All Is Not Well

The government cannot bury its head in the sand. The present Covid-19 situation in the country is untenable. We need to urgently fix it

By Mrinal Roy

The story of the world’s arduous battle against Covid-19 has been repeatedly undermined and hobbled by successive surges and waves of infection caused far too often by governments who imposed lockdowns and restrictions to contain the spread of the virus too late or lifted them too soon. At a time when the overriding imperative should have been to protect and save the lives of people against a deadly pandemic, which has already caused more than 4 million deaths in the space of some 18 months, such questionable choices have invariably been dictated by uncalled for pressures from economic actors and vested lobbies.

The upshot is that new waves of coronavirus infection fuelled by new and more contagious variants such as the highly infectious delta and lambda variants continue unabated to infect and cause deaths and distress in the world in a context of widespread vaccination inequality. A third wave of infection is affecting countries around the world. The delta variant has already been identified in more than 100 countries whereas the lambda variant, first identified in Peru (which has by far the highest number of Covid deaths per capita), has already spread to 29 countries.

Many scientists speak of the Lambda variant’s unusual combination of mutations, which may make it more transmissible. These mutations may make it easier for lambda to bind to our cells and make it harder for our antibodies to latch onto the virus and neutralize it.

Unethical

In a letter published in The Lancet last week, more than 100 scientists have condemned the UK government’s plans to lift all coronavirus restrictions and stated that the government’s strategy which ‘tolerates high levels of infection is both unethical and illogical’. The scientists also claimed that a hasty lifting of restrictions will cause an exponential growth of Covid-19 and risks ‘leaving hundreds of thousands of people with chronic health problems, long Covid and disability’.

Nobel-winning geneticist Paul Nurse also warned that if the government opens up England too hastily ‘we could create a variant resistant to vaccines’. Last week, the World Health Organization also cautioned against the complete lifting of public health and social measures at a time when there has been a 33% increase in new infections in the European region in the last week.

Despite the potent risks flagged by the scientists and the UK health secretary’s admission that daily cases could exceed 100,000 in the summer from the current level of more than 27,000 new cases reported every day, the United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced this week that he planned to lift Covid-19 restrictions, including social distancing and mask mandates adding that UK must learn to live with the virus. In essence, the government is shifting the responsibility of dealing with the rapidly spreading virus to companies and individuals raising legitimate questions about who assumes the cost of liabilities.

‘We must learn to live with the virus’ has therefore become the new leitmotiv of governments bent on arbitrating in favour of the economy and the realpolitik of corporate balance sheets as opposed to saving lives. Rising rates of infection and deaths are callously considered as expendable collateral casualties. Instead of taking robust actions as per their mandate as elected MPs to contain the spread of Covid-19 and save lives, the onus of protection against the virus is shifted to the people who ‘will need to take personal responsibility’.

Questionable mantra

In Mauritius, the government bent on opening our frontiers to shore up the tourism and hospitality sector has also blithely adopted the mantra that ‘we must learn to live with the virus’. However, the rising number of daily cases of Covid-19 infection in many enterprises, hospitals, schools and random locations across the country attests to the fact that Covid-19 is no longer limited to clusters and red zones but is extensively present in the community. There is thus a heightened risk of coronavirus infection in the country while commuting, at the work place, at school and while shopping, etc., especially as government has lifted all restrictions on economic, social and sporting activities. We also know that fully vaccinated persons can be infected and be a carrier of the virus. There have already been several such cases reported in the country.

In such a context, students commuting to school in crowded buses, the majority of which are not vaccinated, are particularly vulnerable to the pervasive and insidious risk of infection. Already more than10 schools have already registered cases of Covid-19 infection in the country. This means closure of the schools, contact tracing and PCR testing of all those in contact with the infected persons and the quarantine of those tested positive. After the disinfection and sanitization of the school, it is once again opened to students. What if new cases of infection are detected during the 14 day cycle of the virus? This will entail new contact tracing, PCR testing and quarantine measures. This could trigger an unending cycle. This is a very onerous, disruptive and patently ill-thought-out protocol which needs to be urgently reviewed.

The government and the ministries concerned must therefore take stock of the pervasive risk of Covid-19 infection in the country and must fully assume their responsibilities to above all assure the safety of students, as most of them are not vaccinated and therefore at risk. They cannot pass the buck.

Core problem

The core problem facing the country is that the government has so far been unable to contain the spread of the second wave of Covid-19 infection since its outbreak in early March and break its chain of transmission. Covid-19 now has a pervasive presence in the country as evidenced by the rising number of daily cases of infection in locations scattered across the country. Despite the muddled way the daily tally of Covid-19 cases is presented on national TV, the number of new cases of infection has registered a quantum 77% jump of 218 new cases during the 5-14 July period.

It is therefore clear that all is not well with the management of the second wave of Covid-19 infection in the country. This failure cannot only be attributed to the irresponsibility of some. The competent management of the pandemic lies with the government and requires that it constantly reassesses and reviews its decisions in the light of the evolution of the Covid-19 situation locally, on the scientific front and in countries which are our main trading partners and principal sources of tourists in the world. Many countries such as Australia, UK, Germany, France, the US, Japan or South Africa have had to radically revise their Covid-19 related decisions and policies in the light of events in order to better manage the pandemic. There is no shame or ruffled egos in honestly correcting failed policies.

Risky gamble

Against such a backdrop, the opening of our borders to tourists this week under the present circumstances is therefore fraught with risks. It is a risky gamble. The hotel personnel and those working at the airport and in the hospitality sector will be at risk of being infected by more contagious variants and be carriers of the virus to their close ones and in the community. No one wants highly contagious Covid-19 variants to spread in the country. Fully vaccinated persons can still be infected. This is a lose-lose situation.

The government cannot bury its head in the sand. The present Covid-19 situation in the country is untenable. We need to urgently fix it. This can judiciously be done as Mauritius is a small country. Rational decision making requires that we take all steps necessary to first contain and break the chain of transmission of the virus to urgently make Mauritius Covid-safe even if it means investing in a two weeks plus lockdown. In a context of rising numbers of cases of Covid-19 infection, this is a small price to pay against the continuously rising costs of quarantine, contact tracing, PCR tests, hospitalization and diverse support measures, etc., borne from public funds.

Secondly, we urgently need to take all actions necessary to expedite the vaccination programme to achieve herd immunity in the country at the earliest.

Decisive actions

The status quo will make matters worse. It requires urgent and bold decisions before the situation gets out of hand. The onus is squarely on government to do what it takes to make the country Covid safe again and attain herd immunity. Once this is securely achieved, the country can safely reboot the economy and judiciously open its frontiers without fear and latent apprehensions. Mauritius cannot therefore afford to let matters worsen through culpable procrastination or lack of decisive actions.


* Published in print edition on 16 July 2021

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