In these particularly difficult times, there may be wisdom therefore in widening the input and harnessing goodwill beyond the traditional political barriers
As the health and sanitary carnage of the Covid-19 pandemic is slowly contained and starts being rolled back worldwide, most countries will be facing the tough calls on how and when de-confinement should take place. Striking the right balance between saving lives and livelihoods is not going to be easy for governments, with perhaps the notable exception of China and a few other autocratic regimes. All will be trapped in the triangular vortex between the conflicting desires of locked-down corporate economic operators, the SMES or the self-employed, the necessity to restore some buoyancy to battered macro-economic fundamentals or public finance and the need to keep a vigilant eye on possible resurgence of the coronavirus and protect the safety of their population as a whole.
If we, like most democracies, steer clear of Trumpian discord and political weaponisation as an exportable model for handling either the pandemic or the complex economic de-confinement issues, there would be benefit in engaging wider swathes of the population. In the common national battle on both the health and economic fronts, advice and contribution from all parties including parliamentary and non-parliamentary opposition voices, trade-unions, NGOs, media and other stakeholders can only build that needed sense of greater solidarity.
It would obviously promote social ownership of a slow rebuilding process that ultimately will be funded from our collective pockets, through more borrowing and debts, through currency depreciation, through income and company taxes, through excise duties, road and other taxes and through huge taxes on fossil fuel. And if such is the case, the Minister of Finance may forgive our crudely stated understanding that everyone has therefore an interest in the economy: in how it functions, how well it functions, and in whose interests it functions. That is said without berating the advanced technical or theoretical constructs, the sophistication of econometrics or the so-called laws that laymen are often assumed to be in no position to grasp and which, occasionally, confound the best economic brains.
We are somewhere relieved when people who have to make important economic decisions over billions in revenues and expenses, or give important economic advice, are formally trained in economics or accounting but it is not a mysterious or politically coveted realm over which only those knowledgeable few in government circles have their say. Debates over economic issues are not technical debates, where technical expertise alone settles the day, as past Ministers may agree. They are deeply political issues, in the broad sense of that word: distinct groups of people have distinct interests, they know their interests, and they naturally work to promote them.
A Covid-19 hardship assistance scheme that, for instance, provides emolument relief up to Rs 25,000 per employee to the structured, formal private sector employers while dishing out a token Rs Rs 2,550 to the 40% or more in the informal and self-employed sector can be said to be a political rather than an economic decision. The continued inability to provide emergency humanitarian funds to, say, three selected embassies around the world for some 1000 of our stranded and desperate countrymen, even to a sum total of barely twenty million rupees, is equally a political decision which many have failed to sympathize with. Accepting the inevitability, given our parlous public finances and the depleted reserves at the Bank of Mauritius, of an 8-10% currency depreciation, will hit some population segments more than others and is therefore a political decision.
We trust, as UK MPs have put it, “the British taxpayer is not made to bail out the Richard Bransons”. More need not be said about this but obviously there are companies out there that do need help in the relaunch phase of the national economy for a variety of reasons. Start-ups, SMEs, planters and livestock breeders, fishermen groupings may need rapid oxygen for our food sufficiency. There are those (like banks or insurance majors) that rarely need help even in these dire times. Others in the offshore, financial or IT sectors have survived or done well through the crisis.
There are those where help in other forms (softer or restructured loans, utility bills, temporary waiver of payroll based contributions, extended export facilities, etc) may provide a more effective mix. And there are also those that have made enough profits or paid out enough dividends in the recent few years and may not consequently require the same level of taxpayer assistance or bailout. Although there are no representatives of SMEs, Opposition parties or wider society on the Covid-19 National Solidarity Fund, government owes the country a duty of transparency and accountability on a regular basis.
These are mere examples that have a strong bearing on what type of society we want to live in, what interactions, relationships and solidarity we want to nurture, what sense of pride we wish to have in ourselves as Mauritians and what legacy we want to leave to future generations. In these particularly difficult times, there may be wisdom therefore in widening the input and harnessing goodwill beyond the traditional political barriers, particularly when such offers have been on the table for some time.
* Published in print edition on 21 April 2020
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