This is a time not for the shy and the fearful but for the brave and the strong-willed. This is a battle Mauritius simply cannot afford to lose
By Lindsay Rivière
“History has a habit of testing us, as individuals and as a nation; a habit of demanding that we choose between our fears and our hopes.”
— Former US President Bill Clinton
As Mauritius gradually moves towards ‘deconfinement’ and the end of the curfew on June 2, we will soon be able to better assess the massive socio-economic devastation of the Covid-19 crisis and plan our response to new realities.
We are, indeed, faced today with one pivotal moment in our History. Our immediate challenge is to manage fear and rebuild hope. How do we go about achieving this?
Fear, today, is everywhere. At the public health level, we may have successfully contained the first onslaught of the pandemic through prompt and decisive action, strict guidelines, inspired leadership and the co-operation of everyone. However, this is only temporary relief: we are not precluded from a resurgence of the virus through some returning Mauritian or visitor. And it only takes one moment of distraction for the fire to flare up again. Constant surveillance will thus become obsessive and may well reach paranoid levels. Furthermore, the Covid-19 crisis has left deep psychological scars in all Mauritians, confronted with weeks of uncertainty and living with the terrifying prospect of serious ill-health or the death of our loved ones. The nation is nervously exhausted. Its emotional balance and safety net have been severely dented.
And yet, there is still worse to come!
“Operational disruptions, supply chain uncertainty and cash flow worries have already sent most large companies reeling. Pressure for deliberate, large-scale depreciation of our currency (in order to generate more rupees to pay our workers) will increase, pushing up inflation and the cost of living. These various elements all add up to a very dangerous situation: a multi-sector, multi-faceted, all-encompassing, all-at-once crisis! This could quickly evolve from a crisis to a nightmare!”
Mental stress and solidarity fatigue
Besides endangering lives, coronavirus is also a job-killer. Massive unemployment will soon affect tens of thousands of households, threatening their financial stability, diminishing their purchasing power and creditworthiness, disrupting family plans, shattering dreams. The mental stress will inevitably increase. Deep personal and collective anger will quickly follow, making the nation growingly unresponsive to further calls for long-term sacrifice and civic responsibility. It’s well to remember that people spend 90% of their time thinking about themselves and their personal issues and far less time than we think reflecting on ‘the collectivity’ or other people’s problems. We may well start facing ‘solidarity fatigue’ soon. As difficulties increase, people grow more selfish and retire into a ‘couldn’t-be-bothered’, inward-looking attitude.
We can already see this in the trade unions’ current display of “mentality of entitlement” to everything. Unions shockingly only defend their paying members’ rights and interests and speak up only for those who already have a job, not making a single constructive proposal on larger employment issues and not paying any attention to the future needs of those who do not have a job or who may well lose theirs. The trade union movement typically wants no change to any acquired right, no disruption to the traditional way of doing things, no PRB delay, no reduction in any benefit, while the current crisis situation requires flexibility, adaptability, compromise and the courage to temporarily relinquish some benefits in order to enhance the chances of the unemployed to find jobs. Do not over-estimate solidarity. It goes away like a flower in the wind!
“As unemployment looms, Government should urgently fill all vacancies in the public sector, lower retirement age, call upon the well-to-do to make fiscal sacrifices and effectively demonstrate solidarity with substantial pay cuts for executives; no 2020 end-of-the-year bonus above a certain wage level; no dividend declaration for 2020 and 2021; securing temporary land leases for the unemployed to go in modern agriculture…”
Intense social pain
At a larger level, considerable social pain lies ahead. As the crisis deepens, the worsening social divide in Mauritius, vividly exposed during the past few weeks, will extend with long-lasting effects. Many of our citizens will soon have to go into survival mode, skipping mortgage repayments, losing their homes or cars, missing out on school fees. Others will see family businesses they spent years building up simply vanish. Many will face the prospect of financial ruin or bankruptcy and feel like they have gone back many years. Thousands of poor will start lacking food and essential goods. When we reach that breaking point in Mauritius, we are never far from disquieting law-and-order breakdown, from challenges to public authority, sometimes from street riots and serious threats to social cohesion.
How all this alters the national mood, weakens our determination to face future threats is anybody’s guess. But we must all, from now on, face one hard truth: Things will not get better in the coming months. They will get worse. So, what do we do?
First and foremost, we all have to psychologically steel ourselves against long-term adversity, explain to our children the full extent of the difficulties lying ahead and brace our families for further shocks and serious disruptions to our daily lives.
A gigantic cost
The deteriorating economy will further destabilize us. The economic cost of the current crisis is going to be gigantic. A significant 10-11% drop in our Gross Domestic Product for 2020, equivalent to some Rs 50 billion, is predicted by the Minister of Finance, after 30 years of slow but steady growth. All deficit and debt figures will go through the roof since Government will require Rs 100 billion for its various assistance schemes to keep the country afloat. Investment will be down 18% in 2020. Up to 60,000 of our citizens may be retrenched by December, joining the 40,000 pre-crisis unemployed and pushing overall jobless figures to above 100,000 (or 17% of the workforce). This is a frightening, unprecedented level of unemployment, higher than in the darkest days of the ‘70s and likely to generate considerable frustration and impatience – except that, this time, these will happen in a more sophisticated, better-educated and more demanding society that will not accept this regime for a very long time before starting screaming.
One of our greatest economic successes since Independence, our world-class tourism industry, is on its knees, with little hope of quick recovery and Rs 38 billion in debt. Serious macro-economic threats abound. All sectors are at risk. The country faces a huge setback in its export-earning capacity and its actual foreign-exchange earnings, as larger countries increasingly turn inwards, start stock-piling and as world demand for our products falls dramatically. Operational disruptions, supply chain uncertainty and cash flow worries have already sent most large companies reeling. Pressure for deliberate, large-scale depreciation of our currency (in order to generate more rupees to pay our workers) will increase, pushing up inflation and the cost of living.
These various elements all add up to a very dangerous situation: a multi-sector, multi-faceted, all-encompassing, all-at-once crisis! This could quickly evolve from a crisis to a nightmare!
“Investment will be down 18% in 2020. Up to 60,000 of our citizens may be retrenched by December, joining the 40,000 pre-crisis unemployed and pushing overall jobless figures to above 100,000 (or 17% of the workforce). This is a frightening, unprecedented level of unemployment, higher than in the darkest days of the ‘70s and likely to generate considerable frustration and impatience…”
How does Mauritius react to all this? How do we rebound, rebuild, put our citizens back to work, remain efficient in this changing world? How, in this terrible mess, do we restore hope and redefine a shared vision of the future ?
Our national recovery essentially requires three attitudes: Basic No-Nonsense Realism, promoting an atmosphere of Mutual Trust and instilling a sense of Renewed Optimism.
- First, we all have to fully understand that we are in a transition to a new social order, a new way of doing business, a new way of working and new standards of competence. Staying alive has always been a matter of common sense, the more so now! Unless every individual, every business, every institution and our society as a whole understands this and agrees to the need for some degree of change and re-skilling, Mauritius and each one of us individually may progressively become irrelevant in the unforgiving world that is waiting for us on June 2. From now on, we will all be either among the ‘smart’ people who choose to adapt or else among the modern-age ‘sans comprend’. There is no in-between. It is up to us to place ourselves in one category or the other.
- We need a strong Government with a clear mind. Since the crisis erupted, Pravind Jugnauth has, in my view, provided the nation with clear thinking, decisive and timely action and quiet determination. During this dramatic episode, it is fair to say that he has convincingly passed the leadership test of demonstrating ‘grace under pressure’. His main weakness, however, is not getting others involved enough in building Mutual Trust and not consulting a wider range of wise men and women who genuinely want to help. This is a big mistake. Trust is an essential ingredient in mobilizing the country.
- Now that the sanitary threat looks like receding, the Prime minister would be well-inspired to convene a National Emergency Summit, appoint a Post-Covid 19 Think tank bringing together the island’s best brains in order to map the road ahead and define clear economic strategies and widely-approved objectives. This is not a time for political chest-beating or point-scoring. It is a time for reaching out to other stakeholders, promoting openness, togetherness, fairness, empathy, a time to build a consensus, offer renewed hope, dissipate doubt and cultivate a new sense of cautious optimism. We desperately need some degree of optimism but don’t know where to start looking.
- In the process, Government is right to combine the 2020-21 Budget with its economic packages proposals in June, to offer a larger view of the national effort required to kick-start the economy. The Finance minister has to be creative, imaginative. He is doing the right thing by introducing added flexibility in labour laws to help save jobs. He should now promote contract employment, permanent part-time work, subsidization of youth wages and freeze unnecessary spending.
- With 100,000 unemployed by December, now is also the time to bring back on the table the question of limited “Unemployment Benefits”. A Rs 5,000 p.m. pay-out, as suggested by Paul Bérenger last November, would cost Rs 6 billion p.a. but would go some way towards keeping our fellow citizens on temporary welfare programs instead of feeling completely lost and abandoned at such a terrible time.
- Finance Minister Renganaden Padayachy should also vigorously pursue debt-abolition for Mauritius by the IMF, World Bank, European and other financial institutions. Mauritius should draw on traditional friendships to get India, France, the UK and others to abolish or reduce our public debt. Countries and institutions are mobilizing trillions of dollars to help; our foreign debt is only peanuts to them. Besides, 70% of our public debt is due locally. Surely, there must be ways to get local lenders to accept greater repayment flexibility. This would free up important financial resources (19% of the Budget goes towards servicing debt), to help Government mobilize additional funds for assistance schemes and give a boost to entrepreneurs.
- Government should not be afraid, in the face of current difficulties, to go beyond traditional debt ceilings and budget deficit targets, provided transparency prevails.
- Nor should it shy away from turning a negative into a positive, drumming up our international image as a small but safe, reliable, no-nonsense investment destination which successfully confronted the coronavirus.
- Parts of the Mauritian private sector should also seize on new business opportunities. How about Mauritius becoming a world leader in mask production, using our efficient textile base? A new international market of billions of masks is emerging and demand will continue for years to come on all continents. Let’s go for a slice of that market.
- Isn’t it high time for our larger business groups to reassess their attitude towards smaller, private operators, bringing them on board for specific sub-contracting jobs or for helping the country become more self-sufficient in many areas?
- As unemployment looms, Government should urgently fill all vacancies in the public sector, lower retirement age, call upon the well-to-do to make fiscal sacrifices and effectively demonstrate solidarity with substantial pay cuts for executives; no 2020 end-of-the-year bonus above a certain wage level; no dividend declaration for 2020 and 2021; securing temporary land leases for the unemployed to go in modern agriculture. Let’s generate ideas, think creatively.
This is a time for Mauritians to steel themselves and stop complaining for just about anything. This is a time not for the shy and the fearful but for the brave and the strong-willed. This is a battle Mauritius simply cannot afford to lose. If it does, it will most likely fall apart as a democracy and slide downhill towards certain disaster and chaos.
* Published in print edition on 22 May 2020