By Nita Chicooree-Mercier
A threatening epidemic originating in China in 2019 spread to the rest of the world into a full-fledged pandemic. Initially, many in Europe saw it as an Asian calamity which would be confined to that distant part of the world. Asians are used to this, anyway, they thought. Wrong. In no time the pandemic gave a Third World vision of Europe.
Breaking news in Mauritius by midday on March 19th 2020 revealed that the virus had finally sneaked into the island. End of business as usual. In Port-Louis employees poured out of offices, hurriedly bought some stuff before heading towards bus stations. Shopkeepers cashed in payment for last customers. Metallic shutters began to be pulled down in Royal Street; the clanking noise of shutters resonated all along Farquhar Street as the other shops closed down one after another. Street vendors began packing up their stuff; called out loudly to fellow vendors. Folks commented the news and grinned nervously in the streets. By one p.m. the sun was high in the blue sky, and with the unpleasant summer heat hovering above, there was a feeling of something ominous in the atmosphere. A few days later Port-Louis joined the rank of Asian sprawling cities as a miniature ghost town.
“The Spanish flu, which started in Texas and was propagated by American soldiers at the end of World War I in 1918, devastated an unprepared, impoverished world causing millions of deaths in a short span of time. A century later, by and large, people enjoy more comfortable living conditions across the world, medicine has made unbelievable gigantic progress, and precautionary measures to avoid contamination are still the rule of the day…” Photo – s.marketwatch.com
No one had any idea of what was in store in the coming weeks. There was a tacit understanding that we would have to brace up for longer than the two weeks’ confinement period announced officially. The Spanish flu, which started in Texas and was propagated by American soldiers at the end of World War I in 1918, devastated an unprepared, impoverished world causing millions of deaths in a short span of time. A century later, by and large, people enjoy more comfortable living conditions across the world, medicine has made unbelievable gigantic progress, and precautionary measures to avoid contamination are still the rule of the day.
The government worked hand in hand with the medical advisory committee, hospital staff. police forces and other partners to ensure an efficient surveillance system, and make sure that basic necessities be made available to the public. Old-age pensioners received their allowances at their doorsteps. Well-enforced lockdown restrictions paid off after three months, allowing people to move around freely in the country. If the government had followed the example of western countries, it would have created an uncontrollable mess with a heavy toll on the lives of citizens. Authorization to go out for essential purposes in alphabetical order of names to control the flow of customers was an exceptional measure; and though one might argue that a small population in a small island territory facilitated enforcement of rules, it nevertheless stands out as a remarkable feat in pandemic crisis management.
The newly-elected government in December 2019 had hardly time to breathe, with the knees of a powerful invisible nuisance pinning it to the ground and bringing all projects to a standstill. By a twist of fate, all governments around the world had their hands tied and their coffers drained by the pandemic. Hasty, and in some cases questionable, deals were made in the procurement of masks and medical equipment here as elsewhere, the latest one being revealed is the charge of corruption being made against Angela Merkel’s government in Germany.
Memories of hard times in the first two decades of Independence are still in the back of people’s minds. So, adaptation to a new situation that urged the public to make do with restricted levels of spending was not perceived as too demanding. Indeed, the old habit of saving for hard times resurfaced. Superfluous items were put on standby, and even after the end of lockdown, busy streets in the capital in times of normalcy have remained deserted. Loss of jobs and limited income make people think twice before opening their purse.
A network of solidarity ensured a smooth organization of social aid granted to the most needy by benevolent citizens. The hardest hit were the low-income earners, and mostly those in the manufacturing and tourism sectors. It is common knowledge that hotels continued to mushroom on the coast despite warnings that they could not run fully all year round. It is a hard blow in the face of speculators. It is a Herculean task to embark on an aggressive campaign at international level to lure tourists to the island at the first sign of safe travelling with vaccine passport and such like. Employees in the export sector and the tourism industry are painstakingly making ends meet by taking up whatever odd jobs available. Students who have enrolled in foreign universities look forward to travel and experience studying abroad safely.
Free university courses generously extended to all higher tertiary institutions in 2019 came as a relief to many families. It added to the list of free services granted to the public. For the ‘nanny’ state to keep afloat, tax policy on big private companies will have to be reviewed above the 15% limit when the economy starts picking up, and hopefully, if the country manages to draw significant FDI.
It took advanced medical organizations 44 years to overcome tuberculosis. A crisis, financial or sanitary, is defined by its short duration. As things stand, it hardly fits the definition of the present harsh times facing countries across the world. But by now it is widely believed that coronavirus is not going away any time soon and, vaccine or not, we will have to put up with it for years and take risks until a definite vaccine comes up.
* Published in print edition on 19 March 2021
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