Covid-19: ‘Government’s intransigence akin to promoting a ‘politique de la mort’ over economic considerations’

Interview: Kugan Parapen, Economist & Member of REA

* ‘The Opposition is as divided as ever. Will pragmatism prevail or will the opposition forces offer a new prime ministership to Jugnauth?’

* ‘Mauritius is likely to encounter a U-recovery as opposed to a V-recovery.
Most economists do not expect Mauritius to return to its pre-Covid level of economic activity before 2023, if not 2024′

Kugan Parapen is an economist and investment professional in the private sector, as also a member of Resistans ek Alternativ. He shares his views on the deterioration of the Covid situation in the country much of which he ascribes to a lack of forward planning because of the relative initial success in control. He also comments on the political situation and the attempt being made to stifle media voices.

Mauritius Times: These are difficult times. Following the resurgence of the Covid pandemic, made worse by the Delta variant, scores of people, young and old, have died, and the booster dose, currently being administered, will hopefully help stop the propagation of the disease. But how did matters go so badly wrong?

The situation is indeed dire with a lot of uncertainty about what lies ahead for the population over the coming weeks. There is an element of disbelief among Mauritians right now regarding the whole situation we are going through.

For many, it has been a very harsh reality check in that the virus has struck at the heart of their universe when they expected it the least. Despite the presence of the Covid-19 virus on our shores over the last fifteen months or so, the local population felt rather immune to the deadly realities of the pandemic. The country watched from afar the unraveling human tragedies surrounding Covid-19 in regions like Europe, Brazil and India under the false illusion that somehow, we were Covid-safe on our little rock in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

The seemingly mild local strain of the virus in the early months of the pandemic confused many but, consciously or unconsciously, did instill a cloak of safety in the psyche of the population. In many ways, this perceived immunity turned out to be an oasis of vulnerability.

There are obviously a set of factors and decisions which subsequently led us on the path we are now. The chronology of this tragedy will need to be ascertained down the line as I’m afraid many lives which could have been saved have been sacrificed…

* It’s usually at governments’ door where the blame is laid when things go wrong; that what’s happening in many countries and also in the UK presently where ‘The Independent’ reports that scientific advisers and leading experts have warned that ministers in England have “lost the message” over Covid-19. Do you think the Mauritian government also lost the plot here over its response to the pandemic’s resurgence?

The posture adopted by the government is a far cry from the severe rigid lockdown introduced in March 2020. It is of prime importance to analyse what happened over that time period to really gauge the responsibility of the Mauritian government.

The initial approach was first and foremost to shield the population from the virus and in hindsight, one can say that this objective was met. We can all remember the Prime Minister boasting about the drastic measures put in place by his government on the BBC in the early days of the pandemic. Eventually, following the rather successful vaccination campaign in Mauritius, the government prepared the population for a new phase – the New Normal.

During the second confinement at the start of 2021, elements of this New Normal were tangible with more than 300,000 Work Access Permits (WAPs) being delivered. The population was told it had to come to terms with the lasting nature of the pandemic and that it had to coexist with Covid-19. Borders were opened progressively while the tourism industry was preparing itself to welcome foreigners again. And then came the delta variant…

In face of a worsening of the Covid-19 situation, the government has so far refused to reconsider its approach. We get the impression that the New Normal mode is irrevocable in that no matter how much damage the Covid-19 could do going forward, the Mauritian authorities will not change their approach. Rezistans ek Alternativ has denounced this intransigence as it is akin to promoting a ‘politique de la mort’ over economic considerations.

The New Normal has brought about chaos. And the authorities are turning a blind eye to it. Il n’est pire aveugle que celui qui ne veut pas voir. We’ve heard from several quarters that the official numbers are being manipulated and judging by the accounts we’ve heard from Covid-19 patients and the relatives of the deceased, there is certainly some credibility to those claims.

Rezistans ek Alternativ have drilled down the numbers and it is obvious now that the methodology used to count the number of Covid-19 active cases has been altered in recent weeks and the direct consequence is obviously an underestimation of the gravity of the situation. The implication of such manipulation, if any, is damning since it conveyed a false sense of ‘security’ to the population.

The recent spike in Covid-19 cases has been attributed by some in government to the irresponsibility of the population, especially during the public holiday laden week. We have confirmed reports that the situation was already alarming prior to that week and that public hospitals, including the ENT hospital, were already saturated by then.

This brings into question the contingency plans of the authorities in case things got out of control. A failure to plan is a plan to fail. And we have unfortunately witnessed this failure unfold in recent weeks. The population has been left baffled by the absence of planning by the authorities amid a worsening situation. If you know that you are going ahead with the New Normal, surely you must have planned for the worst-case under that scenario.

What we have seen in recent days has nothing to do with the authorities having things under control. The scrambling for oxygen supply from neighbouring Reunion Island is a clear indication that our government has been completely overwhelmed by the current sanitary situation. And it beggars belief that we could be so unprepared for the worst-case scenario when relevant ministries have had months to put in place adequate contingency plans.

Last but not least, the incoherence of emergency measures recently announced reflect poorly on the government. Of the lot, the decision to abstain from social distancing measures in public transport is shocking to say the least. What is the point of limiting access to public places, beaches, and religious venues if those same people who have practised social distancing measures there are to travel next to each other on the buses or the metro?

* On the other hand, the full human impact and economic cost of the pandemic has yet to be assessed, but what are the lessons that could be drawn from your own personal as well as professional perspectives?

I believe one’s perspective on life changes dramatically in the face of death. In normal times, for most people, that does not happen until quite late. However, in the times we are currently living, this confrontation is likely to have happened much earlier than would normally be the case and could lead to a renewed attitude to life on earth.

During the social lockdowns, human beings were placed in a situation they had never experienced before and through these experiences, came to realise what really mattered and what was superficial. For many of them, the pandemic will act as a demarcation between their old-self and their new-self.

It remains to be seen however how this traumatic episode shapes the future of humanity. It might still be too early to fully assess the full impact of the pandemic on life and society. But one thing is for sure – traumas leave consequences.

From a professional perspective, the pandemic’s impact on most of the world was similar to that of natural disasters. One would think that an earthquake would weaken an economy but in reality, the negative impact of such disasters is short-lived as the recovery effort tends to outweigh the initial pullback.

What we’ve seen in the aftermath of the pandemic is a massive effort by governments and central banks around the world to restart economic activity through huge budget deficits and monetary programmes. Even before the pandemic, the level of public debt across the developed world was at unsustainable levels. That did not prevent the governments of these economies from increasing the debt burden even further. After all, in times of crisis, anything is possible. Beware of the backlash though!

* It was reported in one local publication that the reopening of the borders and of the economy has not produced an economic impact of great significance so far. It might be too to expect the reopening to have a greater impact on the economy at this stage, but what does it do to the rest of the economy when one of its pillars, tourism, falters?

It is indeed true that the economic recovery has faltered in Mauritius despite the optimism put forward by the Ministry of Finance. The process has been hampered by the high prevailing inflation rates which have curtailed real growth rates further. Also, I believe the government has been behind the curve with respect to much needed fiscal stimulus.

Given the magnitude of the economic pullback in 2020, a major policy response was needed. In its absence, Mauritius is likely to encounter a U-recovery as opposed to a V-recovery. The paltry growth projections do indeed point towards a U-recovery, that is a recovery which will take time to come to fruition. Most economists do not expect Mauritius to return to its pre-Covid level of economic activity before 2023, if not 2024.

 With respect to the faltering of the tourism sector, it served as a timely reminder of the major dependence of the economy on a single industry. In these same columns, I alluded to Mauritius becoming a ‘mono-service’ economy and drew a parallel to the ‘mono-crop’ economy we once were before our industrialisation process in the 1980s.

Whenever Mauritius was hit by major cyclones before independence, the country would experience a major recession since all the crops (sugarcane mostly) would be destroyed and the revenue stream would dry up.

The pandemic reminded us that the same will happen if our tourism industry were to be negatively affected. It is high time we move towards a revamped economic model whereby new pillars of the economy can be developed and sustained.

The greatest challenge that lies ahead of us is climate change and, as a small island developing state, we ought to be at the forefront of sustainable development. Are oil bunkering and deep-sea mining activities where we should be heading?

* Economists tell us that the continuing uncertainty about the Covid-19 situation makes economic forecasting a difficult or even a hazardous exercise during these pandemic times. Where is the world economy heading, and will it take time for our economy to start growing again?

The world economy has recovered mostly from the pandemic-induced recession and is expected to grow further in coming quarters. As we now know, the pandemic has had disparate impacts on different economies with some experiencing straight forward recoveries while others have had a more troublesome time.

One must not however forget that the economic recession from 2020 was one of the shortest on record and was brought forward by what economists would term as an exogenous factor, that is something that is beyond the scope of the economic model; in this instance, a pandemic.

As such, most of the economic imbalances that existed pre-pandemic are still key features of the world economy and have yet to be addressed. It is thus very likely that the next economic cyclical downturn is in the offing and I believe that the current economic recovery could turn out to be one of the shortest on record.

Inflation is the major headwind currently facing the world economy as pent-up demand and supply chain issues combine to push prices higher. The world’s major central banks see the current inflationary pressures as transitory and expect them to disappear over the medium term. As such, they are unwilling to withdraw their accommodative monetary policies.

Should they be wrong in their assessment, we can expect inflationary pressures to become entrenched and the world would then potentially be facing a scenario it has not experienced since the 1980s and that is stagflation whereby inflationary pressures are present within a stagnating economic environment.

With respect to Mauritius, I do not expect the below-trend growth pattern experienced over the last couple of years to significantly change. Without a major shakeup of the economic and political mindset, not much can be achieved in terms of economic growth I’m afraid. In the meantime, we shall continue to drift further away from the rest of the world, while many African nations will overtake us in terms of development, welfare and innovation.

*Would you therefore say that in those circumstances, more restrictions or a lockdown, even for a short period, might be counterproductive, or should the health of the people prevail over the economy?

Social restrictions should not have a lasting impact on our economic trajectory. The latter has more to do with long-term policy decisions and economic vision than anything else. Coming back to the sanitary situation, the health of the population is paramount and overrides any other considerations. We are not talking about the health of a few here but rather of that of dozens, if not hundreds, of our fellow citizens.

We do understand the harsh prevailing economic situation but for heaven’s sake, there must be a balance to be found. Can anyone from the government tell us why the sanitary situation has worsened so much? No one seems to know, or if they do know, the population is being kept in the dark. The transmission cycle needs to be addressed, otherwise the situation could worsen even further.

* In light of the numerous challenges facing the country, both on the sanitary and economic fronts – and the financial problems that have come in their wake, one is at a loss to understand the Government’s current focus on amending the Independent Broadcasting Authority Act with a view to providing “a better legal framework to regulate licensees of the Authority”, empowering “the Authority to impose administrative penalties”, and enhancing “the regulatory provisions in the Act”. What’s your reading on this?

One way to look at it is to focus on the way the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation is currently treating information. Here we have the country’s only audiovisual operator completely misrepresenting the sanitary situation in the country by adopting a completely biased positioning.

The government wants to control the media space and is, de facto, willing to turn the screw on media outlets that won’t dance to its tune. This is not the first attempt by the incumbent government to undermine the liberty of expression of independent broadcasters. And it surely will not be its last incursion in this field.

* It might be politically expeditious to raise the bogey of an impending dictatorship in light of the laws that are being amended, but we are not there. And even a semblance of democracy, as some would suggest, does not also equate with dictatorship, isn’t it?

We do not believe that there is a formal blueprint for dictatorships. They do come in all shapes and sizes. And there is an element of relativity to them. What can be a dictatorship to some may be a thriving democracy to others. A lot depends on personal considerations towards various kinds of freedom for instance. Also, dictatorships can exist in different forms with the spectrum ranging from soft dictatorships to harder and harsher versions.

There are several features of our “democracy” which are worth dissecting. One could argue that by virtue of the concentrated powers bestowed upon the Prime Minister by our Constitution, a layer of autocracy is inherent. If one were to add the numerous attempts to undermine critical institutions like the DPP’s Office, the Electoral Supervisory Commission and the Independent Broadcasting Authority amongst others while also focusing on the acts of repression against engaged citizens, politicians and the media, the shadow of some sort of dictatorship would surely be casted.

In many ways, the journey matters more than the destination on this democratic issue. The country has regressed in international tables pertaining to freedoms and human rights under this regime. This has got to be a red flag.

* The government alliance commands a comfortable parliamentary majority, Pravind Jugnauth remains the uncontested leader of a resource-rich party, and it looks like that the petitions contesting the election of some of his alliance’s candidates in November 2019 will fall by the wayside. He should therefore not have any cause for worry, isn’t it?

There are legitimate doubts to be held over the opposition’s strategy to challenge the result of elections in so many constituencies. While we concur that the government made use of all types of questionable strategies including tinkering with the registration of electors process, as alleged, and getting citizens of the Commonwealth to vote, it was always unlikely that their MPs would be disqualified in court. We believe that the recent withdrawal of petitions recognises this inevitability.

That said, the Prime Minister is also facing other legal charges, including the case of allegedly declaring a false affidavit regarding his electoral expenses for the last general election campaign. We all know that all candidates from the traditional parties exceed the threshold for expenses for these elections by quite a margin. The Kistnen Papers have brought tangible proof of that and is definitely a major thorn for the government alliance.

A more inspired approach to challenging the democratic process of representative elections in Mauritius would be to focus on the major flaws of the First Past The Post (FPTP) system because what happened in 2019 should never happen again in our democracy. The FPTP system has shown its major limitations in 2019 when a party with only 38% of the votes managed to form a ruling government and control 60% of the seats in Parliament.

Putting aside party politics, it should occur to everyone that this is an absurdity and a farcical version of democracy. Opposition members, both parliamentary and extra parliamentary, should rather focus on this all-important issue. Given the semblance of democracy conferred by our vetust electoral system, should politicians who want to uphold the values of democracy continue to stand as candidates under it? Or shall they boycott it and demand its replacement?

* It’s also unlikely the Opposition will cause the leader of the MSM any worry any time soon. What’s your opinion on what’s happening on the other side of the fence?

The Opposition is as divided as ever and I do not believe that is necessarily a bad thing at this point in time.

What will matter ultimately is the setup in which the next general elections will take place. Will pragmatism prevail or will the opposition forces offer a new prime ministership to Jugnauth?

It is hard to believe that the MSM could be any stronger than it was at the last elections but then again, some of the electorate reason in a way which defies logic or even sanity.

* Published in print edition on 26 November 2021

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