‘Press conferences and Facebook Lives do not win elections’

Interview: Dharam Gokhool

‘The “L’Espoir” platform will have to convince the younger generation that dynastic and patronage-based politics will be replaced by a new political culture’

* ‘Governments are there for saving lives and livelihoods but not at the expense of wastage or misuse of public funds’

* ‘Have the multiple stars hotel establishments been running at losses? Should they not also share the burden of economic recovery?’

Even as the country is currently facing two major challenges in the health and economic sectors, the government seems bent on arbitrating in favour of the economy. It is thus keeping the schools open and will proceed with the complete reopening of our frontiers as from 1 October with the attendant risk of losing the gains that have been made so far in the fight against the Covid pandemic, the more so in light of the rise in Delta variant cases which is forcing many countries to put in place tougher restrictions. Dharam Gokhool, former Education minister says in today’s interview that if ‘we should now live with Covid-19 as the new normal, then this new situation calls for an entirely new multi-pronged approach, a new way of thinking… which should transcend the fragmented, narrow, sectoral, silos response we are witnessing’. He also shares his views on another worrying trend – rising unemployment, which might have already crossed the 100,000 mark, and which according to him, with the end of support schemes for the unemployed or for those on furlough, could be ‘the precursor to a looming social crisis’. He also comments on the current political scene, urging the ‘L’Espoir’ platform to come up with a credible, better deal for the people. Read on

Mauritius Times: Like most other countries, we are also currently facing two major challenges: one, the health issues with the resurgence of the Covid infection in different localities, and second, the economic impacts of the pandemic. The government seems to believe that economic recovery should now prevail over the health challenges, and that we should revert back to normality in particular in the sectors of tourism and education. Are we doing the right thing, or do you have fears that things may get out of hand?

Dharam Gokhool: For the last two years, Covid-19 has been a terrible tragedy for the global community. The health crisis quite naturally took precedence over the economy and the narrative, so far, has been that people’s lives matter. The economy was put on the back-burner. With the passage of time, it is now being realised that Health and livelihood cannot be segregated. Hence the focus is now shifting to economic recovery.

But the global community is also constantly being reminded that Covid-19 is not going to go away so soon and that we should now live with Covid-19 as the new normal. If that is the case, then this new situation calls for an entirely new multi-pronged approach, a new way of thinking based on a whole-systems, innovative, proactive paradigm, which should transcend the fragmented, narrow, sectoral, silos response we are witnessing.

There is a huge difference between doing things right, where the focus is on incremental, operational efficiency, and doing the right things, where the focus is on charting a new transformational agenda for surviving and thriving together in a Covid-19 ecosystem. This, to my mind, should have been the real challenge, which calls for a bold, farsighted, visionary leadership at the helm of the nation. In the absence thereof, I am afraid the measures being advocated will not take us too far.

* We have not yet attained herd immunity, the number of Covid vaccines delivered to date and vaccinations done are below the threshold required. There have also been cases of indiscipline and breaches of the Quarantine Act at social gatherings, weddings, etc, which have led to a surge in Covid cases. Another cause for worry are the yet to come Delta or Lambda variants. Is it safe in these conditions to keep the schools open and to reopen completely the frontiers as from October 1?

In the initial phase, herd immunity through an aggressive vaccination strategy, together with accompanying sanitary measures, was thought to reduce the risks to health and life, associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. A number of developments have since put into question the whole concept of herd immunity.

Controversies about vaccine effectiveness (people with two doses of vaccines being contaminated and some countries starting a third dose), the difficulty in tracking asymptomatic cases, virus mutations, the lack of compliance with sanitary measures like wearing of masks, social distancing, have also put into question the very notion of herd immunity. Is herd immunity still a realistic, achievable target? Or will it have to be recalibrated in the light of developments mentioned earlier?

With the constant increase in the number of cases of infections, the risk factor is very much a matter of live concern. Slogans like “Covid Safe”, “Covid Free” and “Sel Solution Vaccination” have considerably undermined public confidence. It is quite understandable that parents do not want their children to be exposed to contamination. With the opening of frontiers, the risk factor is likely to increase. By keeping schools and frontiers open, is not the Government sending the contradictory signal that the economy matters more than the health of the population?

* As for the immediate, rising prices have also become a major cause of concern for a large number of people, hitting in the main low-income and middle-class households. Government’s Rs 500 M subsidy granted to importers and distributors for price control has come in for strong criticisms from different quarters. One comment from Resistans ek Alternativ worth mentioning is as follows: “The state persists in squandering public funds to feed the big capitalists. This social inequality is unfair…”. What’s you take on that issue? Do you think the subsidy will really trickle down to the consumer?

Covid-19, across the world, has had a crippling effect on the global economy. Developing economies have been hit the hardest, and the lower- and middle-income groups have suffered the most. Many have been pushed below the poverty line. With the combined effect of inflation, depreciation of the rupee and the significant rise in prices of a wide range of household commodities, the economic burden of the poorer sections of the population has increased considerably.

True it is that Government has come up with schemes like the Wage Assistance and Self Employed Assistance, but such initiatives have not made up for loss of their regular income, forcing many households to rely on debts. The general rise in prices has made the situation worse. The Government Rs 500 million subsidy to importers and distributors will only have a marginal effect on prices as many household expenditures do not come under the ambit of the Government subsidy, for example the rising prices of medicines.

In contrast to the Rs 80 billion earmarked for the private sector under the MIC, the Rs 500 million on prices of commodities sounds more like peanuts. It is adding insult to injury. The corporate sector, as usual, will take the lion’s share, and the common people will have to content itself with leftovers. Resistans ek Alternativ ideological broadside against such a government initiative is fully justifiable, not only politically but also morally.

* On the other hand, another worrying trend is the rising unemployment rate, which is likely to become a very dominant issue in the months ahead. There is controversy about the figures of Statistics Mauritius, and the Leader of Opposition is of the view that we have already crossed the 90,000 mark. There is a lot of uncertainty regarding the government’s wage assistance scheme and about job losses once that scheme is terminated. Are we in for troubled times ahead?

Before I comment on the issue of unemployment and job losses, let me state that it is a matter of grave concern that Statistics Mauritius has got itself entangled in controversies, which has led its Chairman, a well-respected professional, to resign from his office only a few days after growth projection figures were tampered with, without any credible explanations or justifications. Reminds me of a similar deplorable situation at the Mauritius Standards Bureau. Unbridled political interference has been taking a heavy toll on governmental credentials.

As far as unemployment, under employment and job losses are concerned, it is no secret that when economies go through recessions, fewer jobs are created; employees are put on furlough. SMEs, which contribute to the largest share of employment, are hit the hardest and self-employment opportunities dwindle. Those who are more vulnerable are youth and women. Some 10,000 plus graduates and diploma-holders are in the employment queue since years

If we add up the backlog of unemployed, in all categories – be they unskilled, diploma-holders and graduates and those on furlough – we might well have crossed the 100,000 mark. With the end of support schemes for the unemployed or for those on furlough, the situation cannot but deteriorate. And that could be the precursor to a looming social crisis.

* There has been a lot of spending by the government since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 with the financing of the Wage Assistance Scheme, and the latest being the Rs 500 M price subsidy. That is clearly not sustainable, but Lord Desai, the former MIC chairman, has been saying lately that “we should not worry about money, we should instead save lives and livelihoods… That’s what governments are for…”. There does not seem to be other options, isn’t it?

Many people, if not all, who are heading many public institutions in Mauritius, are political nominees. They are bound to speak the language of their bosses to whom they owe allegiance for obvious reasons.

I always thought that Lord Desai was made of another mettle, a respected professional who would scrupulously resist being labelled as “his master’s voice”. By a strange coincidence, his statement resonates with similar statements from Government ranks inside and outside the National Assembly, till very recently.

The National Audit Office’s severe strictures on wastage of public funds and the recent ICAC investigations into alleged cases of corruption in the procurement of medical supplies for Covid-19 are only the tip of the iceberg as far as the questionable financial stewardship of public funds is concerned.

Governments are there for saving lives and livelihoods but not at the expense of wastage or misuse of public funds. Besides, the use of public funds should abide by the sacrosanct principles of transparency and accountability. Is MIC exempted from these obligations?

A forensic investigation of how public funds of the MIC have been disbursed and utilised and how much of the funds will be recuperated, at the end of the day, will provide the nation with a graphic account on the misdirection or otherwise of public funds.

On a concluding note on this issue, Government is coming to realise the ABC of basic economics that one has to cut one’s coat according to the available cloth, and that the assistance schemes could well be unsustainable. Alternatives must be explored. Will Lord Desai then change his original hypothesis that “we should not worry about money”?

* About the MIC itself, billions have been earmarked to be channelled towards the major distressed enterprises, mostly those in the tourism sector, but now we hear the some of the multiple stars hotels will go in for major renovation works after benefitting from almost 18 months of wage assistance. Misplaced priorities or what?

The MIC funds are shrouded in a thick veil of secrecy by the Central Bank and the MIC itself. Even parliamentary scrutiny has been denied by Government.

The Financial Action Task Force has established that Government does not have the capacity to conduct complex financial investigations. But, more importantly, does Government have the political clout to require the large hotel establishments to open their accounts for scrutiny before the disbursement of funds?

The multiple stars hotel establishments have been there for more than half a century. Have they all been running at losses? What about their accumulated reserves? Should they not also share the burden of economic recovery?

Since the Government has not come forward with a well-calibrated, multi-pronged, balanced economic recovery strategy, for example by giving support for food security and the circular economy, and since the tourism sector is a major earner of foreign currency, and as Government is betting on this sector to kick start the economy, it will have to play to the tune of the piper.

* There is much uncertainty about when normality will be restored, and most economists are saying the continuing uncertainty about the Covid pandemic makes economic forecasts difficult. Our Finance minister is betting on the revival of the tourism sector with the reopening of the frontiers in October and on further investments in infrastructure to take out of the current stagnation. Could he be right?

Investment in infrastructure is important, but it will take its own time to generate income for the Government. In normal conditions, the tourism sector, with its multiplier effects, plays a major role in economic growth. But in a Covid-19 context where the tourism market worldwide is quite depressed, and with limited spending capacity of travellers, will the expected flow of some 650,000 tourists in the coming months materialise, both in terms of numbers and projected revenues?

The daily increase in the number of infections is indeed worrying, and Government seems to be losing control on this front. If the Covid situation deteriorates, Government runs the risk of losing its gamble of betting heavily on the tourism sector. And being caught in the net of a zero-sum game.

* On the political front, it would appear the ‘L’Espoir’ parties are on course to getting back together after a brief period when each party went its separate way lately. Do you think the Labour Party’s place is with that “plateforme”, as one political leader has suggested recently, or is the place already too crowded?

I view the situation from a different angle.

The track record of this Government, so far, has been highly disappointing, and people feel let down. The rot has not gone away, nor is “développement” and a “bigger share of the cake for the people” at the rendezvous, as promised in 2014 and 2019. There is a general feeling among the population that the country is stuck in a rut and problems are piling up. Public frustration with the political class has never been so acute.

The “L’Espoir” platform has been criticising and attacking the Government, conference after conference, but has it so far come up with a credible, better deal for the people? Why is the “L’Espoir” platform failing to generate traction on the ground? Press conferences and Facebook lives do not win elections. Elections are won and lost in the hearts and minds of the people.

“L’Espoir”, with or without the Labour Party, will have to convince the population that it will last, and that it has a programme and the people to deliver on that programme, and that it will be the harbinger of an era of political renaissance in the Mauritian landscape. Last but not the least, it will have to convince the younger generation that dynastic and patronage-based politics will be replaced by a new political culture where merit and morality will prevail.

* Some Labourites have been saying that it appears to them that the party is still in hibernation, leaving the field to the four leaders of ‘L’Espoir’ to do all the talking for quite some time now. Are you beginning to have doubts about LP’s capacity to get back on its feet?

Whether it is hibernation or hypersomnia, both conditions can impair the bounce-back potential of a political organisation. In an era where agility, both mental and physical, is the norm, the ground rule is to be up and running.

If the government of the day is failing, it’s because it came unprepared and is unable to be proactive. Fire-fighting and crisis management has become the norm.

The Labour Party is a sleeping giant, but the key to a successful bounce-back is to be in a state of preparedness.

According to Benjamin Franklin, failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Let this be a wake-up call for the Labour leadership.

* Published in print edition on 16 July 2021

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