Covid – Victims of success?

Opinion

Success with this deadly virus is only transient and this is certainly not the time to relax controls in the rush to open economic and social life…

By Jan Arden

Even moderate success in the midst of the pandemic is often a welcome boon for governments facing countrywide fatigue after months of lockdown, curfews, leisure, sports or travel restrictions. The ensuing positive messaging while soothing for the government benches, reassures a country’s struggling economic operators, keeps the morale of the self-employed afloat, and maintains the population psyche in the hope of a rapid return to some normalcy. But it is probably a platitude to observe that success often breeds an undesirable child, over-confidence, that itself generates complacency and smugness.

Undoubtedly Boris Johnson, the UK PM can take credit for handling the second wave of the pandemic far better than he did the first, pushing for a mass vaccination program while much of Europe was embroiled in vaccine controversies that hid underlying fierce commercial considerations. Today, with more than 35% of its population vaccinated to a first dose, the UK is a redemption story that has generated a sorely needed upbeat feel countrywide.

Yet many experts and independent professionals warn that these gains and the accompanying politically-convenient messaging should not breed complacency. Germany is warning of a third wave, Italy is heading for another lockdown and the pandemic is still rampant throughout much of Europe, Latin and South America. Success with this deadly virus is only transient and this is certainly not the time to relax controls in the rush to open economic and social life without adequate public health measures.

Closer to us by heart, India is the latest country where the unfolding tragedy is taking dramatic proportions, leaving an already stretched public health infrastructure on the verge of collapse, hundreds of thousands of lives swept away and the economic prospects somewhat in disarray. Many countries have now banned commercial flights from India.

In parallel, the Indian steel industry is diverting its liquid oxygen reserves to hospitals and traditional allies as far as Russia and France are promising medical supplies, vaccines or airlifts of liquid oxygen in such vital short supply. We need not say more as our TV channels are rife with dramatic images and expert analysis. Even if the topmost priorities of India are to get the wildfire under control, did complacency creep in from India’s political messaging as the success story of pharmaceutical or vaccine producer for the world?

* * *

How a success story turned into a nightmare

Mauritius Inc, through the valiant efforts of health personnel and frontliners backed by the general cooperation of the wider population and a relatively clear lockdown strategy, had surfed the first wave of the deadly virus reasonably well during 2020, abstraction made here of the shocking stories of pandemic-business to cronies running into a billion rupees or more.

After months of negative coverage of the Wakashio wreckage and its oil-spill and from high-profile ongoing judicial inquiries, the months of “Covid-safe” leading to end 2020 was a success that authorities could not eschew. And the population cannot be blamed for espousing the unrelenting official smugness promoted in public gatherings and the National Assembly and largely covered by the national TV carrier.

But if that success led to some relaxing of restrictions, sanitary measures and strict protocols from quarantine to hospitals, then the milk has turned sour this year. As an island, a performing quarantine, “operating under the strictest protocols on earth” as toasted by the PM, should have kept out any second wave patient(s) that has seen the virus spread to a dozen hotspots or more. Did the successes of last year lull the health authorities into a false sense of security, an absence of preparedness and a lackadaisical approach to vaccine procurement strategy, even though they were repeatedly warned by Opposition and independent voices to make diligence pre-ordering and securing vaccines from any source?

Behind the scenes, government should undertake a sober analysis of where it was right in 2020 and where matters went wrong since early 2021, with health authorities struggling to cope with the second surge that must have emanated from its airport and quarantine protocols. One may wonder whether the official structures, the health authorities and the ad-hoc Committees learnt anything from last year or drew contingency plans during those periods of relative respite from the virus.

Vaccine orders, consent form paraphernalia and variations in vaccination roll-out policy are nothing less than shambolic, particularly for the vulnerable and the elders of society.

The tragic outcome of hospitals becoming hot-spots of infection and dialysis patients torn by the heart-rending feeling of going alone to their death-beds in hospitals or quarantine centres could have called for a much earlier inquest from top-levels, if only to help public health identify and urgently correct any breaches and re-assure an anguished population.

What was needed was a thorough review of dialysis treatment under pandemic conditions, spanning logistics through quarantine services to treatment facilities. No internal, departmental or medical negligence inquiry would have been broad ranging enough to be of use or relatively credible for the anguished families. By holding on adamantly to those avenues and dismissively reeling out statistics and protocols against growing human tragedies, the inexperienced Minister of Health did those families, himself, the public health staff and the government a grave disservice.

The appointment last Friday of a Fact Finding Committee (FFC) to be chaired by a retired Supreme Court justice Mrs D. Beesoondoyal, elevated GCSK in 2019, should go some way to shed urgent light both on the dialysis tragedies, the missteps, if any, and make recommendations for course correction even this late. Having staunchly resisted such calls days before the Cabinet decision, it was left to the Minister to bite the bitter bullet and make the announcement himself the same afternoon.

As regards the higher spheres of government, they might wish to go beyond the FFC, focused on dialysis, to fathom out more widely how a success story in 2020 turned into the nightmare of 2021

* * *

The MalinGéniestalking the corridors of power

Is there a “malingénie”, not necessarily of the metaphysical Descartes variety, that seems to stalk the corridors of power in these difficult times? Fostering a sense of the greater good, a common destiny and a sense of patriotism has been so battered by institutional failings that a clear impression of permanent confrontation seems deliberately cultivated in higher spheres.

Nowhere is it more evident than in the National Assembly where the Opposition, whose primary objective is to raise questions, concerns and issues relating to their constituents, the population at large or the state of the country, is continuously harassed and their leaders expelled at the drop of a hat.

More insidiously, some upper rungs of the Mauritius Police Force and the PMO, saw fit to use the delivery of Work Access Permits, which control legitimate movements during the pandemic, for unexplainable denials of Opposition MPs while all government ministers, PPS, and their affiliated babus had theirs delivered weeks ago. With the threat of court sanction, the Commissioner and the PMO, were forced to relent and restore a belated normalcy.

But the more dangerous bite of the fantasized “MalinGénie” came from the ICTA, which, unsatisfied with the barrage of existing legal provisions to curb internet abuse, proposed nothing less than a solution that would have made North Korea proud. Much has already been written on the agency’s consultation paper and there is no need to delve at any length on the philosophy and technicalities behind what is widely perceived as a renewed assault that now portends to confiscate and control public internet and social network access.

We trust the Economic Development Board has been apprised of this extraordinary proposal and will rapidly adapt all its marketing materials and web brochures inviting foreign companies to invest in our IT economic pillar, with the added certainty that all their correspondences and exchanges would be fully government-supervised. Should that hairy proposal come to Cabinet for approval and a Bill tabled in the National Assembly, that is.

More seriously, there may still be hope that government’s “towers of control” rein in theirown darker impulses fed by fairy spirits…


* Published in print edition on 27 April 2021

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