Societal shocks can break different ways, making things better or worse
By Prof Sheila Bunwaree
Covid-19 has terrified the entire planet and revealed how unprepared the world is for the outbreak of such infectious diseases. This invisible enemy also brings with it ‘des sourdes violences’, to borrow a term from Cardinal Maurice Piat. The latter’s Lettre Pastorale 2020 shows us how these ‘sourdes violences’ shake the very fabric of our society. Amidst these diverse violences, new complex forms of poverty and inequality highlight the different pains of our fellow citizens. Sufferings and hardships will more than likely grow in these very trying times, posing new challenges for governance, social cohesion and durable peace.
The novel Coronavirus is the world’s common enemy, with a potential to wipe out millions of lives in a matter of days, weeks or months. Such a risk makes other threats such as ISIS, natural disasters, massive climate change related droughts or floods or even a dropping of a nuclear bomb pale in significance.
The world has come to a standstill, an eerie air of desolation and quietness in places which usually bustle with life. This invites us to rethink our perspectives on a whole range of things but more importantly on policy choices by politicians and the necessity of behavioural change in the population. We got so used to a life of comfort and always wanting more, that the focus of some has remained largely on neoliberal paradigms ensuring the accumulation of wealth and riches for a small proportion of the world, even if this means persistent destruction of the ecosystem and nature, allowing the chasms between the haves and have nots to grow, feigning that inequality and poverty are on the decline.
While the virus infests people regardless of wealth, status, race, class, ethnicity, gender and religion, the poor and the vulnerable are bound to be the most hit. Handwashing and ‘social distancing’ and ‘self isolation where necessary’, undeniably the most important measures to prevent one from contracting the disease, are not always easy when one lives in deprived, crowded and unhygienic conditions – often sharing the same bath and toilets. Compounding the problem are water shortages and even soap in certain cases. Improvement in the Gini coefficient and introduction of minimum wages are no doubt good signals, but the failure to address deeper structural inequalities will have serious consequences for the disadvantaged during the Covid period. They run the risk of being trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty in the aftermath of Covid. The implications of such inequality call for an urgent recalibrating of our perspectives so that our common humanity is salvaged.
A 2018 Norwegian Research Institute study by researcher Svenn Erik Mamelund found that socio economic differences among individuals who contracted the 1918 Spanish flu ended up playing a key role in survival rates. In his paper, Mamelund says that he is surprised that politicians and public health officials don’t do more to take social inequalities into account when forming international preparedness plans. By ignoring these inequalities, everyone is worse off.
The Minister of Finance shrugging off a journalist’s question regarding informal sector workers is shocking. Informal sector workers, albeit not a homogenous group, consists of people who not only fend for their livelihoods on a daily basis but also contribute significantly to turn the wheels of the economy. A government which cares cannot do otherwise than provide equitable treatment to all its citizens. My thoughts also go to all those who may be deprived of food because of absence of cash in hand before the complete lockdown. We are lucky that we are a small country and delivery of food packs to these people should not be a herculean task.
Jonathan Quick, author of ‘The End of Epidemics: The Looming Threat to Humanity – How to stop it’, in a recent interview tells us that the world has now developed a Global Health Security Index (GHSI). Using six different dimensions, namely (1) the prevention of the emergence or release of pathogen, (2) early detection and reporting epidemics of potential international concerns (3) rapidly responding to and mitigating the spread of an epidemic, (4) sufficient and robust health system to treat the sick and protect health workers, (5) commitments to improving national capacity financing and adherence to norms, and (6) risk environment and vulnerability to biological threat, the GHSI is expected to establish individual country needs, boost compliance with international standards and create better understanding of global capabilities to prevent, detect, and respond to biological threats.
Contrary to other indices which Mauritian authorities usually select to boast of Mauritius’s performance, very little is said, if at all, about this particular index. Mauritius ranks 116th on the Global Health Security Index while Singapore, which Mauritius often compares itself with, ranks 24. Discussing the Singaporean case with the Mauritius Times (Issue 20 March 20), Prof Sing Fat Chu, a Mauritian national notes: ‘…Singapore has strategically developed into a leading biomedical hub. As of 6 March, it has been using its own Covid-19 test kits developed through a collaboration of public and private agencies and which deliver results within 3 hours’.
He also refers to the discipline prevailing in the Singaporean nation and rightly arguing that discipline does not equate authoritarianism. The persistent absence of ‘responsible and ethical citizenship’ in school curriculum is largely responsible for the indiscipline that we have witnessed these past days.
Getting test kits and doing massive testing is perhaps as important, if not more than confinement. A recently released paper by French researchers/scientists Nathalie Bontoux and Marie Claude Potier also highlight the urgency of massive testing, resonating with WHO Executive Director, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus’s: ‘…We have a simple message for ALL countries: Test, Test , Test…’ There is growing recognition that even those who without symptoms can be the carriers of the virus. Breaking the chain of transmission thus becomes even more difficult with the existence of these ‘asymptomatic carriers’.
Mauritius’s low level of preparedness as revealed by the different scores obtained on the different dimensions of the GHSI, coupled with the exponential growth of infected cases, has no choice than come together as ONE. But engaging in a collective effort to combat the enemy demands a certain kind of leadership. This is not the time for blame game or negative criticisms, but acknowledging our weaknesses and accepting the truth can go a long way in making the call for solidarity meaningful.
Sing Fat Chu also rightly points out that in times of crisis: ‘Leadership must be visible, decisive, exemplar and above all caring.’ Allow me to add that leadership must also be humble, transparent, competent and compassionate.
The economic, social and psychological fall out of this pandemic has no room for partisan politics but rather calls for collective effort to address real problems. An article featuring in a recent issue of The Economist titled ‘The Politics of Pandemics’ notes:
- ’…worried voters may well have less of an appetite for the theatrical wrestling match of partisan politics. They need their governments to deal with the real problems they are facing – which is what politics should have been about all along’.
Societal shocks can break different ways, making things better or worse. As the coronavirus spreads, it is going to wreak more havoc. It will however force us to reconsider who we are and what we value, and in the long run, it could help us rediscover the better version of ourselves. But for now here are some humble proposals as to how to get Mauritius on track again once we have shot down the enemy. But we need to start now:
- The setting up of a Covid-19 solidarity fund with all parliamentarians as well as current and former presidents accepting a 25% to 40% cut in their salaries/monthly allowances to go into that fund. Ordinary citizens can also make contributions to the fund. This should last for at least one whole year.
- The setting up of a Coronavirus Strategic Team/Desk at the level of each ministry.
The Ministry of Agriculture in collaboration with the Ministry of Housing and Land, Ministry of Local Government and the Agricultural Marketing Board should urgently identify arable lands and get seeds rapidly distributed to planters and ordinary citizens to encourage self sufficiency in food.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should engage with China for immediate assistance. Given the exponential growth of the disease, medical equipments and hospital beds are bound to go short. Getting immediate assistance can enhance our preparedness.
- The Ministry of Social Security in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Integration and Ministry of Commerce should draw up a list of the poor, the elderly and the vulnerable, an exercise which can be rendered easy by the existing Social Register. Then get the SMF or other relevant authorities to deliver food packs (rice, grains, canned food, milk and some other basic necessities) to families in poverty stricken areas.
- The Ministry of Education should ensure that more online courses are delivered to both primary and secondary school students while schools remain closed. Tertiary institutions should also ensure that courses/lectures are being delivered.
The development of a short compulsory module for primary, secondary and university students (adapted to each level) on ‘Responsible and Ethical Citizenship’. This could be disseminated via the MBC and private radios. Such a module could go a long way to get the much sought after behavioural change that we are aspiring too.
- The Ministry of Arts and Culture could work together with the MBC to present documentaries and innovative cultural programmes on different aspects of our history, museums, art, etc., of the country. With the help of the Council of Religions, it could also organise online universal prayers which could have the added benefit of making Mauritians bond and develop a strong sense of patriotism.
While the world waits for a vaccine to shoot down the enemy, we need to move on and continue to support all those battling on the front line and putting their lives at risk for us. We salute them and express gratitude to each and every one of them. We cannot thank them enough and continue to pray that they be safe and protected.
* Published in print edition on 27 March 2020