Berguitta: Bravo to the foot soldiers!

No less deserving of the population’s thanks, gratitude and congratulations are the members of that much reviled tribe called civil servants, who were d’arrache-pied to ensure the security and safety of their compatriots — By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Starting from Alix and Carol in 1960, the cyclones that are still within the living memory of a majority of Mauritians, we now reckon almost six decades of experience of facing cyclones: receiving advance warning about them, tracking and forecasting their trajectories, preparing ourselves to cope promptly with the immediate impacts and the aftermath (for example, importing vegetables in view of the damage done to plantations). We also pray for another one not to come, or if one does to cause as little damage as possible – but, if there has been a prolonged period of dryness, to bring much-needed rain! As, indeed, Berguitta did.

On most of these headings over the years we have honed our capacities, as part of a work in progress as the saying goes. And this will never end, especially now that climate change is upon us and erratic patterns will be the norm. With the new radar currently nearing completion at Trou-O-Cerfs and shortly to become operational, our meteorological services will no doubt shift into higher gear – something overdue and that would have already happened some years ago if only the request for an appointment with the Prime Minister by a then outgoing director of the meteorological services had been granted…

Nevertheless, in spite of the equipment constraints that they face, it must be said that the forecasters do a remarkable job, short of being alarmist like some foreign entities, whose predictions of dire catastrophe and our beloved island being utterly devastated were more of a wishful that a scientific nature. This reminds me of a similar estimate made by an eminent expert from Reunion that there would be at least 600 deaths from the AH1N1 pandemic in 2010, and which was splashed in the media, with nigh a rectification later when our tally turned out to be only 29, and may I underline that I use the word ‘only’ in a purely epidemiological sense.

No less deserving of the population’s thanks, gratitude and congratulations are the members of that much reviled tribe called civil servants, who as always during the cyclone – and cyclones or other catastrophes – were d’arrache-pied to ensure the security and safety of their compatriots by keeping the essential services like water and electricity supply running, looking after patients in hospitals, keeping the population informed through regular bulletins and so on. Over and above this, they were involved in clearing roads of fallen trees and electric poles and wires, transporting patients to hospital or to shelters, removing debris from under bridges to restore the flow of water and performing whatever other tasks that the emergency situation demanded.

As in the case of hospitals, when as soon as Class 2 is declared a cyclone protocol is set in motion, so too well-established protocols in the respective services were switched into operation without even waiting for the National Disaster Committee to meet, which it did – again as per protocol – to subsequently monitor the situation with reports coming from the field.

‘Solidarity, dedication and professionalism’ were the descriptors officially used to salute the work of these ‘foot soldiers’, and I think they are applicable in priority to the fire-fighters, the soldiers of the SMF, the CEB and water authorities personnel who even in Class 3 conditions did not hesitate to put their lives at risk, braving strong gusts of wind and rain to carry out their tasks in the open. But all others too who were at their posts doing their duties while the rest of us were in the comfort of our homes, deserve the accolade: personnel manning the meteorology station, the police stations, the hospital staff (managing emergencies and ensuring even routine but essential care such as dialysis), those of the MBC-TV station, reporters spanning the island to provide us live coverage. To this list must also be added volunteers and NGOs who helped people in need directly, as well as others such as those who kept their bakeries running so that bread could be made available.

Against the apocalyptic projections that were ventilated, our infrastructure was solid enough that only 25 electric poles out of 200,000 were downed, and there were only temporary power cuts, so that power is now almost completely restored across the island. Compare this with the situation nearer home to the doomsayers, namely Puerto Rico which is a US territory where months after a cyclone last year, a significant proportion of the population is still without power and a study has shown that the health services are recording increased mortality related to the aftermath of the cyclone, caused by shortage of medical personnel and such vital supplies as intravenous fluids.

We only wish for those in a comparable situation that they be as prepared as we are – but besides, we keep updating and upgrading our preparedness.

* * *

Persons in temporary shelters: ‘Aide-toi et le ciel t’aidera’

The UNHCR calorie recommendations have been evoked concerning the supply of food items to cyclone ‘refugees’. In that case, let us then go the whole hog and see the UN definition of a refugee:

‘A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so.’

Clearly, according to this definition, the less than 0.5% (in fact, about 0.34%, that is, about 4300 people out of an estimated population of 1,270,000) persons who had to resort to temporary shelters are not ‘refugees’. One must not conflate language, namely because someone has sought shelter in a ‘centre de refuge’ does not make of that person a refugee because we are under civilian conditions. There is no war or persecution going on; in fact it’s quite the opposite, with the State arranging for appropriate shelter, and providing assistance with transport and food, and offering a voucher.

And the fact that practically all but less than 400 of ‘Persons in Temporary Shelters’ – for that is the correct designation (PTS), and which should be used in future – have left the shelters within a couple of days of the cyclone going away is proof if any is needed at all that the Mauritian cherishes his liberty and privacy whatever be the conditions under which s/he lives. Quitte à seeking government help to ameliorate their situation in due course, as some of them opined.

I will not comment on the apparent ‘biscuit dilo’ controversy, but from a medical point of view a calorie restriction during a couple of days (which means maybe 6-8 meals) will have no significant effect on the individual. These kinds of calculations apply to, once again, true refugees who are fleeing and who have already been undergoing deprivation. In a cyclone emergency situation like ours with PTS stays of 48-72 hours, the priority is to assuage hunger, not nutritional issues. More so because regular nutritional surveys in Mauritius have never shown any deprivation, and so for normal persons like the PTS in Mauritius it is only after about one week that such considerations would begin to apply. But we know that the PTS never stay that long, as post-Berguitta or any cyclone for that matter shows.  And as others have pointed out, there are resquilleurs (cheaters who take advantage of the situation) among the PTS.

On the other hand, given that the meteorological station gives sufficient advance warning of an impending cyclone, advising people to stock up, there is nothing that prevents potential PTS to do the same within their means and eventually carry their goods with them. This applies especially to parents with babies who are best fed on their own milk brand (unless they are being breast fed).

This said, on a humanitarian ground if it is possible under the dire conditions of Class 3 cyclone, the country should certainly try to provide hot meals to these fellow compatriots, or to arrange for their preparation by the PTS themselves through cooking arrangements organized at the shelter.

As pointed out at the beginning, we have the experience and the capacity to handle cyclonic and post-cyclonic situations. What we must do is to continuously strengthen these capacities and address the gaps and weaknesses, such as the drainage and agriculture issues, with a greater degree of urgency than we have perhaps done so far. Complacency must not be allowed to set in.


* Published in print edition on 26 January 2018

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