About burden-sharing, frontliners and babus

Agora

Equitable burden-sharing, national solidarity or leading by example in difficult times should not be esoteric concepts

By S. Callikan

The situation of the Covid-19 pandemic seems to have settled down with only a wary watch-out for overhasty unlocking and the risks of a second wave to guard against. The bell-shaped curve of active cases is testimony to the professionalism, dedication and bravery of our health and sanitary personnel and their handling of the health dimension, even under conditions of intense public and political pressures and scrutiny while their own safety and that of their families was on the line. The nation owes them a formidable debt of gratitude for, in this pandemic of unprecedented proportions and acuity, they were not merely doing their job with commitment, discharging their duties selflessly or honoring their Hippocratic oaths with quiet pride.

“The bell-shaped curve of active cases is testimony to the professionalism, dedication and bravery of our health and sanitary personnel and their handling of the health dimension, even under conditions of intense public and political pressures and scrutiny while their own safety and that of their families was on the line. The nation owes them a formidable debt of gratitude for, in this pandemic of unprecedented proportions and acuity, they were not merely doing their job with commitment, discharging their duties selflessly or honoring their Hippocratic oaths with quiet pride…”


From the cleaners, ward and charge nurses, the laboratory personnel, through the GPs to the specialists or the hospital administrators, they were among our most exposed frontliners and countless numbers in their anonymity walked the extra mile for our collective safety. There were other exposed frontliners at varying degrees, including the cops on the beat, the scavengers, the vegetable growers, the supermarket cashiers and placers, the essential services and those tending to pharmacies or service stations.

If the health sector professionals and administration, despite some early hiccups and lack of testing tools or protective gear, can be lauded for their handling of the worst stages of the pandemic curve, through weeks of painstaking contact tracing, testing and isolation or quarantine, another Ministry, that of Education, can be commended for having taken the decision to postpone all classes and school attendances to the first of August (at best). The prospect of students and teachers loosed onto public transport and classrooms while maintaining all sanitary and safety precautions would have been hair-raising for stakeholders and parents. It also provides the Education authorities ample time to plan and organize teaching, exams, pedagogical and corollary matters with a maximum of advice and input from all concerned quarters. That would be a welcome spirit.

* * *

Dominant narratives

In a crisis of such unprecedented proportions, jeopardizing lives and livelihoods, there was no doubt an early disarray visible at many levels (delayed reactions, unpreparedness, sloppy quarantine management, stranded travellers, misfiring communication, etc). The unpreparedness was largely attributable to the dominant political narrative for two tong months, from mid-January onwards, that “all was well and under control” and other messaging of the same ilk. They were religiously repeated by all Government babus, MPs, PPSes and Ministers at the National Assembly and on every platform. All top administrative echelons obviously take their cue from government’s dominant narrative. No PAS, PS nor even the most foolhardy Minister, would have started an isolated planning process in case the waves were indeed an impending tsunami. Such rash action would have been tantamount to high treason deserving of banishment! Any forward or what-if planning stood powerfully reined in. And in the tsunami, some Ministers might have found an opportunity to shine, but most were floundering with stranded Mauritians abroad or aboard cruise ships, helpless and unresponsive embassies abroad, local bottled gas or distribution nightmares, the potato and onion rackets or the plight of vegetable planters, breeders and fishermen.

* * * 

Risk allowances

Our frontliners deserve praise and gratitude even though a risk or special duty allowance for the critical month would not be, in most minds, unjustified. We read some days ago that most major names in the French “grande distribution” sector, the super and hypermarkets, had decided to grant their exposed employees a one-off allowance of 1000 Euros to undertake work during the lockdown period with Covid-19 risks high on people’s minds.

“Carrefour a aussi choisi de privilégier les salariés sur le terrain. 85 000 employés des magasins, drives et entrepôts se verront attribuer une prime de 1 000 euros sur leur salaire du mois de mai” goes a quote in Le Monde (of 27 April).

Among our supermarkets and hypers, some are quite profitable even if not at French scales: Super-U had posted pre-tax profits of Rs 220m in 2016 and probably since then. Winners, Jumbo/Spar and Winners stood at around Rs 70m each. With an average rise of prices of 25-30% alluded to during lockdown, they may not have suffered financially from the pandemic, may not require government salary assistance and, with even a token one-off risk gesture of Rs 5000 to their say 1500 frontline employees, neither Winners nor any of the big names would suffer irreparable financial losses.

* * *

Burden-sharing

A one-off risk allowance for employees of super and hypermarkets and other sectors would, in any case, seem far more deserving than the host of allowances which Ministers and PPSs have enjoyed over the same period, the shocking scale of which has been revealed by former Minister Bhadain. Of course, our MPs and Ministers should receive a fair emolument and benefits package, and we also note that we are not in Nigeria’s league where Ministers earn a miserly $ 2000 monthly salary and a guaranteed $ 35,000 per month of diverse allowances. Neither are we in Singapore’s league where an ingenious old formula of aligning MP salaries on a percentage of top private sector salaries has in recent years boomed out of control to the extent that starting MPs earn a shocking $ 880,000 annual salary.

Barring such extreme oddities, we could more usefully compare notes with annual salaries and benefits in other places. From $ 22,000 for President Xi, the leader of one of the world’s richest economies, to some $ 33,000 for Polish, Turk or Spanish MPs, $ 75,000 for nearby leaders in Kenya or South Africa, our jaunty Ministers are miles ahead.

“Our frontliners deserve praise and gratitude even though a risk or special duty allowance for the critical month would not be, in most minds, unjustified. We read some days ago that most major names in the French “grande distribution” sector, the super and hypermarkets, had decided to grant their exposed employees a one-off allowance of 1000 Euros to undertake work during the lockdown period. Among our supermarkets and hypers, some are quite profitable even if not at French scales. With even a token one-off risk gesture of Rs 5000 to their say 1500 frontline employees, neither Winners nor any of the big names would suffer irreparable financial losses…”


At some $ 100,000 package of pay, self-styled allowances and benefits, our Ministers float in the category of best-paid EU Ministers ($ 98,000 in France, $ 105,000 in UK, Netherlands or Ireland). Even when allowance is made for GDP or purchasing power differentials or the expenses incurred during election campaigns, those are substantially generous terms. Successive governments may have turned a blind eye during normal times but in post-pandemic dire times, painful reconstruction and social hammerings the Minister of Finance warns about, he would be entirely justified in sending a strong signal about those outlandish gratifications at various top levels, including armies of advisers. Equitable burden-sharing, national solidarity or leading by example in difficult times should not be esoteric concepts.


* Published in print edition on 5 May 2020

An Appeal

Dear Reader

65 years ago Mauritius Times was founded with a resolve to fight for justice and fairness and the advancement of the public good. It has never deviated from this principle no matter how daunting the challenges and how costly the price it has had to pay at different times of our history.

With print journalism struggling to keep afloat due to falling advertising revenues and the wide availability of free sources of information, it is crucially important for the Mauritius Times to survive and prosper. We can only continue doing it with the support of our readers.

The best way you can support our efforts is to take a subscription or by making a recurring donation through a Standing Order to our non-profit Foundation.
Thank you.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published.