Islands, but we knew that some people were being tested. The schools were shut and the borders closed to non-residents.
On 22 March, the Premier announced on the radio that the borders would slam further shut that night, even to Belongers (‘Belonger’ is, incredibly, an official term approximately equivalent to ‘citizen’).
Around that time, we were debating whether to go food shopping. We had been social distancing for a few days, and did not want to make an unnecessary trip to the supermarket. On the other hand, I was a bit uneasy about the level of our supplies. We are the kind of people who often have nothing in our fridge but condiments and half drunk bottles of white wine. Which is fine for a Saturday at home, but less fine to see you through a global pandemic.
Late morning on Wednesday 25 March, we heard two rumours via whatsapp that made the decision easy that we must hurry up and go shopping like proper grown-ups. Rumour 1: an (asymptomatic) individual had tested positive for the virus. Rumour 2: the government was having some sort of emergency meeting. A public announcement was clearly on the cards.
We dashed to a supermarket in the town. The shop was not particularly busy and we bought about a week’s worth of food including a lot of fresh produce. We had just beaten the rush. Shortly after we got back to the house, we heard reports that the largest supermarket on the island had gone bonkers and was considering closing its doors to stem the flow of anxious costumers. At 2pm, the Premier and the Governor announced what we were expecting: that there confirmed cases of coronavirus in the territory, and that more announcements would follow. The good news was that only two people were confirmed as having the virus.
Later that same Wednesday evening (25 March), the government announced a curfew would begin at 6pm the following Friday, lasting until Thursday 2 April (about 5 days). This was to be a full curfew. We would not be allowed to leave our homes at all during daytime or night-time: all grocery shops and pharmacies would be closed, and there was no allowance for daily exercise outside your house or yard. Food delivery by supermarkets or farmers would not be allowed.
Most BVI residents have experienced curfews before: nightly curfews were put in place in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in 2017, and even as recently as last year a very short curfew had been imposed as Hurricane Dorian passed by. So we were not that surprised at the imposition of a curfew, rather than a common or garden ‘lockdown’. There were probably a few sharp intakes of breath at the extent of the curfew (i.e. the closures of pharmacies and grocery stores), but the measure felt less shocking than you might imagine.
Characteristically for me, my final trip before curfew began was to get Indian takeaway from our excellent local curry house on the Friday night. They staff had set up a collection point outside the restaurant, and I felt weirdly emotional picking up our curries and knowing that the restaurant would close for business for about a week. So yeah, the girl who didn’t cry at her own wedding was nearly brought to tears at the prospect of her curry house closing for 5 days.
By Saturday 28 March 2020, we were settled in at home, and the Premier was exhorting the nation to reflect on Psalm 91. We were fairly well stocked, although slightly stymied by the fact that our oven has just packed up. Incidentally, the word curfew derives from Old French ‘cuevrefeu’ (“cover fire’), from the days when a bell would be rung to tell everyone to extinguish their hearths at night. Ironic really, given that we are basically cooking all our meals on an open flame (well, barbeque) during this curfew period.
During that initial five-day curfew, the government announced that there had been another confirmed case. A further curfew period was announced, this time for until 20 April (effectively a further 18 days). The Premier asked us all to make sure we had enough food to last because we would have to stay in our houses (or yards) for two weeks.
To get ready for our fresh period of confinement, on 2, 3 and 4 April one person per household was allowed out to go shopping. The days were split up by surname, so as someone whose surname begins with ‘P’, I went out on 3 April.
I won’t go into detail about those shopping days. Suffice to say, the maths of 30,000 or so people trying to stock up for over two weeks does not work very well if they all try to go to the same bloody supermarket in a 12-hour period. Nevertheless, we got through those three days, and in the following two weeks of curfew some excellent charities partnered with private businesses to get food to people who had not managed to buy enough food and water.
And so here we are. As we speak, we are still under a round-the-clock curfew. A couple of weeks into swingeing curfew measures, we no confirmed person-to-person transmission on the island and no deaths. It seems that coronavirus has been stopped, or at least slowed down. I’m scared to type those words. It feels like the spectre of what could happen in the next few months is reading over my shoulder.
Another small piece of positive news is that the Governor, His Excellency Governor Augustus Jaspert, lived up to the ‘excellent’ bit in his title by negotiating the release of PPE that had been seized by the USA on the way to the BVI.
A comment piece in Forbes has theorised that women, with all our empathy etc. etc. have proved to be the best leaders during this crisis. Yet our Governor, and the Premier (both men) appear to be making a decent fist of it so far. That’s not to say it’s all peachie here. BVI faces the same challenges as other countries around the world, from how to protect our freedoms to how to feed the populace. These are huge and heart breaking problems, and I have no wisdom at all on them, so I will not elaborate further.
And what next? Yesterday the government announced that this coming Sunday, the round-the-clock curfew will be eased so that people can access certain businesses (including grocery stores, and restaurants for takeaways) during the day. A curfew will be place from 7pm until 6am daily. The list of businesses focussed largely on food and essential supplies, and so until it is expanded to include electricians we will not be able to get our oven fixed. Social gatherings are not permitted at all, although importantly for the many pious Christian island residents, faith gatherings of under 20 people are fine. A late amendment and somewhat surprising amendment to the list of essential businesses included hair salons and barbers.
The British Virgin Islands’ borders will remain closed until at least 1 June 2020. That said, with a sea border fringed by jetties and marinas, and US soil (i.e. the US Virgin Islands) so close, there are inevitably difficulties in keeping the border truly shut. We are therefore not allowed out on boats (or to the beach) but I’m not expecting anyone to get out the tiny violins for us on that front.
To prevent a mad rush in the first days of shop re-openings, for the first 4 days after the strict curfew, access to shops in Road Town (which is where the two main supermarkets are) will be restricted by district. Of course given the nomenclature, the urge to send Hunger Games gifs to each other is almost irresistable. Tim and I belong to classy District 2, so will be allowed out early in the week.
In the interests of limiting errands to that which is essential, our plan is to hold off from grocery shopping during the first 4 days of (comparative) freedom and miss the rush. However, I do think we will make a trip out to collect takeaways to boost the rather sad contents of our freezer. Where to I hear you ask? Why, to the curry house, of course.
Quirks of BVI quarantine
- Water stations: in many BVI homes, the tap water is not safe to drink. So ‘provisioning’ includes making sure you have enough water to drink for curfew periods. In my case this meant driving around a find a water station to fill up enough gallon bottles of water to last for two weeks.
- News: the main method used by the government during the crisis to release news is Facebook live. This usually happens without warning, so people who spot it will immediately text friends and colleagues to tell them to tune in for the speech. Which brings us on to…
- The rumour mill: everyone knows someone who ‘knows people in government’. In a close knit society tidbits of gossip spread like wildfire.
Things that are exactly the same as the UK
- Quizzes, endless zoom quizzes.
- Everyone is watching or has watched the Tiger King.
- Memes as a coping mechanism.
- “Stay safe” as an e-mail sign-off.
- People trying to find positives in all this mess. For example: a local pastor has commented that an unexpected positive about the virus is that it has “sidelined all the side chicks“. However it remains to be seen whether this period will signal a return to traditional family values.
Statistics from the Lauren and Tim household
About 19 days into curfew, these are the stats from our household:
- Craft activities completed by me = 0.
- Books read by me = 0. Currently about 120 pages into the Mirror and the Light, which is like, 0.1% of the way through.
- Loaves baked = 0. Our oven is broken and we don’t have the ingredients.
- Bottles of wine drunk: = only about 7.5 between 2 people [polishes halo].
- Unwelcome guests = 2 snakes, 1 tarantula, too many mosquitos to count.
Well that’s my update. I’d love to hear how you are getting on in your countries.
UPDATE: even as I have finalised this little blog for publication, the news has got out that a BVI resident has just been hospitalised and is being tested for coronavirus. The results are expected within the next 48 hours. I bloody KNEW I should not tempt fate by writing about the lack of transmission on the island…