If the pandemic crisis has been seen as a wake-up call to change the way we do things, and change for the better, then this logic must apply to all aspects of the running of the country, and across all sectors. Change does not occur in the abstract – it should be self-evident that it is people who must first change for it to become a movement that then spreads throughout an organisation, the country, its institutions and so on.
We are currently confronted with some critical issues upon which the future of the country hinges.
As if Covid-19 was not enough, we now have the Air Mauritius downfall on our hands. This flagship of the Mauritian nation ought not to have been subjected to this fate – for indeed, the airline has been a victim since the caisse noire affair was uncovered in the wake of the fraud at the MCB involving NFP funds at the beginning of the 21st century. From then on, the top concern of those running the company and other stakeholders, including some union representatives, seems to have been how much to extract from it in terms of money and perks. Dubious appointments on the governing board, political interference in the day-to-day running of the airline, questionable recruiting practices, hedging with respect to fuel provision, ill-judged fleet expansion without any long-term vision – all were aligned with the same mindset of using the company as a vache-à-traire. Unfortunately, it is not the only organisation or institution which has seen rot infiltrating it from both the top and the bottom. The question that arises is: will there be a wake-up call on the part of the decision makers and the leadership? Nothing is so uncertain.
Now another danger is coming from the call made by some parties to form a gouvernement d’unité nationale. This is certainly the last thing we need at this critical juncture, because there are some hard questions to be asked, precisely about Air Mauritius to start with. This is the job of the Opposition in Parliament, which must be convened with the urgency which the situation demands.
By its very nature the role and functions of a government in a representative democracy is to govern – make laws, arbitrate, create the conditions for economic development and for a just, equitable and free society, etc, as enshrined in our Constitution, and the Opposition’s role is to scrutinize the work of government. A gouvernement d’unité nationale will not, for instance, be in a position to seek the answers about the decision to put Air Mauritius under voluntary administration, or to press for a commission of enquiry, for example, into the gross mismanagement practices as regards human resources, procurements, governance and finance that have plagued the company for the past several years. What were the duty and the role of the country’s leadership? These and other queries are likely to be swept under the carpet if there is a gouvernement d’unité nationale, which is definitely a bad idea.
One must separate the call for a unity of purpose and a spirit of national solidarity that the pandemic has imposed on us, which are valid subjective sentiments, from the need to press for in-depth investigations into the chronic malfunctions in organisations and institutions, make them accountable and demand the implementation of the changes that are needed to get things going in the right direction again – and for good, with regular parliamentary oversight, including about the fate of the stimulus packages, from an aware Opposition. Or patriotic backbenchers.
On the other hand, of major concern is the easing of the lockdown that is forthcoming. It will have to be carefully calibrated, and it goes without saying that the public health framework that will underpin this phase of the pandemic is going to be crucial. In an interview to this paper, Dr Pierrot Chitson, a Consultant Physician who has wide experience in nationwide screening and epidemiological surveillance – which he pioneered in setting up following the first NCD survey by WHO in 1987 – shares his insights on the way forward. This is a time when we need all the expertise that we can cull to assist the country in transitioning smoothly, with a bumpy ride ahead not ruled out.
But we must also be guided by the experience of other countries, and here Singapore can be a guide. Hailed as a model for its successful response to Covid-19 initially, it was compelled to impose a lockdown subsequently because of a second wave of cases that caught it too unawares. Among other things, there have to be legally enforceable measures spanning several sectors of activity as they open up, and accrued vigilance without fear or favour, including vis-a-vis visitors – but without any form of brutality.
There is a price to pay as regards modes of interaction for a return to a semblance of normality. If we are not willing to pay that price, then we must be prepared for the loss of lives as a consequence. The warning is dire – but justified.
* Published in print edition on 28 April 2020