Things we take for granted

When we look around at many countries in our vicinity and elsewhere as well, we will realise that we have little to envy compared to even some of the most advanced countries  

A couple of days ago I was listening to an item of news on BBC radio about the recent introduction of universal pension in Tanzania. Apparently this was a first in the region and was hailed as an important measure for the protection of the elderly, as it applied to people above 70 years of age who would now receive the equivalent of about 10 USD (about Rs 350 MUR) per month as pension. To that category of people in what was described as ‘one of the poorest countries’ in the world this amount represented an important economic and social aid.

This was illustrated by the interview of a lady who had received her first quantum. Asked what she felt about it, she replied that this would allow her to buy rice, and medicines in case of illness. As a matter of fact the first thing she did when she got the money was to go and buy some rice, which was cooking in the pot when she was talking to the reporter. I understand that the national staple food of Tanzania is something called ugaali, which is corn-based, so perhaps rice is something a bit more special. Incidentally, in Zimbabwe also corn is – or at least used to be – a national dish, mixed with mustard oil: I learnt this many years ago (1992) when I was on a Commonwealth Fellowship in London, and one of the participants was a journalist from Zimbabwe who had gone to meet fellow compatriots on a free weekend to enjoy this meal.

Safety net

In Mauritius we have had a pension scheme for several decades that is applicable to people above 60 years and that acts as a safety net for minimum protection in old age, as well as basic widows, orphans and invalidity pensions. The quantum of these pensions is revisited periodically, especially around the time of general elections, the last such revision being announced in December 2014 and implemented promptly following the installation of the new government. In addition there are private retirement systems in place.

The pensions issue is a complex affair and calls by the World Bank are made from time to time for pension reforms based on its ‘five pillar’ model, citing the unsustainability of the current scheme, but at least so far the national authority has maintained that safety net. Given the political and social challenges it is likely that pension entitlement will be continued in some form or the other for a foreseeable future.

There are no doubt gaps, constraints and inefficiencies in the system – as in all other systems, especially the ones addressing social objectives – as I had occasion to discover when I used to sit on the Medical Tribunal of the Ministry of Social Security which assesses medical disability. At some stage we were assigned to undertake a systematic review of those (especially long term beneficiaries) on the list, which we did by including some cases at every routine session.

This was interesting for, besides taking the required corrective measures on a case-to-case basis where there was misuse or abuse, we gained some interesting insights into social misbehaviours in our country. Both from a policy and an execution perspective therefore there is always scope for fine tuning at the level of existing statutory bodies in all sectors, provided awareness and oversight are wrought into the system. Nevertheless, the basic fact remains that any civilized country has to make provision, whatever be the model, for the protection of its vulnerable categories, and certainly universal pension is an important element in this respect.

Similarly, our public health services have been free of user cost from their inception, from the primary to the tertiary level. This means that people don’t pay for the service at all, and it is funded by indirect taxation. Our health indices are the best in Sub-Saharan Africa, and compare favourably with some of the developed countries when we take into account the per capita expenditure on health and also on health expenditure as a percentage of GDP, which is less than 5%.

Since I have started with Tanzania, I will give an example from there again. About eight years ago when I was at the Ministry of Health I attended a workshop in Arusha, Tanzania. We stayed in a hotel where I had a view of Mount Meru from my window, and appropriately named Mount Meru Hospital was situated in Arusha. At my request, my hosts arranged a visit for me to the hospital, and I reached there in mid-afternoon. I met the medical superintendent and sought some information from him. I learnt that the hospital had 450 beds and was a secondary referral hospital for the region, patients being referred from smaller hospitals in the districts of the region, comprising a population of about 1.2 million.

In Mauritius we have five regional hospitals each with a bed capacity of 400-500 and three specialised hospitals (Eye, ENT and Psychiatry) for a comparable population size. Given my specialty, I went to the orthopaedic ward of about 100 beds. There was a single nurse present, who was the one in charge, the two other having accompanied a patient to the operating theatre. He told me that there were two orthopaedic surgeons, one Korean who was fully trained and another local one who was in training. Here we had about 25 in the public service alone!

Of course things have to be improved continually, and it is right that citizens as well as health personnel should complain where they feel that there are problems, and provided that they are bona fide and well-founded, these should be taken in the right spirit as a trigger to make things better. Just ask some people who have had to attend hospitals in the UK, USA or even Canada about waiting times in Accident and Emergency, or to obtain appointments to their family doctor let alone specialists. The latest complaint I have heard from someone in the UK is that appointments with their family doctor can take up to three weeks. Here access to medical services is available and prompt on a 24/7 basis.

Little to envy

And there are many other aspects of the country’s functioning that we can think of – such as the rule of law, free education, the overall social stability and absence of endemic conflicts, an active civil society that quickly steps in with sane voices when social peace is threatened, the mutually enriching cultural diversity which we are proud of as an essential part of our coexistence, a good general level of hygiene and sanitation within a well established framework of public health regulations, unpolluted fresh air and blue skies most of the time (even in Curepipe!), 24/7 electricity supply and infrequent cuts, clean potable water: so many things that we take for granted in our daily lives and that we would do well to reflect upon at times.

For when we look around at many countries in our vicinity and elsewhere as well, we will realise that we have little to envy compared to even some of the most advanced countries. No frequent major natural catastrophes such as floods, earthquakes or wild fires nor extremes of weather for prolonged periods, no mass shootings and killings of innocent civilians in schools and universities, workplace or in society at large, no endemic violence among other such destructive events.

As regards our politics, we have chosen the democratic system which is what it is: chaotic, boisterous, adversarial but many times aggressively if not brutally oppositional, hyprocritical and populist, opaque as regards its financing and liable to lobbying pressures that make short shrift of equity and fairness – but as British politician Sir Winston Churchill said, it is the least worse of political systems. And we inherited it from the British as they were leaving, warts and all. But it is up to us to make it as functional or as dysfunctional as we want. For some time the balance has tilted towards the latter, and hopefully the future will be better and more informed for the sake of the coming generations, a responsibility that behoves us all and not only the politicians.

As we have pointed out, there is always scope for improvement across the board in all sectors, for consolidating and strengthening institutions so that they are truly independent, objective and fair. For that is the best guarantee that any citizen can get and that a country should provide so as to make progress going forward. In fact, everything is and should be a work in progress. As it said of liberty, that the price for it is eternal vigilance, so too with every aspect of our collective living: only eternal vigilance will help us to spot the deficiencies and search the solutions needed to address them, though established mechanisms and institutional frameworks that too require our constant scrutiny in a bid to enhance their functioning.

Keeping this in mind, let us start by ‘counting our blessings’ as the saying goes, and each be a contributor to the national weal, building on the sound political, cultural, social and economic foundations that have been laid – often painfully — over the years by the stalwarts that set the country on the right path towards the future.

* Published in print edition on 3 June 2016

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