Fighting the Pandemic: Imperative of a new approach

This is not the time for governments to arrogantly act as if they have all the answers on how to manage and fight the pandemic on their own

By Mrinal Roy

In the space of about a week, one infected case of Covid-19 in New-Grove has led to the infection of some 62 persons in various localities spread over different regions in the country. From information available it is evident that some have irresponsibly helped spread the coronavirus infection. This surge is a stark reminder that the virus is still very much present in the country and that it can quickly spin out of control if we do not take every precaution to protect ourselves against the risk of Covid-19 infection by strictly abiding by hygienic and social distancing norms and properly wearing our masks. We therefore need to ensure that the Covid-19 situation does not get out of hand. In our uphill battle against the Covid-19 pandemic, every citizen must act responsibly to help break the chain of infection of coronavirus in the country.

This disquieting situation has necessitated massive contact tracing operations after each case detected in the community, thousands of PCR tests on the residents of the various affected localities to track down infected persons and quarantine those in contact with them. These necessary actions are adding to the country’s whopping costs of managing the Covid-19 pandemic. We must commend the dedicated commitment of the contact tracing teams who are playing such a crucial role in our battle to contain and stem the spread of the virus, despite the patent and costly irresponsibility of some.

Many things have been learnt about the Covid-19 pandemic since its outbreak. For example, the golden rule to adopt if we want to break the chain of Covid-19 contamination in a small country like Mauritius is to impose a lockdown and not to lift the lockdown restrictions until there are no new cases of infection in the country from contact tracing and PCR testing during a period of at least three weeks. However strict rules to prevent gathering of people and ensure that people rigorously abide by hygienic and social distancing directives and wear masks must continue to apply.

Costly haste

The current surge in cases raises the burning question of whether the lockdown restrictions have been hastily lifted. The upshot is that the country is far from being  covid free or covid safe. People and the elderly in particular are scared of going out to cater for their essential needs owing to the presence of the virus in the country and large number of people and traffic thronging the streets.

The detection of infected cases in far-flung locations such as the offices of private companies, the University or a secondary school is worrying. Is this what the new government mantra of ‘We need to learn to live with the Covid-19 virus means’? Is this the price to pay to boost economic activities and strapped government revenue?

Arbitrating in favour of the economy instead of the safety and health of people is fraught with potent risks.

The Covid-19 pandemic is the most daunting challenge faced by humanity since World War 11. For more than 16 months, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc in the world causing dire socio-economic and health fallouts with a death toll exceeding 3.3 million people. This is not the time for governments to arrogantly act as if they have all the answers on how to manage and fight the pandemic on their own. We are in this battle together and it can only be won through concord and a common resolve by the nation to join our forces to overcome the Covid-19 crisis together. Every country must therefore mobilize its citizens, front liners, members and organizations of the civil society and required professionals to attain this common objective.

Signs of hope

There is therefore an urgent need for a new approach, a unity of purpose and a show of international solidarity if we are to win this battle against such a forbidding pandemic and hope to steer the world on a pathway towards a modicum of normality. The spontaneous show of solidarity by more than 40 countries which sent oxygen generating equipment, oxygen concentrators, ventilators, Covid-19 vaccines and consignments of critical medicines to help India fight against the current unprecedented surge of Covid-19 infection is a beacon of hope for the world in our common battle against the pandemic. Regrettably, in a world driven by the sensational rather than the altruistic, there is limited coverage of such laudable initiatives.

New mindset

We cannot win this war on our own. Sadly, the world is taking time to realize this simple truism. It is therefore flabbergasting that despite the US support for a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights to allow developing nations to produce Covid-19 vaccines created by pharmaceutical companies so as to significantly boost access to vaccines in the context of a pandemic and speed up Covid-19 vaccination in the world, there are still objections from the pharmaceutical industry and some countries in the EU. We need a new mindset. The request for a waiver tabled at the WTO by India and South Africa is now co-sponsored by 60 countries and has the support of 170 former heads of government and a wide range of Nobel laureates. Will good sense finally prevail?

Such a waiver will help boost up vaccine production in approved facilities in accordance with best practice norms and significantly increase access to vaccines in developing and poor countries across the world. More importantly, it will be a game changer as it will provide more clarity and visibility over the future outlook as the whole world increases its pace of vaccination towards herd immunity.

It is however equally important that the WHO, which has approved the Moderna, Pfizer, Astrazeneca, Janssen’s Johnson & Johnson and Sinopharm vaccines for emergency use, fast tracks the approval of other Covid-19 vaccines already in use in the world. This will help boost up vaccine supplies to meet enormous unsatisfied demand from countries across the world.

* * *

 IMF’s Article IV consultations

Calling a spade a spade

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission led by Cemile Sancak undertook a virtual visit to Mauritius during April 19-May 7, 2021 to conduct the discussions for the 2021 Article IV consultations. The IMF statement summarizing its findings and recommendation provides in contrast to the government rhetoric, a sobering snapshot of the state of the economy, its prospects and the corrective actions that need to be urgently taken, stripped of the government narrative and spin doctoring. The tenor of the concluding statement by the IMF relating to the tourism sector, the Mauritius Investment Corporation and the Bank of Mauritius Rs 60 billion support to the budget mirrors many of the comments made by independent commentators who have no political axe to grind but basically have the public interest and the larger interest of the country at heart.

Clear disavowal

In a clear disavowal and indictment of contested official policy, the IMF advised that ‘the central bank law is being reformed, including to preempt further exceptional transfers to the government, in line with international best practices.’ (emphasis added). It also recommended that ‘the central bank should relinquish ownership of the Mauritius Investment Corporation (MIC), and financing of the MIC should be provided through the budgetary process.’ This obviously means having the oversight of parliamentary scrutiny.

The IMF statement basically closes the tap of budgetary support by the central bank.

These actions comfort the outcry of the people at the total blackout and opacity which surround the spending details from the one-off Rs 60 billion lifeline received by government from the Bank of Mauritius to boost up strapped government revenue in order to grapple with the adverse fallouts of the Covid-19 crisis as well as the terms and conditions under which billions of Rupees are advanced by MIC out of public funds of Rs 80 billion to distressed private companies to bail them out.  Are those calling the shots yet again bungling the opportunity of leveraging substantial bail out public funds to recast the ownership of prime assets in the country for the common good?

The IMF added that in the recovery phase, the ‘authorities should accelerate the long-term structural transformation to turn Mauritius into a sustainable and resilient economy built on education and technology.’ Despite a substantial budget of some Rs 15 billion, the education sector has been unable to recast the thrust of the sector to meet the skills and technology-based qualifications required to adapt and upgrade the economy to meet the upmarket demand of a constantly evolving and technology-driven market.

Reality check

The IMF statement also provides a reality check on key economic fundamentals: ‘The real GDP contracted by nearly 15 percent in 2020. The key macroeconomic challenge for Mauritius is to restore employment and growth despite the tourism sector remaining subdued at least through 2022.’ The IMF projects growth to be about 5 percent in 2021, assuming some recovery in tourism. The IMF also judiciously cautions that ‘there is uncertainty about tourism flows, which depend on the propensity to travel as the pandemic recedes as well as conditions in other countries.’

Commenting the public debt level, ‘which is likely to exceed 90 percent of GDP in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis’, the IMF has recommended that ‘the government should prepare plans for fiscal consolidation to stabilize debt in the medium term once Mauritius has firmly emerged from the pandemic to preserve fiscal sustainability and build buffers.’ It must be said that the fiscal signals have been disconcerting since the outbreak with duty rebates granted on taxis and vehicles when there are already 589,228 vehicles registered in the country as at June 2020 and growing traffic congestion.

The IMF verdict is therefore a brutal wakeup call and an indictment of the standard of governance and the opacity shrouding spending largesse. It brings stricter accountability and rigour to the forthcoming budget exercise, cuts down wasteful prestige white elephants and will hopefully ensure cost effective expenditure in line with the development needs and broader social and environmental goals of the country.

This is easier said than done. The people must therefore continue to exercise a watchful oversight.

* Published in print edition on 14 May 2021

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