Our Winter of Discontent

What have we learned through the pains and sufferings, what have we understood and what has really changed one year later?

By Jan Arden

Like every country, even insular ones, the resilience of our country’s health infrastructure, institutional integrity and governance, economic fundamentals and social solidarity has been under severe test ever since the Covid-19 worldwide pandemic, raging outside, managed to infiltrate our shores sometime in early 2020 leaving us now plagued by a furiously infective variant.

Our pandemic misfortunes were compounded when the Japanese-owned tanker MV Wakashio evaded all our national monitoring and radar scanning systems, leaving our National Coast Guard prevention and intervention forces helpless as it drove onto our coral reefs on a wintry 25th July 2020. While various departments fiddled and looked to have entrusted our sovereign waters and the unique biodiversity-rich marine ecosystem of the south-east coast to ship-salvers, the consequence was that the tanker broke in half and spilled a 1000 ton of its muck into our waters.

In this most pathetic and gut-wrenching saga of multiple-level failings, the Court of Investigation has to delve without, we trust, skirting the issues and awkward questions. An inability to secure our maritime and coastal frontiers a few kms from shore, and an admission of such inadequacies and helplessness at international level, bodes poorly for an island claiming, rightfully we may say, to oversee millions of square kms of the Indian Ocean. One winter later, Minister Anwar Husnoo, seemed in Parliament to be in studying-reports mode and no immediate corrective measures, pending completion of court inquiry, have surprisingly been initiated as yet.

In the Wakashio disaster, matters were made bearable only by the enthusiasm, solidarity, patriotism and pride of thousands of volunteer hands across all walks of life rushing to concoct artisanal booms, organize logistics, transport and food supplies to help limit the eco-system damages. They waited on nobody – Minister, PPS and backbench MP included – to hector them about patriotism, as some in government quarters tend to forget these days.

That was unfortunately not the end of the country’s wintry woes, as the saga of precipitous contracts of PPEs, sanitary equipment, respirators, antigen tests, other health supplies being awarded helter-skelter or deliberately to a variety of happy beneficiaries was to follow. That scandal regarding STC and Commerce broke out and hit the stands around July 2020 with arrests made by year-end and the anti-corruption agency reportedly initiating inquiries and audit trails into some Rs 400m of public monies disposed of to cronies, family and associates.

On a different plane, the first payouts from the US$ 2 billion of Central Bank reserves allocated to its wholly-owned subsidiary, the MIC, destined to major “systemic” business players in financial difficulties through the pandemic, were announced by the Minister of Finance end July 2020. The creation of the MIC having already attracted flak from the IMF, the lack of the total transparency promised by one and all, was widely decried as, one winter later, the Leader of the Opposition revealed details of happy beneficiaries clearly not in that “systemic” bracket, and reportedly close to ruling political bosses.

For the largest MIC handout, economic and society observers had to rely on a press communique of the listed company Omnicane: “The company has entered into binding agreements with the [MIC] for the sale of all its shares held in Mon Trésor Smart City… and the sale of plots of land situated in the regions of Britannia and Mon Trésor for a total consideration of Rs 4.5 billion.” Legitimate calls for fuller and real-time transparency have been largely ignored by the authorities.

That was 2020, the winter that was, giving rise to the historic and widely reported manifestation of end August in the streets of the Capital. Hard on its heels came the poignant homily of Cardinal Piat on the eve of the Pere Laval commemoration which upset government attendees but raised some real social issues related to the collective sufferings of the country’s psyche: squatters, social housing, rampant drug trafficking, Covid-19, wreckage and oil-spill of MV Wakashio, wreckage of Sir Gaëtan Duval tug, amongst others. The annual homilies at St Louis or Pere Laval are usually well attended by our top political brass and although they may not be everybody’s cup of tea, they undoubtedly have some moral stature and relevance for our fellow Catholic brothers.

Since then, matters and nerves could have been expected to calm down and some serenity restored both in government circles and in the wider society, already on edge by the consequences of the pandemic. No sane society can remain in such a meta-stable condition over years. To quote from the beleaguered conservative British PM, Margaret Thatcher (1980, Brighton), “I prefer to believe that certain lessons have been learned from experience, that we are coming, slowly, painfully, to an autumn of understanding. And I hope that it will be followed by a winter of common sense.”

To use her metaphor in our context, from the winter of discontent of 2020, have we sailed that autumn and reached the winter of 2021 in a more sobering state in terms of governance?

The Cardinal’s appeal in winter 2020 was for greater togetherness, solidarity and empathy during the immensely challenging times of the year that had passed, though government may have legitimately believed it had done what it could on those social fronts under the duress of the pandemic. If the August 29th manifestation and homilies had heavy undertones of social and environmental distress and the all too apparent bungling and incompetence in our twin maritime disasters (Wakashio and Sir Gaetan Duval tug), the tone was to shift when, some six months later, on Saturday 13th February 2021, another massive march took to the streets of the Capital to denounce the succession of scandals in government spheres.

By that time, two Senior Ministers had exited government: Nando Bodha on matters of principle, and Yogida Sawmynaden on allegations of impropriety. In addition, January 15 marked the resumption this year of the judicial investigation surrounding the suspicious death of MSM activist Soopramanien Kistnen, whose partially charred body was found in a cane field in Telfair, Moka, on 18 October 2020. Although it was wound up on June 18th, fresh evidence has forced re-opening of this disconcerting case which is slowly turning into an indictment of police and official investigations in this high-profile affair.

So, one winter later, have we moved on to a new democratic space, refreshed ideals or a new plane of governance? For what it’s worth, not in the view of our friends in Seychelles, whose Presidential slap about our Parliament proceedings (“we operate in far more civilised mode here”) are still reddening government cheeks. We could also note that the Cardinal’s St Louis homily delivered last week has shifted its tone from last year’s challenges to this year’s concerns: “Nous avons tous une part à prendre dans le maintien du niveau d’honnêteté et d’intégrité dans la conduite des affaires de notre famille, de notre travail, et de notre pays. L’engagement pour la transparence et contre toute forme de corruption n’est pas seulement une option, c’est le devoir de chaque citoyen. Car il y va, non pas seulement de la santé d’une société mais de sa survie.”

On key operational levels, are our independent institutions gearing up to better serve the country? Is the health and pandemic under better control as we prepare for opening our frontiers? Is Education making allowance for the exceptional circumstances of last year’s tracas of students and parents, the general uncertainty around Cambridge’s assessments, and relax her hard and fast rule that will force 4-credit holders out of college education? While discipline and efforts are desirable under normal circumstances, we might have expected Education to show greater empathy in this exceptionally disturbed year. After all, it only concerns less than a few hundred seats at an educated guess.

What then have we learned through the pains and sufferings, what have we understood and what has really changed one year later? Ultimately, those questions will be best answered by each one of us as we relive events, some highly mediatized, since that winter of discontent in 2020.

* Published in print edition on 31 August 2021

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