Edward David Burt grew up just around the corner from C-Mart, born and raised on North Shore as an only child, for all intents and purposes. The 41-year-old Premier has five siblings, but they had left the nest by the time he was four. It was the only home in Bermuda he knew from 1979 until he was elected as Bermuda’s youngest-ever Premier in July 2017.
He went to nursery school at Wayne Caines’s house; St. John’s for pre-school, then Saltus Grammar. Every morning before going over the hill to school his mother would send him to C-Mart with a nickel and a quarter to buy the newspaper, and every morning upon his return she impressed on him how hard she had worked to send him to such a school. “If the white kids will learn, you’ll learn too,” she told him.
His experience at Saltus “wasn’t a very pleasant one” he tells me candidly. He’s shared the story plenty of times before. We’re at his office at the Senate building in Hamilton, sitting a generous six feet apart. He reclines in his chair at a large mahogany desk strewn with the assorted paperwork associated with the job of leading a country. To his left is another desk that holds his computer, which periodically pings with notifications.
“I have very unpleasant memories of my time there, especially when I went to junior school,” he says. He wasn’t tremendously bullied or anything. “It was small things.”
“I’ll never forget the time when I finished—I was very good at math—and I finished first in my class for a math assignment. I handed it to my teacher. My teacher asked me, ‘Who did you copy off of?’ And my response was, ‘Well if I finished first, how could I copy off of anyone?’ And I was kicked out of class. I remember when I was in year six, the principal at the time told my mom, ‘This environment is not conducive for your child. You should take him out of school because it’s not working for him,’” recalls Burt.
That’s precisely what his mother did. In 1990, at the age of 11, he left Saltus for Florida Air Academy with the naive dream, he admits, of being a teenage fighter pilot. Only once in America did he experience any kind of reinforcement in his education.
“I will always tell the story about the first time that a teacher complimented my work,” he says. “I’d never had my work complimented before. I still remember this teacher said to me after class, ‘Your work is really good.’ And it literally stuck in my head the first time that I remember being complimented as a young person. I left Saltus thinking I was dumb. After that compliment and encouragement, I became a straight-A student and graduated valedictorian of my high school.
Four-year-old David Burt decided for his cousin’s weddings
WCS: Did you get any sense of what you wanted to be while you were there?
DB: Oh I wanted to be a pilot! That’s the reason I went to boarding school. I wanted to be a pilot and…I don’t want to say I got tricked…My mom was going to send me away and so I applied and was accepted into Trinity College School in Canada. Then one night—we had to do reading assignments for school and I used to read the newspaper instead of reading books and would write that down as my thing—and I saw this ad for Florida Air Academy. Here I am thinking I was going to this school—didn’t even know it was a military school before I arrived. Thought it was a school where you went to class in the morning and flew planes in the evening. Eleven-year-old me thinking that was the case. No one actually told me, ‘You know you can’t actually get your pilot’s licence until you’re seventeen.’ I did get to fly a little bit but it wasn’t like real flying. You couldn’t fly until you turned 16 or 17.
WCS: So you actually did get to fly in the end?
DB: [Incredulously] I have a pilot’s licence.
WCS: Do you?!
WCS: I didn’t know that.
DB: Oh yes. I have a pilot’s licence. There used to be three pilots in the House of Assembly. Me, Mark Bean and Lawrence Scott. Now there’s only two: Lawrence Scott and myself. I went to high school with Lawrence Scott actually. He was the year under me.
WCS: When was the last time you flew?
DB: Not recently. Not recently at all. Lawrence keeps up his stuff. If I had continued going to school in Florida I likely would have pursued something around aviation. However, I made the decision to go to school in Washington, D.C., because I wanted to work on the Clinton-Gore ’96 reelect. I kinda got involved in politics and leadership—I was the wing commander in my high school, so I was involved in leadership things and all the rest. And I got involved in politics a little bit. One of the reasons I chose George Washington University was to work on the Clinton-Gore ’96 reelect. I remember the time I got to meet President Clinton—or shake his hand—I called my mom right after. I went and typed in a phone card number, you know, long distance code and all the rest we had to do way back.
WCS: What was it that got you interested in politics there?
DB: That’s a very interesting question. Because my parents were not involved at all. I was the only person in my family, even close family or extended family, that has any political involvement. The first remembrance I have of politics at all I think was watching the 1988 presidential election when I was here [in Bermuda] and that was Dukakis vs Bush. At school in Florida you would be exposed to it [politics] a little bit. When you start these leadership things like National Honors Society and all the rest, if you’re good you get to go to like the state capitol if you’re in leadership or Washington D.C…. Being a military school if you’re in these leadership programmes you get exposed to it [politics]. So that’s where I guess my understanding came. It’s a funny story, my introduction to politics. The first book that I actually read in politics was Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract with America, which was very interesting. I remember discussing it with some of my friends at a leadership conference and they schooled me on the falsehoods of Republican politics at the time, and what that actually meant for black people in the United States. After that I was grateful for the exposure at that time. Where I went to school in Florida was a very Republican area and I remember meeting the representative at the time, but by 1996 I was firmly entrenched in Democratic politics.
WCS: What was your role working on the Clinton reelect?
DB: Oh it was nothing more than cold-calling and fixing the photocopier. Complete grunt work. A lot of cold-calling. Election headquarters was like three blocks away from my dorm. I just walked down the street and volunteered. It wasn’t much more than that. As a volunteer I got to go up front and shake his hand.
WCS: Did you enjoy the grunt work?
DB: Not really. The experience of political cold-calling was hell. Literally we were calling and raising money. ‘Hi, I’m calling on behalf of the Clinton campaign, raising money for the Clinton Gore General Election Legal Action Committee.’ So yeah, I fell out of love with US politics rather early.
WCS: So then your next political experience was…
DB: Interning on Capitol Hill. After my internship there I changed my major and left political science and US politics.
WCS: What did you change your major to?
DB: I changed my major a few times. But I went into business school.
WCS: Why did you make that decision?
DB: I didn’t actually enjoy working on Capitol Hill and that’s the path that people who do political science take. They go that direction and I didn’t really like it. I said, ‘I can’t see myself doing this’ so I decided to try something new. I don’t regret changing it. I actually liked business school. Business school was a lot of fun.
WCS: And it actually served you better in terms of your political career.
DB: Going back to my family… both my parents were entrepreneurs. I never grew up seeing my parents work for anyone. They had their own businesses. My dad did construction and my mom had a beauty salon. So I grew up with that spirit. When I was young, back in Florida Air Academy, I was very much into computers. That was my big thing, and my career was in IT. I remember getting my first computer—funny enough the reason I got into computers was because I liked to play flight simulator. My first game was F-19 Stealth-Fighter. I’ll never forget that, you know… flying like ten missions over Libya, dropping bombs and all the rest of it. I had to go to an electronics boutique and buy full joysticks. So the reason I really got into computers was because you had to know how to program the MS-DOS start-up files in order to get the games to run!
School photo at Florida Air Academy where Burt achieved Master Sergeant rank.
WCS: Have you picked up the new Microsoft Flight Simulator?
DB: No, I don’t play flight simulators anymore unfortunately. I haven’t played a flight simulator game maybe since I left high school.
The Premier digs into a bag of candy.
WCS: Is that one of your vices?
DB: It’s funny. This is actually how my wife [Kristin] got me to marry her. My weakness is sour candy, and we had gone on a trip—this was in 2010, around the time of the conversation. I had taken a year off of politics and I remember we had gone to Jamaica. We had a house there. She played hooky from work and we met up in Jamaica at the time of the World Cup. We had watched the opening games. We had a nice time hanging out—went to Dunn’s River Falls and all of that, and she had taken a photo album and sent it to me. She’d made this nice photo album and everything and she’d put my two favourite things inside this care package she sent me: Trident Splash Gum and Sour Punch Straw mats. I remember opening the package, literally walking out of my office to the reception and saying, ‘Guys, guess what! I’m getting married!’ [The pair now have two children, Edward and Nia.]
WCS: What are those you have now?
DB: [examining the bag] These are Juicy Plus Worms, which are really bad because after the sugar tax Phoenix brought in this really cheap candy and they’re so addictive. Do you want one?
WCS: No, candy isn’t my thing.
DB: They’re really good…
WCS: No, no thanks.
DB: [takes another mouthful]: Any type of sour candy, I just…
WCS: So you didn’t feel any conflict there passing the sugar tax?
DB: There is… but I look at it as though I’m giving money to the Minister of Finance.
WCS: Let’s fast-forward a bit to the outbreak of COVID-19. When it started getting bad I put myself in your shoes. Seeing how these other countries were responding, the first image that came to my mind was cars piled up at KEMH, the beds all taken, people dying before they can even be seen. Was that the kind of worst-case scenario you guys were envisioning?
DB: That was a worry. Coronavirus was a really strange phenomenon because so little was known about it when it first started. You get to a place where you’re seeing the images—first you’re seeing China, then you’re seeing the situation in Italy, then you’re seeing it take hold across Europe and then there’s an explosion of cases in New York, and you’re just like…’Oh my god.’ The early days were incredibly stressful. We didn’t know what was happening. We didn’t have a lot of information. We’re waiting for tests and people are saying the virus is likely already here, so what are we going to do? Our view in the early days was preventing calamity. We got the early information, which we now know wasn’t correct which is why it was revised. There was far more prevalence in the community than we thought. Originally it was ‘One in five people gets hospitalised’ but now we know it’s more like one in twenty. But at that time we could only go with the information that we had. And so we made the decision we had to make. The more and more cases that were being found on the island, the advice was to be very strict with our social distancing to get a handle on this. A lot of it was just buying time, to be honest. Buying time to get your PPE, get the things that are necessary for you to avert a surge. So…the early days were crazy. I still remember the difficult decisions.
There was a conversation around testing. I think that it’s important for this story to be told, because there’s a narrative in the community that we just followed what the experts told us. That’s not entirely correct. Under our laws which were passed by the One Bermuda Alliance, laws dealing with public health and all the rest, like the Quarantine Act, Public Health England [England’s executive health agency] is actually written into our laws. And so Public Health England was offering direct advice to our Ministry of Health, and Public Health England’s advice was to stop testing if you get to community transmission. Understand… that’s what England did. So I remember the conversation happening, being given that advice, and I said plain and simply, ‘We will not have community transmission in Bermuda and we will be the most tested country on the planet if we have to be. And that was the decision that we made at the early stages. There was a lot of pressure to increase our testing capacity—that’s why we’re very fortunate Dr [Carika] Weldon offered her services. And so we rejected the approach that was advised to us by Public Health England. And I thought that was crazy. And you’ll remember that England changed their approach after following those exact initial suggestions.
WCS: So at what point did you think that we had a control on the virus? When the borders were shut?
DB: No, absolutely not. We had the natural assumption that the virus was inside our community. And we did. The lockdown I think was necessary. Although if you asked me what was the one thing I would’ve done differently, I probably would’ve made the shelter-in-place shorter. When it came time to extend the shelter-in-place, the [Health] Minister, myself, the CMO and the nurse epidemiologist had the conversation and I really didn’t want to extend the shelter-in-place, and they said that extending it would be their advice. And the thing is the CMO, the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Cheryl Peek-Ball at the time, who is retired now because she was actually on her way out, she said, ‘From what I have I must advise you that I think [extending shelter-in-place] makes sense because I don’t think we have a handle on it currently.’ So I said, ‘OK.’ The next two weeks did give us an opportunity to increase testing further, get supplies and other things worked out. The one thing about shelter-in-place was that it made contact tracing very easy because people weren’t really going anywhere. So those two full cycles allowed the virus to taper off. So I think after we came out of the second shelter-in-place we had sufficiently managed to ramp up our testing capacity.
Burt credits a lot of the legwork to Dr Weldon.
Opening the airport was the next big test. A lot of people didn’t want us to open it. Knowing that our tourism season is different than other islands—our peak season is in the summer whereas other islands peak season is the winter—they could afford to stay closed until winter then open back up, but getting those jobs back was something that was necessary for us. The conversation we had with the health team I asked, ‘What’s the safe way to open?’ and they said ‘Fourteen-day quarantine for everyone.’ But we couldn’t do that because nobody is going to get on a plane to sit in a hotel room for two weeks. We can’t do that. We had to figure out a way to actually get this to work. So they came back with a suggestion that we test every two days, but that wouldn’t work either. So we ended up deciding to test on arrival, test on three days, test on seven days, test on fourteen days, and we implemented that and it’s worked. It’s worked perfectly.
WCS: What was it like watching other countries bungle things so tremendously from your perspective?
DB: It helped to serve as a good comparison point for our population to understand the need for the continued restrictions, so people could see that we’re not making this up. This isn’t a joke. This is real and if we don’t follow the advice you’re going to have a lot of death and other challenges inside your country. So I think it was beneficial from that perspective. There were certain things—I’m not going to name the country, but they were a country that had to go back into lockdown, and I remember at Cabinet we were considering the reopening plans and all the rest, and we had looked at a testing plan for a jurisdiction that was going to reopen their industry and I remember saying to the Minister of Health, ‘This isn’t going to work. They’re going to have a problem. This is just not going to work.’ And not a month later they had to revert. So while we observed what other countries were doing, we set our own course here. No one has the testing regime like we have here. They have testing on arrival, but nobody has that repeated follow-up testing. And out of all that testing that we’ve done we’ve probably only caught…eight cases on day-four and day-eight tests. But the fact is that those eight cases, if undetected, could’ve spread to others. So that’s the reason why we had to keep it up.
At the time of publication, there have been twelve deaths from COVID-19 in Bermuda. Seventeen cases are currently active in a country of 64,000.