Hype v/s Reality

Despite all the chest thumping and self congratulatory kudos, the disquieting reality is that the country is facing a crisis. This is not the time for government to be in denial

By Mrinal Roy

Nowhere in the democratic world are prime time news basically monopolized by a tedious rehash of large extracts of the Prime Minister’s speeches and declarations including his speeches in Parliament, whose debates and proceedings are already broadcast live in a dedicated channel. Cohorts of sycophants are mobilized to unabashedly parrot on State TV the same praise on every contested decision taken by government. Such abusive and partisan use of the national public broadcaster financed from public funds is unprecedented. No wonder people switch off to other news channels. Is this the democratic Mauritius our parents fought for?

Health services overwhelmed 1 . Pic – The Herald

No government in the country has gone to such lengths to continuously portray itself, its decried governance, its contested policy decisions, its management of the Covid-19 pandemic and the affairs of the State in a good light through daily spin doctoring and propaganda on national TV at public expense. Every questionable means is used to blow its own trumpet and shroud controversial decisions likely to trigger an outcry, in opacity. A Covid-19 mortality table was even dug out and used recently to morbidly crow, in a context of rising deaths, that Mauritius is doing better in terms of death toll than more developed countries like the United states or Brazil. The rising death toll and the unabated spread of infection in the country has however severely dented the contrived image painstakingly built through daily hype. The hasty rush towards economic normality has taken a heavy toll. The new Covid variant, Omicron, risks upsetting the apple cart.

The government knows better than anyone that spin doctoring akin to fake news is not reality. The reality is that, despite government’s self congratulatory rhetoric, its management of the pandemic in the country is facing growing and scathing criticisms. People and in particular the elderly are scared to go out to avoid being infected as the virus and its deadlier Delta variant seems to be everywhere.

Employees are frightened to commute or go to work as so many are infected at the place of work. In general, people do not want to be infected by Covid-19 as they are terrified at the prospect of being treated in hospital as so many infected persons of different age groups have succumbed while being treated in specialized treatment units in hospitals. People are even afraid to go for their booster jabs because of the crowds at the government vaccination centres. An increasing number of people are opting to be vaccinated in private clinics.

Public trust

This adverse public perception of the country’s health care services, which is one of the key pillars of our welfare state with a budget of Rs 14.5 billion, has been caused by incriminating first-hand reports from patients treated for Covid-19 in the specialized units in the country’s hospitals. This is unacceptable. The onus is therefore on those in charge of the healthcare services in the hospitals and specialized units to rebuild public trust in the quality and competence of services and care provided through rigorous oversight and the benchmarking of health care centres to world’s best practices.

Our hospitals and treatment centres can have all the beds required, the medicine and treatment protocols necessary to treat the various stages of infection as well as the oxygen and ventilators needed, but what comforts and makes a difference to patients and their families is the quality and standards of humanity and care of the treatment provided.

Why not for example use the ‘Prevention & Treatment Protocols for Covid-19’ successfully used by the US Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance made of cheaper and easily accessible medicine?

Science driven

Despite all the chest thumping and self congratulatory kudos, the disquieting reality is that the country is facing a crisis. This is not the time for government to be in denial or to underplay the gravity of the virus spread in the country, now exacerbated by the threat posed and economic fallout of the new variant, Omicron, which has already triggered a domino effect in the world. In a pandemic, there is no bio-bubble for individual countries. The pandemic can only be stemmed if it is contained in every country across the world. One of the cardinal lessons learnt from the pandemic is that its competent and apt management must be science driven. It cannot be managed by politicians.

Novel research frameworks and interdisciplinary collaboration involving scientists from different fields have been a game changer. A wide range of scientists from a broad range of disciplines such as medicine and pharmacy, molecular and cellular biology, microbiology and biochemistry, genetics, immunology, pharmacology, nutrition, psychology, epidemiology, health and nursing care services, statistics and computational sciences, etc., are actively involved in finding effective solutions for containing and stemming the Covid-19 pandemic.

The research for new vaccines and treatment drugs continues. Doctors, pulmonary physicians, specialists in critical care, emergency medicine and health care professionals involved in the fight against the pandemic must continuously keep tabs on latest research work, data and the latest validated treatments in order to better contain the pandemic and provide patients in the country with the best treatment available. This informed decision making has to be taken by scientists and specialists in the field.

 Clamour for transparency and accountability

The state of the pandemic in the world with a fifth wave of coronavirus infection in many countries in Europe such as Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Spain,the Czech Republic and Slovakia and surges in infection in various countries from Switzerland to Russia and Vietnam has brought the Covid-19 response strategies of countries across the world under scrutiny. There is therefore a legitimate clamour for transparency and accountability.

In the UK, the House of Commons Science & Technology and Health and Social Care Committees released a scathing report called ‘Coronavirus: Lessons Learned to Date’ in October 2021 on the government Covid-19 pandemic response, describing it as one of ‘the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced’. The report listed a long list of failures. Ministers had delayed implementing the initial response, partly because they were viewing the crisis through ‘a veil of ignorance.’ Care homes were effectively abandoned. The report described how ‘a fatalistic view of inevitable spread and the implicit acceptance of roughly 800 deaths a week far higher than in European countries greatly impacted the pandemic response.’ Many UK scientists expressed concern at the time. Politicians who challenged government policy were attacked. This all smacks so blatantly déjà vu.

In Brazil, senators approved a 1300-page report to recommend charging President Jair Bolsonaro over his handling of the devastating Covid pandemic, which caused Brazil’s death toll to be the second highest in the world after that of the United States. The report has been handed to the chief prosecutor, a Bolsonaro appointee. Human lives matter above everything else.

Shouldn’t there be a similar transparent and accountable review of the Covid-19 response strategy of Mauritius?

* * *

The Pipe Dream of Controlling Media

The government seems paranoid about criticisms and being faulted. The knee-jerk reaction epitomized by the amended Independent Broadcasting Authority Act and the recent orchestrated build up on a Press Council are tell-tale. Using a government appointed regulator as proxy to regulate freedom of opinion is a non-starter.   In an international context where various attempts to control media have been repeatedly debunked, it is patently foolhardy to pipe dream about restricting freedom of speech and opinion. There are potent risks of crossing a sacrosanct red line which could backfire. Those who rashly sow the wind reap the whirlwind.

The media landscape has changed completely. News on, for example, independent outlets on YouTube are generally considered more reliable than on official news channels which have repeatedly been faulted for peddling news such as, for example, the Douma chemical attack in Syria or RussiaGate (regarding alleged Russian “meddling” in US elections) which have been proven to be false. The upshot is that news broadcast on official channels have lost their credibility.

Freedom of speech and opinion, the press and assembly are absolute freedoms which are robustly guaranteed in the First Amendment to the American constitution. This amendment together with nine other amendments introduced in the first Congress in 1789 constitute the Bill of Rights. They guarantee civil rights and liberties to the individual. These are unalienable rights.

Fantasies of dynastic parties

Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on the occasion of Constitution day celebrations that dynastic parties are a threat to democracy. Dynastic parties significantly narrow the democratic space in the country. The democratic space is further limited by nepotism, cronyism and the appointment the coterie at the head of key state institutions, state companies or as ambassadors detrimental to the interests of the country, by government. It is also further restricted by the high-handed manner parliamentary democracy is being muzzled and the national public broadcaster financed from public funds has been hijacked by government for abject partisan propaganda.

Those who rabidly want to control freedom of speech and opinion are basically trapped in their own fantasies. In a true democracy, important policies of national importance such as freedom of opinion, the management of the Covid-19 pandemic, parliamentary democracy, etc., which transcend narrow partisan politics must necessarily be agreed through national consensus involving civil society. To do otherwise as is presently the decried case is anathema to the multitude.

* Published in print edition on 3 December 2021

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