Funchal, Madeira - Photo: MARIUS DORIN BALATE/DREAMSTIME

Latest Covid restrictions on Madeira Island

Dear Editor,

Our little island of Madeira, which has been one of the easiest places to be throughout the pandemic so far, has just put in place a unique set of measures that start this Friday at midnight in earnest.

From November 27 to December 15, it will no longer be enough to be vaccinated: every person on the island (280,000 with tourists) is now meant to take a rapid antigen test at a pharmacy or street testing tent every seven days.

This is in recognition that despite the high vaccination rate, vaccinated people still spread the virus, and that vaccinated people with comorbidities are dying every day. It’s also intended to rapidly break existing transmission chains and bring down case numbers in time for the massive influx of Christmas-New Year’s tourists to be able to enjoy the island free of most restrictions.

While some of us can see the logic and the larger purpose, the general sentiment is of frustration and anger – not only from the unvaccinated, who will basically be excluded from all indoor activities, but also from the vaccinated who have been obediently acting in service of the collective good and are now being told there is something even more onerous that we must do.

I should note that the local population is highly obedient. Mask wearing compliance is at 100% and vaccination rates are some of the highest in the world. Booster shots are rolling out, and youths are vaccinated down to 12 years old. Madeira is a best-case scenario…much like Israel and Gibraltar and Malta.

And like these places, numbers are increasing as immunity wanes with time and as friends and families gather indoors and have largely returned to life as normal in indoor spaces.

With all mainstream tools being employed, it is now evident that this is not enough. A return to aggressive test-and-trace programmes looks to be the next layer of strategy, in combination with a ban on tourists without vaccination and an increasing squeeze on the freedoms of the unvaccinated to participate in society.

My hope is that a nasal vaccine will be released in 2022, which can allow our bodies to neutralize the virus in our mucous membranes, thereby ending transmission by vaccinated individuals. For now, this is the only path I see to ending this pandemic.

In the meantime, it continues to be disappointing that the public messaging is straight out of the lowest common denominator of the myopic field of Western medicine. Western medicine is focused on disease prevention and treatment but does not even carry the concept of optimal health and making lifestyle adjustments to strengthen the immune system and reduce comorbidities.

Where is the public messaging around lowering stress, increasing sleep, getting exercise, losing weight, and quitting smoking and drinking and processed foods? Where is the public messaging around getting sun or vitamin D supplementation? And where is the messaging about boosting the immune system through working on our mental health and learning optimism? These are all evidence-based approaches to increasing immune function, but they are not taught in medical school, so they de facto don’t exist.

Science and medicine have a long history of shutting down new ideas that don’t conform to the scientific groupthink at that moment in time (see: Galileo). And politicians will only give the podium to medical experts, not health experts, not wellness experts.

This failure of Western medicine to see the whole person has given rise to huge vaccine hesitancy on the part of wellness professionals as well as individuals who believe that we can support our natural immunity. The mainstream dialogue has excluded these voices and, therefore, disenfranchised these people, making them frustrated, angry, and distrusting of the pro-vaccine, “with-us-or-against-us” rhetoric.

It’s sad to me because I have met many of these vaccine-hesitant people who have contracted covid, suffered through it, and continue to suffer from long covid symptoms. And who are now experiencing their freedoms being stripped. I don’t judge them because I understand their perspective and their emotions. They are drawing from a different set of facts and, therefore, connecting dots to a different interpretation than people who haven’t been in the medical-sceptic camp for many years already.

Ultimately, we all make decisions based on emotion, and different perceptions lead to different emotions. And different facts lead to different perceptions. If governments weren’t so basic and conservative in their thinking processes (as all bureaucracies are), I believe we could develop a different kind of covid response and messaging that would be inclusive of more viewpoints and would build more trust and cooperation in populations around the world.

It’s deeply disappointing to see the lack of basic emotional intelligence in how governments have been handling things and it’s not surprising to me that an unintelligent approach that does not consider that humans are diverse in their values, perspectives and beliefs has resulted in disenfranchising those who exist outside of the mainstream in various ways.

The lack of curiosity of these non-mainstream perspectives is also disappointing, as is the response of “conform or pay the price”. A government cannot be “by the people and for the people” if it only considers “the people” to be a majority who ascribe to groupthink. This is a rudimentary form of governance that denies the full spectrum of what it means to be human.

It is my hope that societies will evolve to be more respectful, inclusive and responsive to the freethinking people across the spectrum of societies, that we will increasingly honour the myriad viewpoints that result from the freedoms that our societies are supposedly based upon, and will evolve kinder, more sophisticated, and more human approaches for all of us to exist together.

Andrew Gentile, Madeira