In the past the active participation of the population was crucial when the country was faced with major challenges – elimination of malaria, overpopulation, economic diversification
By Sada Reddi
We clung to a glimmer of hope when the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 came down for a few days. At first, what came to our mind was that it could be another instance of Mauritian exceptionalism when the population rose to the many challenges it faced in the past and successfully overcame them. We still hope that, as in the past, it will again rise to the occasion. But there are so many concerns and unanswered questions about official figures, testing and the fluctuating infection rates in many countries which suggest that we may not be out of the woods yet. We will need more time, and more testing before we can confidently say that the situation is under control.
« In the past the active participation of the population was crucial when the country was faced with major challenges. The people responded positively when DDT was introduced to combat malaria in 1945; within a decade, Mauritius was on the point of eliminating malaria in the island. Similarly when faced with the Malthusian nightmare of overpopulation, the problem was solved within less than a decade. In the 1970s, the country embarked successfully on the diversification of the economy and light industrialization, which eventually resulted in an ‘economic miracle’… »
There is no doubt that an earlier and prompt response to the outbreak by closing our borders would have spared us an epidemic – as in Rodrigues where no cases of Covid-19 have been reported. All over the world, many countries, including China, several European countries and even the WHO had been late in responding to the crisis with all the terrible and tragic consequences in terms of galloping rates of infection and deaths.
On the other hand, an article in The Hindu of April 19 shows that many countries in South Asia have a relatively low infection rate, and the number of cases is increasing very slowly. Among these countries, India and Pakistan have large numbers – 14,651 and 7481 respectively, while Bhutan has only five cases. This may be due to insufficient testing although all of them have followed WHO guidelines on travel bans, lockdown, curfew, social distancing and testing. One study has sought explanations for this trend and put forward the possibility that BCG vaccination may be a contributory factor although this has not been validated by WHO.
There is also the case of many island-states with low number of cases. A report of WHO, issued on 19 April, indicates that these states have registered comparatively fewer confirmed cases of Covid-19. These include Mauritius with 321 cases, Fiji 17, Papua New Guinea 7, French Polynesia 55, Malta 34, Jamaica 163 and a few others. It seems obvious that island-states are better protected if borders are closed given that the virus can only come from outside by aircraft and ships.
In Africa too, there are at least 25 countries out of 45 that have fewer than 100 confirmed cases. There too we do not know how much time it takes for the virus to spread in a population of one million or the number of tests being done or required to be able to contain the pandemic, or whether the people will be hit harder in a second wave.
Any sense of security that we might have entertained during a few days has been dispelled by a number of factors which are coming to light daily in Mauritius and in other countries. Besides the fact that the number of tests being carried out is grossly inadequate as a measure of the real number of cases infected, many countries do not have sufficient testing kits and reagents and are compelled to curtail the number of tests being done to the minimum and keep some kits in stock in case the situation worsens. Now scientists in Britain are telling us that the testing operation is a delicate exercise; the diagnostic tests are not sensitive enough and many infected cases will go undetected. We are therefore left in doubt about the prevalence of infections given that, besides those who are asymptomatic, there are also those presumed to have been infected and later tested positive and still carry the virus.
There is no solution until we get a vaccine sometime next year. In such circumstances, lifting the lockdown, even partially, although inevitable in the near future, would pose a great risk to the population. Some had advocated that we should increase our testing capacity and order more testing kits so that a maximum number of people get tested. The question remains about the availability of more testing kits on the world market at the present moment. It is time that our health professionals come together and work out the optimum number of people that should be tested in our present situation, even tentative. That should be made public with a view to reassuring the public that their health and safety come before everything else.
Only then can we confront the situation with confidence and take all the necessary measures to cope with the pandemic and even face a second wave in case that were to happen after the current lockdown has been partially lifted. A transparent blueprint for easing the lockdown should be communicated to the public with different scenarios and the rationale behind them explained so that the population can respond appropriately to the situation as it has done repeatedly in the past.
One should not underestimate the resourcefulness of the population to respond to a crisis if all the facts are laid before it. There are many flaws and weaknesses in dealing with a crisis that is unprecedented, and everywhere scientists are admitting humbly that mistakes have been made, they are still learning on a day to day basis how the coronavirus behaves and they therefore cannot reach firm conclusions at this stage.
In the past the active participation of the population was crucial when the country was faced with major challenges. The people responded positively when DDT was introduced to combat malaria in 1945; within a decade, Mauritius was on the point of eliminating malaria in the island. Similarly when faced with the Malthusian nightmare of overpopulation, the problem was solved within less than a decade. In the 1970s, the country embarked successfully on the diversification of the economy and light industrialization, which eventually resulted in an ‘economic miracle’. Whenever many factors came into play, some fortuitous, the population had a crucial role in contributing to the economic success of the country.
Finally there is no durable solution to the pandemic unless the population is taken on board and not simply harangued from the top. For quite some time the ‘peuple admirable’ slogan has disappeared from political discourse. That usually happens when the authorities adopt a patronizing attitude towards the people. That also happens despite the fact that many of the measures implemented during the present crisis came from below, having been expressed by the people themselves in the media – social as well as print. For instance, one supermarket provided customers with tickets for their purchases at specific times to avoid wasting their time and to facilitate social distancing. It was the people who advocated markings for social distancing around shops and supermarkets long before they were implemented. There are many examples of such ideas coming from the grassroots.
Let us hope that the population and its many representatives will be given the role they deserve to fight both the pandemic and deal with the consequent economic crisis – particularly when unemployment can easily attain 90,000 and food security measures can no longer be avoided — for not to do so would be at our peril. We can still turn that glimmer of hope into a new dawn but only with all our citizens participating in this great battle.