Choosing lives over livelihood

The daily rat race now seems so irrelevant. Lives are more important than livelihoods. Our outlook and the world will not be the same again

By Mrinal Roy

The confinement of people in their homes has now been extended by two and a half weeks till 4 May in the country. The strict confinement of the population at home is a determinant factor in the world’s battle against Covid-19. It is not an end in itself. If we want to move forward and win the battle against Covid-19, we need to clearly spell out the objectives that the country must try to achieve by 4 May 2020 in order to rid the country of Covid-19. For example, shouldn’t the people of the country be mobilized to more rigorously apply the rules of confinement, social distancing and hygiene instructions in order to ensure that there is, as has been the case this week, a continued trend of no new cases of Covid-19 detected in the country during the new period of confinement till 4 May and an agreed double safety period?

In this context, the Covid-19 situation in Rodrigues is quite revealing and indicative of the way forward towards normality if we eliminate the virus from mainland Mauritius. The timely measures put in place by government to ring fence Rodrigues and Agalega from the risk of contamination ensured that no carriers of Covid-19 entered Rodrigues and Agalega. Thus, all flights into Rodrigues were banned on 22 March. All passengers and returning residents were quarantined and tested for Covid-19. The tests showed that none of them were carriers of the virus. They were thus released after the quarantine period. In order to stem any risk of contamination, goods and supplies sent to Rodrigues are discharged at the port in accordance with a strict protocol and rigorous sanitary precautions. With no carrier of the virus in its midst, Rodrigues, being an island, is safely protected from Covid-19.

As no Covid-19 has been detected in Rodrigues, the government has agreed that the curfew order in Rodrigues lapse on 15 April to allow economic and other activities to resume. However, schools will remain closed for the time being and obviously passenger flights to the island will not be allowed until further notice.

Condemnable indiscipline

The first step towards a staggered plan to normality is therefore an elimination of the virus from the country. A single undetected carrier of the virus can rapidly spread the virus if people relax and do not strictly abide by rules of confinement, social distancing or prescribed norms of hygiene such as regularly washing their hands with soap to minimize the risk of infection. Despite police controls and curfew conditions in the country, it is flagrantly evident that there are still an inordinate number of cars, motorcyclists, vehicles of every kind and pedestrians on the roads. The onerous Safe City project should attest to this unacceptable and irresponsible level of traffic and movement of people on our roads in a context of strict lockdown. Such condemnable indiscipline enhances the risk of a spread of Covid-19 through person to person contact and delays the prospects of eliminating the virus from the country.

Covid-19 cannot therefore be eliminated in the country by pious hopes but through a well-couched and thought out strategy tailored to the specific Covid-19 situation prevailing in the country. As Mauritius is a small island, the task of eliminating the virus from the country is in principle less daunting. Across the world, countries are implementing their own strategies to fight Covid-19 and minimize the number of casualties. The scale of the challenge faced by each country is determined by its geographic area, population size and the extent of infection afflicting the country.

Battle plan

This week French President Emmanuel Macron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended the duration of the lockdown enforced in their countries and spelled out their battle plan to overcome Covid-19 as well as their strategies on the way forward. Thus, President Macron ordered a stricter lockdown across France with people confined to their homes and stringent restrictions on the movement of people till 11 May 2020. Any violation of the lockdown rules will be severely sanctioned. He also outlined a roadmap to progressively ease the restrictive measures after the 11 May. He announced that kindergartens, schools and workplaces will progressively reopen, in accordance with a plan that will be announced by the government by the end of April. However cafés, restaurants, bars, cinemas and theaters, concert halls and museums would remain closed. General-use masks will also be distributed to each citizen.

Similarly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced, in line with a broad consensus arrived at through national discussions, a more stringent 19-day extension of the nationwide lockdown on the country till 3 May. The performance of all districts, localities and States in fighting Covid-19 as well hotspots of infection will be closely monitored till 20 April. After 20 April, areas where there are no hotspots and States where the Covid-19 spread in hotspots is contained or stemmed will be granted partial relief to resume some economic activities under certain well-defined conditions. These relief measures would be cancelled forthwith should the situation regarding Covid-19 deteriorate in these hotspots and States. The overriding principle underpinning the government approach is that the cost of the lockdown cannot outweigh the loss of human life.

Far-reaching consequences

The Covid-19 pandemic has not only dire economic consequences but also far-reaching social and medical fallouts. The IMF has this week forecast that the ‘Great lockdown’ enforced to fight Covid-19 will cause the world economy to shrink by 3% in 2020. This will be the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In a best case scenario, the IMF estimated that the world is likely to lose a cumulative $9 trillion in output over two years. The prospects of a rebound in 2021 will however be highly dependent on the state of the pandemic.

Covid-19 has also brought its load of adverse health and social fallouts. It is obvious that not all people can serenely cope with the rigours of confinement at home. Fear and anxiety about Covid-19 and the safety of close ones can be stressful. There are reports that Covid-19 related stress is worsening chronic health problems and mental health conditions. It has also increased the use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs. The ailing elderly patients are particularly vulnerable. There are also reports of a 25% increase in cases of domestic violence during the lockdown in the UK. Other countries are also reporting a similar surge in domestic abuse during the Covid-19 lockdowns. In Mauritius, we also need to be alert to these adverse consequences of confinement and be proactive in ensuring that these health and social issues are addressed in a comprehensive and efficient manner.

Double standards

Covid-19 crisis has also underscored the importance of agriculture and the imperative need for Mauritius to be as self sufficient in fresh and preferably organic domestic agricultural produce as possible to meet the country’s basic food requirements. Vegetables are essential to a wholesome and balanced diet. The availability of an abundant domestic supply of fresh vegetables to meet the essential food requirements of people is a key element of the country’s ability to tide over the present unprecedented crisis. As the vegetable markets of the country are closed and hotels which are an important outlet of local agricultural produce are inoperative during the lockdown, the vegetable growers who are one of the most entrepreneurial economic actors of the country are basically left high and dry to fend for themselves to market their produce.

The promised infrastructure, modern storage facilities, cold rooms and direct sale options to consumers to maximize their revenue by cutting out intermediaries are yet to materialize. It is totally unacceptable that the only outlet for access to vegetables during the lockdown are the supermarkets when there is robust consumer demand from the larger public for the plethora of fresh agricultural produce. Isn’t it time to end such double standards?

In the absence of concrete actions to support their dedicated hard work undertaken through thick and thin despite the vagaries of the weather, many growers have set up shop in front of their vegetable gardens and are briskly selling their produce in Covid-19 safe conditions fueled by the buzz on social media and the grapevine. Isn’t it also time for the planters to get organized to sell and deliver their agricultural produce through an innovative and consumer friendly marketing platform?

New dawn

Covid-19 has caused a pervasive turmoil across the world and shaken the foundations of the established order. The daily rat race now seems so irrelevant. Lives are more important than livelihoods. Our outlook and the world will not be the same again. It will be reshaped with a more equal, human and environment friendly vision of the world. This heralds a new dawn.

* Published in print edition on 17 April 2020

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