A tiny British territory on the southern tip of Spain may now be the most protected place on Earth, with all but a sliver of the population vaccinated against COVID-19.
Why it matters: Gibraltar offers the rest of Europe a glimpse of what life might soon be like, if supply shortfalls and vaccine hesitancy can be overcome.
The backstory: With its 34,000 residents densely populated in the shadow of the Rock of Gibraltar, the territory imposed a strict lockdown last spring, knowing that any outbreak could sweep quickly through the population.
- It worked for a time. Then came a brutal winter. In January alone, the death toll climbed from 7 to 78. It's now at 94, on par with the highest per capita rates in Europe.
- "When we were at our worst place, the vaccines arrived, and that was the beginning of getting us to a good place," Health Minister Samantha Sacramento tells Axios.
- Gibraltar has now gone two weeks without recording a case and nearly a month without a death. The coronavirus ward at St. Bernard's Hospital is empty.
How it happened: Health authorities set a goal of vaccinating 70% of the population, but worried they might not reach it due to supply limitations or skepticism in the population.
- The campaign soon outpaced every other country or territory on Earth, with the British government sending a steady supply of Pfizer/BioNTech doses and a remarkable 98% of people over 60 electing to be vaccinated.
- By mid-March, every local resident over 16 had been offered a shot, as had all 14,000 cross-border workers who live in Spain. 85% of those eligible have already been vaccinated, and that's ticking upward as people who had been hesitant change their minds.
The state of play: Restaurants have fully opened, a curfew has been lifted, and mask mandates have been lifted outdoors and relaxed indoors. Few restrictions remain, except on international travel.
- Vaccinated fans were recently allowed to attend a boxing match (indoors) and a soccer game (outdoors). They were tested after 10 days to ensure no cases emerged.
"Everything feels as normal as I think we're going to get," Sacramento says. "It's a new normal. In terms of partying and all that, we cannot behave as we did in 2019, and that's not going to happen anywhere for a long time."
- While people are still behaving fairly conservatively, she can feel the atmosphere changing as the fear of infection fades.
- "Generally, there's a sense of community spirit about," she says, with residents pleased to see their small community at the top of global vaccination tables.
That community spirit also aided in the vaccination campaign. The first to be vaccinated was the oldest man in Gibraltar, age 100.
- Residents were encouraged to follow along on social media and share photos of themselves once they'd been vaccinated. "That built a lot of momentum," Sacramento says. "Messaging is very important."
The bottom line: "Someone came up with the great idea of calling it Operation Freedom," she says of the vaccination campaign. "And now, three months on from when we started Operation Freedom, it does very much feel like freedom."