The bit of information that Reunion had had 400mm of rain and yet there was not a single death took me back to the AH1N1 episode of 2009, the novel influenza epidemic that started in Mexico around April of that year and then spread all over the world to become a pandemic.
As we were battling with the problem in Mauritius, similarly there came a flash of news about an article published in the Journal de la Reunion, bearing the signature of a heavyweight professor and predicting that we should expect about 600 deaths from the disease in Mauritius. Apparently he had made estimates based on theoretical considerations which appeared very learned. This news was accompanied by innuendoes to the effect that the authorities in Mauritius were hiding the true facts about the epidemic locally, and during the practically daily press briefings several questions were put with reference to that learned article and the dire prediction.
In line with a tendency common in Mauritius to blindly believe outsiders more than trust local knowledge, more credence was given to the contents of that article.
As it happens, the total number of AH1N1 related deaths was about 30, about 20 times less than the figure of 600 in that article, and nothing more was heard about it. And predictably, also in line with current practice, there was never any rectification made about that information – because probably such a move would show that the natives were right and the foreign expert wrong. Why that expert, an eminent epidemiologist based in France, did not concern himself with the situation in Reunion is a mystery.
Around that time a team from the University of Maryland, USA, came on a visit to Mauritius in connection with the issue of medical education. According to a standard protocol for the surveillance of communicable diseases that has been in place here for several decades, they were contacted by Health Surveillance personnel within 24 hours of their arrival. They told me that they never thought that Mauritius had such an effective system of surveillance, and expressed their appreciation, adding that even in the US they did not have such a system in place!
The truth of the matter is that it is this system that has kept the island free of malaria since the 1970s, barring a minor outbreak of indigenous malaria that broke out about 20 years ago, and was rapidly contained, that is, prevented from spreading. It is because of this system, along with other Public Health measures, that we have been able to create a healthy, salubrious environment in the island and that has allowed it to prosper, in particular the development of its tourism sector.
It would be recalled that when the chickungunya epidemic broke out in 2005, there was similar apprehension about tourist arrivals, and again there was a deployment of Public Health resources that eventually led to effective control of the disease, with little adverse economic impact on the island.
But again, subsequently there were comparisons made between Mauritius and Reunion as regards chickungunya, but the fact that Mauritius had successfully tackled the epidemic and kept the disease in abeyance over the ensuing years was never given any prominence locally.
As a matter of fact, Mauritius registered its last case of chickungunya in August 2006. There was a sporadic case in the Ebene area last year, but that is neither here nor there as far as control of the disease is concerned. On the other hand, almost every year Reunion has had to face outbreaks of chickungunya, and the authorities there have had no reason to hide the facts and figures. Public Health experts know the reasons for these differences between the two islands, and they do their best to handle whatever situation arises as and when it does.
So in these and other matters of high technicity, it is better to leave things in the hands of experts and not to speculate for the sake of gory sensationalism to sell copy for want of better things to present. Saying that 400mm of rain fell with no loss of life is pure nonsense if it is not accompanied by other details, such as where exactly, over what period of time, what is the topography of the place and so on. Clearly this much of rain falling in Cilaos or Cirque Maffat is altogether a different scenario from rain falling in St Denis.
Besides, there are surely many other elements that come into play, such as compliance with regulatory norms for construction of houses in Reunion (especially along canals), civic sense of the citizens (clogging up drains with household or other waste, etc), extent of multilateral/multiagency cooperation in the carrying out of public works, financial and logistic resources available and so on. It must not be forgotten also that Reunion, being a ‘departement’ of France, is effectively French territory, and as such has access to much more in terms of facilities and resources than Mauritius.
As it is, that piece of information (400mm) has as quickly disappeared from the news as it was peddled with absurd seriousness, for the simple reason that the complex of factors that may have led to the unfortunate situation on last Saturday has started to be unravelled. And, as expected, it is more than evident that it is a combination of natural and manmade factors that is being identified as contributory.
More than mitigating the consequences of the floods to areas and people affected – which is already underway in a gesture of exemplary national solidarity that has been in force since last Sunday, from all over the island – it is preventive measures that need to be looked into, starting with implementation of some that had already been identified, such as those contained in Judge Domah’s report on the torrential rains of 2008 in Mon Gout (among others the urgent need for an updated radar at the Meteorological Services).
All of Mauritius has lived through a nightmare, and if we play our cards well we may not have to experience another one again. After all, we have fine-tuned our cyclone preparedness plan so well that cyclones of whatever intensity now hardly result in the loss of life, save a few that were clearly traced to human error as far as the individuals themselves were concerned.
Hopefully we will be as effective and successful regarding flash floods and torrential rains, so that even Reunion might look up to us, even if we don’t want to do so ourselves!
* Published in print edition on 5 April 2013