There are so many technical and semi-technical opinions going around about when and how the lockdown should be eased or lifted that confusion is apt to prevail. However, certain criteria seem to be emerging: 1. The decision must be based on data available, which includes that derived from modelling where this is done 2. It should be done in a staggered or phased manner, i.e. gradual opening of sectors of the economy in addition to the essential services already operating 3. Each country will have to work out its own modalities, based on as wide as possible stakeholder consultations 4. The modalities should be pre-planned, that is be ready when the announcement is made 5. There should be strict enforcement of the guidelines and defaulters must be heavily penalized.
From the observations made by consumer representatives such as Suttydeo Tengur and the outcry from trade unionists, it is clear that the bias in favour of big business as shown by directing food supply activities to the supermarkets has not been seen in a good light. The logistics that have had to be put in place, such as deployment of the police and even the SMF – both entities surely having more important roles to play especially in such a crisis – weigh quite heavily on the country’s already strained resources, but they have also raised some pertinent queries among customers. Should someone have to queue up for hours if s/he needs only a few items, or just some baguettes?
The bigger issue of course is that by being too liberal with licences the country has encouraged the development of a supermarket culture that has spread even to rural regions, effectively killing an important component of the small and medium enterprise sector which was represented by the numerous outlets such as the local shops and tabagies serving clients in the locality. The decried carnet la boutique offering credit was more than a commercial transaction: it was also a cultural feature which established trust between shop owner and client, something which is absent in the large outlets where it’s only about goods and profit, not the fibre of human interaction that oils the cogs of the wheel of society.
Definitely this model has to be revisited, and this crisis gives an opportunity to do so.
As the paper has pointed out earlier, vegetable and fruit growers and sellers seem to have been forgotten in the calculations when the first set of modalities were announced after the lockdown was declared. In fact, Minister Joe Lesjongard who was tasked to do that said that they were the recommendations made by an interministerial committee, and he spelt out the composition. Strangely enough, the Minister of Agriculture was not named! This at a time when our fallback will inevitably have to be on local produce, and clearly the agricultural sector has the most crucial role to play.
The long and the short of it is that it must be realized that the vegetable markets must be allowed to operate, both to supply the people’s needs as well as to continue ensuring the livelihoods of thousands of people for whom this activity, and the ones related thereto, are their only source of revenue. The same controlled conditions can be applied, but at the same time the sellers in the outlying areas, villages and cités can surely be authorized to run. They are the ones who also sell bread, which they obviously source from the bakeries. Bread is ingrained into the Mauritian cuisine, and everybody must be able to obtain it in the morning at least as is usually the case. This means that the bakeries must operate, and the smaller outlets be supplied daily but again respecting the guidelines.
This also implies that the growers must be allowed to work in their fields, and that is where the help of law enforcers must be directed so that their security is assured. If, as has happened last week, the growers are chased from their fields by the police, then where are our vegetables and fruits going to come from? Not to forget that there have been inordinate and unjustified hikes in prices, a situation that can lead to social unrest when scarcity begins to hit us. This eventuality must be absolutely preempted.
On the other hand, one must seriously begin to think beyond the crisis on this important aspect of our supplies, lest it be forgotten when the crisis has passed. This may well be a beneficial aspect of the pandemic, as it will force us to decide on the model of development that is most needed and suitable to guarantee our basic needs and essentials as the priority of priorities. All other development must be centred around this fundamental.
* Published in print edition on 10 April 2020
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