During the hieght of the pandemic Ed and his young family relocated from London to Cabo Verde where he now lives and works as a corporate nomad. He's currently CEO of STEM education charity FIRST UK | Founder coworkspace network GoHub | Founder Work anywhere disruptor GoRemote | Author @ Travel Blog morabeza.me | Dad
How a tiny developing nation met COVID-19 face on
In summer 2020, telling friends and family about our impending move from London to Boa Vista to work remotely – the reaction was mixed. “Where’s that?”, “Why?”, “How long for?”, “When will we see the grandkids?”, “Wow”, “You’re nuts”.
But the most common response by far was “what about COVID?” – often accompanied with a look of genuine concern, bordering on alarm.
“That’s exactly why we are going” we’d respond. With two young boys (then aged 2 and 4) the prospect of multiple lockdowns, disruption to schooling and what we perceived would be enduring fallout from a global pandemic likely to get worse before it got better – we took the long view and decided to relocate. Over many late nights we revisited excitedly conversations about affecting positive life changes. These gravitated towards foreign lands, near to water, in a climate which would expose the boys to different cultures, food, language and experiences.
When a lockdown means lockdown
When we left the UK in October 2020 Cabo Verde was officially closed to non-residents – we had no idea if we would be turned back at the border. Airlines and governments were grappling with constantly changing guidance and convoluted rules. We moved through deserted airports brandishing PCR tests, flying on empty planes sporting face masks. When we entered Cabo Verde, the country was in an official ‘state of calamity’ – with strict adherence to mask wearing in public, nighttime quarantine and social gatherings banned. The country had just emerged from a four-month national lockdown where people could only leave the house for essential groceries and to exercise within 100m of their property. This was enforced by the army who were deployed to each island in support of the Police. Roadblocks and prison cells awaited those who tried to flout the rules. It may sound draconian – but it was essential.
Cabo Verde is a developing nation heavily reliant on tourism accounting in 2019 for over 28% of GDP. The population is around 550,000 – with almost twice as many Cabo Verdeans living outside of the country, mainly in the USA and Portugal. In 2020, remittances from Cabo Verdean diaspora accounted for a further 15% of the nation’s income. When COVID-19 struck tourism was decimated. Remittances stopped. Cabo Verdeans working in tourism returned to their home islands and families to survive. The island we live on (Boa Vista) saw its population drop from c16,000 to under 8,000 (plus 4) as a result.
Cabo Verde’s fragile infrastructure and limited health system would be crippled if COVID was allowed to take hold. Whilst each island has primary care facilities – for any major procedures, operations, trauma, and intensive care – islanders are evacuated by plane or boat to one of the country’s two major hospitals in Mindelo and Praia.
“Ventilators, and the expertise to manage them were unheard of on 7 of the 9 islands when COVID struck.”
Hence Cabo Verde had to act and act fast. When the first documented case of COVID-19 was detected in a tourist on Boa Vista on 20th March – the island was immediately shutdown. The national border was closed, workers in hotels were quarantined in situ unable to leave their hotel rooms for weeks – whilst the rest of the nation was locked down.
Data from John Hopkin’s University would suggest that Cabo Verde’s efforts to contain the outbreak were more successful than many. To date it has reported 351 deaths – a rate of 624 per million population, compared to over 2,000 pm in the UK, and 2,400 pm in the USA. A total of 35,000 cases have been recorded, peaking at just over 300 daily cases in April 2021. Clearly this number is likely to have been significantly higher given the relative lack of testing available during the early stages of the outbreak, coupled with a reluctance particularly amongst poorer Cabo Verdeans to risk being quarantined because of a positive test and thus be unable to work. Whilst the government provided access to a generous furlough scheme comparable to that of the northern hemisphere (with 70% of wages being covered by employer and state) – many Cabo Verdeans work without employment contracts or national insurance stamps.
The country emerged from a state of calamity in 2021 and has since relaxed its stricter protocols – however mask-wearing in public spaces remains commonplace. Hand sanitiser and temperatures are taken before entering any state-owned building or bank. Inter-island travel demands COVID testing and health declarations. Disinfectant of people and baggage at ports and airports is the norm. Movement between islands experiencing community transmission is subject to restriction. Venues can insist on vaccination status on entry.
“Ongoing adherence to these simple measures has paid dividend not simply with statistics but with quality of life.
As parents around the world became qualified teachers overnight, our children’s education has only been interrupted once for 5 days in 14 months – the result of a fully vaccinated staff member testing positive. As all of Europe experienced repeated lockdowns, restrictions on movements and ongoing disruption – here in Cabo Verde we have enjoyed significantly more normality and liberty. Of course, this is helped by a year-round temperate climate and outdoor lifestyle which must lend itself to reduced viral transmission.
Cabo Verde was one of the first African nations to benefit from the rollout of the COVAX initiative – receiving its first doses of the Astra Zeneca vaccine in March 2021. It has since rolled out a comprehensive nationwide vaccination programme which has seen over 45% of the country fully vaccinated, 54% receiving at least one dose, and all vulnerable, critical workers protected. The country was also strategic in its deployment of limited vaccine doses – ensuring that tourism workers were placed on the critical list so that island economies reliant on the industry could reopen with confidence.
Having contracted COVID-19 in May 2021 we were advised to wait six months until obtaining our vaccines – and allow those more vulnerable to be first in line. Yesterday we contacted the health authority on Boa Vista to book our first dose. Today we attended an appointment at the local sports stadium at 0900. At 0910 with an efficiency which might rival that of many developed nations – we received our first Moderna jab. By 0915 our details had been instantly uploaded to the national online database recognised by the EU. No queue. No fuss. Or as Cabo Verdeans might say ‘no stress’.
For sure every country has their own idiosyncrasies and Cabo Verde is no different. But when it comes to COVID-19 I’d say they’ve excelled themselves against a backdrop of challenges which frankly are far more significant than many western world problems.
“Perhaps the luxury of politicising a pandemic diminishes when your very survival as a nation hinge on your response.