Risky Gamble

With Covid-19 currently rampant in Mauritius, this is the time for rational decision making. At stake is the socio-economic recovery of the country. We cannot afford to make the wrong call

By Mrinal Roy

A sustained boost in tourists inflows in the country is capital to the economic recovery of Mauritius and to provide relief to strapped government finances. From the figures presented by the Mauritius Revenue Authority last week, MRA revenue as at 30 June 2021 has registered a deficit of Rs 4.4 billion compared to last year owing to the adverse impact of Covid-19 on the economy. The TVA collected from the higher prices of goods and cost of consumer spending resulting from the devaluation of the Rupee and questionable measures such as the reduction of import duty on cars to boost sales despite acute road congestion in the country have been unable to make good declining government revenue.

Government has also had to spend tens of billions of Rupees in various support schemes to help people and companies tide over the adverse socio-economic fallouts of Covid-19. The costly consequences of last year’s Wakashio oil spill have also put additional stress on strapped government finances. Government is therefore patently desperate to reboot the economy and in particular the tourism sector given its key importance in the national economy.

High stakes

In its 2021 Budget Speech in June 2021, the Minister of Finance has tabled on the arrival of 650,000 tourists over the next twelve months and allocated Rs 420 million to the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority (MTPA) to promote Mauritius. The stakes are high for government and the economic actors of the tourism sector who have been forced into inactivity owing to the pandemic over more than a year.

There are however growing apprehensions that government is rashly rushing to reopen our borders to welcome fully vaccinated tourists with no restrictions as from 1 October without first taking robust actions to drastically contain the spread of Covid-19 in the country and cut down the daily tally of new cases of coronavirus infection which has jumped to three digits since August.

Across the world from Germany to Australia or New Zealand, whenever there is a sudden surge of Covid-19 infection, lockdowns or similar restrictive measures are immediately imposed to first stop its spread in the community so as to prevent the situation from getting out of hand. Such radical measures have been found to be very effective in drastically cutting down cases of coronavirus infection.

What if?

The reality is that Covid-19 is currently rampant in Mauritius as evidenced by hundreds of cases of infection detected every day and their extensive footprint across the country. This situation puts undue pressure on health services and Covid-19 treatment centres. If robust measures are not taken to stem the spread of the virus and break its chain of transmission in the country, we will expose tourists to the risk of being infected during their stay in the country. This could adversely affect the classification of Mauritius as a Covid-safe tourist destination and the sustained inflow of tourists in the country. Such a situation would undermine the prospects of the tourism sector and a wide range of economic activities dependent on it as well as stall socio-economic recovery. There is also the risk of the deadly Delta variant being imported in the country through incoming passengers despite all precautions taken to rigorously screen and isolate infected travellers. We must above all prevent a double whammy.

We must remember that in a context of extensive coronavirus delta variant infection in the world, countries are taking every precaution necessary to prevent any risk of a third wave of infection in the coming winter. These precautions include listing out counties considered to be Covid-safe and opening their frontiers only to travellers from these safe countries. Their borders are also closed to nationals of countries classified as risky in terms of Covid-19 infection.

Against such a backdrop, how can the government take such a risky gamble on such an important sector of the economy in a context when the present state and spread of infection in the country is fraught with serious risks? The rising death toll is also of grave concern to people. Amidst the opacity which shrouds a broad range of crucial and telltale information, we were told last week that the death toll related directly or indirectly to Covid-19 was 57. Six more deaths have been reported this week. Why can’t there be a transparent daily sharing of information on the death toll and explicit data on the state of coronavirus infection in the country?

Every Covid related death is a collateral casualty of the pandemic and a traumatic moment for the bereaved family. People and in particular the elderly are justifiably scared to go out. The crisis management of the current surge of infection by the government is far from reassuring.

Transient herd immunity

The new government leitmotiv is herd immunity. It has staked its strategy of conjuring the pandemic on the panacea of herd immunity. It must however be flagged that herd immunity is transient and dependent on the period of protection of Covid-19 vaccines which is yet to be established on the basis of human experience. Despite the fact that a majority of people across the world have not received a single dose of vaccine, a plethora of principally rich countries from Austria to France, Germany and the United Kingdom are set to offer a booster third dose to the elderly and vulnerable groups within their population. Israel is offering a booster vaccine dose to anyone aged at least 50 years old and people at risk of severe illness from coronavirus. The US Administration has recommended a booster dose eight months after completing the first round of vaccination. Herd immunity would presumably be eroded without Covid-19 vaccine booster dose protection.

Will Covid-19 vaccination become an annual feature of our lives at a time when a large share of the world population is yet to be vaccinated. The world is still groping in the dark. The jolting reality is that the battle against Covid-19 will be very long drawn one.

Ghastly

The enduring risks associated with Covid-19 focuses attention on the treatment facilities available in the country. The grapevine is buzzing with firsthand testimony of the substandard healthcare, broken toilet doors, lack of basic amenities and the awful state of hygiene and cleanliness of the ENT Covid-19 treatment centre. It is shameful and deplorable that the state-of-the-art ENT hospital financed by the Indian government which was inaugurated in October 2019 and converted last year into a Covid treatment centre has been allowed to slump into such an appalling state of disrepair and neglect in about a year.

The new health protocol requires that doubly vaccinated 65 years old+ seniors who are tested Covid-19 positive are sent for treatment at the ENT. No elderly citizen would be willing to go there for treatment under the present ghastly conditions. Why can’t 65 years old + seniors without conditions of comorbidity be also allowed toself isolate in the comfort and security of their homes? Not all senior citizens can afford or have medical insurance cover to be treated in private clinics, let alone be treated abroad.

Gold standard

The onus is therefore squarely on the authorities to audit and benchmark the standard of healthcare, services, amenities, hygiene and cleanliness at the ENT and other Covid-19 treatment centres in the country to those prevailing in the public hospitals of the UK National Health Service (NHS). The fully vaccinated hospital and cleaning staff must be educated not be scared of infection while diligently carrying out their healthcare duties, cleaning and other professional responsibilities as is the case for front line workers in hospitals across the world.It is equally important to ensure that ICU services and beds are not overwhelmed.

At a time when government is claiming to uphold benchmarks of excellence in the teeth of its policy of appointing the coterie or the party faithful to key government posts, as ambassadors and at the head of important institutions and state-owned companies, they should be reminded that the UK NHS should be the gold standard on which the standard of healthcare, services, general hygiene and cleanliness of our hospitals should be benchmarked on. These benchmarks must become the norm applicable in all hospitals in the country at a time when billions of Rupees are being invested in new specialized hospitals such as the New Flacq Teaching Hospital.

The country is thus facing a grim situation. This is therefore not the time for risky gambles but for rational decision making. At stake is the socio-economic recovery of the country. We cannot afford to make the wrong call.


* Published in print edition on 10 September 2021

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