Rumour, News and Information during the Covid-19 Pandemic

By Sada Reddi

A week before the authorities officially announced the case of Covid patients at the Victoria (Candos) Hospital, rumour was afloat that there were three cases of infection at the hospital and that the nearby areas were already infected with the virus. The rumour was received with some scepticism, but later the alleged cases at the hospital were confirmed. In fact, part of the rumour relating to hospital cases was no rumour at all. It also appears that following protests from the hospital’s medical staff, the decision was finally taken to transfer the first Covid patient from Candos to a hospital in the south of the island. Since then, there has been a communication battle between the authorities and the public to control the narrative about the spread of the pandemic in the island.

From the state perspective, it was clear that the policy was to control information, to selectively disseminate information to the public, to advise on sanitary measures to be taken by the public but also to project government handling of the pandemic as a success story. Such an approach was also intended principally to safeguard the state from an impending disaster and to protect the government. So, during the first phase of the pandemic last year, in spite of the belated closing of the frontiers, and the implementation of quarantine measures with all its flaws, the preventive measures were able to contain the spread of the epidemic. The public was positively responsive to the health measures and trusted that they were sufficiently protected from the pandemic.

Then came a turning point in public opinion following a few deaths at the Souillac Hospital. It was the failure to protect dialysis patients, the refusal to acknowledge the lacunae in the treatment of Covid patients in hospitals and in quarantine stations, and the convenient explanation that it was comorbidities which were responsible for the many deaths which changed the mood of the population and made the pubic become suspicious of the management of Covid cases in government institutions.

As a result, public opinion on the course of the pandemic was ultimately shaped by alternative sources of information from the non-State controlled press, cases reported on the ground by journalists, by the public on social media as well as the various debates on the numerous issues regarding the State’s responses to the situation. It was not unexpected that in the absence of reliable information from the authorities, public opinion turned to other sources of information and that is how rumours gained the upper hand on the government’s narrative. One would have expected that a balanced and truthful account of the Covid situation could have won the trust of the public.

This unfortunately did not happen. Whether in government press conferences, or even in the national Assembly, the public began to draw their own conclusions — not on what the government ministers and advisers chose to reveal but what they failed to disclose, not to mention the evasive and often inaccurate long-winded answers given in the National Assembly. As a result, the government sources of information lost their credibility. Public television propaganda on the pandemic became counter-productive as a result of their crash reporting which thus further negatively impacted the image of the government in the population.

There are several factors which contributed to this. To start with the government which came out in the 2019 elections was already being challenged with a number of elections results being contested in court. The unacceptably long delays in which such cases were being dealt with intensified doubts on state institutions. Against this background, the pandemic broke out. Despite the initial success in controlling it, the subsequent course revealed a lack of adequate preparedness of the medical services.

What the authorities tend to forget is that Mauritius is a small island-state, well connected through various formal and informal channels of communication. Even the press is only one of the major sources of information. Other sources of often more accurate information exist over which the State has no control. Interpersonal communication between people is deemed more reliable than mass communication. Here, frontliners are the most reliable sources of information, and the public is prepared to believe their stories as they have little reason to conceal the truth and events that they witness, to members of their own family, relatives friends and neighbours.

In their official capacity they respected the official guidelines to remain discreet about events taking place around them or giving out such information only through official channels. At the same time, they unofficially conveyed the real situation to their acquaintances which is far from the rosy picture painted by the authorities. Medical and paramedical personnel, security guards and other personnel are eye witnesses to the tragic consequences resulting from the pandemic and were readily embraced as the most reliable sources for the evolution of the pandemic in the island.

During the second wave of the pandemic with the opening of the frontiers, the government appeared to have lost the battle to control information. Irrefutable evidence was circulating about the high mortality rate as a result of the pandemic from various corroborating sources. One could learn about dead bodies lying on hospital beds for hours, lack of ambulance facilities, positive cases in schools or even in hotels as the Delta variant spread in the community from unrevealed sources.

International organizations and institutions monitoring Covid mortality in the world countered the version that Mauritius was and is covid-safe. Even worse, the erratic measures from the Government decision makers, lack of coordination in their communication strategy and fire fighting approach as the health authorities were overwhelmed by the numerous cases have resulted in a virtual breakdown of the health services.

While a truthful account of the situation would have emboldened the population to be more vigilant and follow the sanitary measures more rigorously, promoting the narrative that everything was under control must have shattered any remaining faith of the public that the government could be relied upon to protect its citizens. The decision to open the frontiers and schools without a realistic assessment of the situation and in the absence of preparedness plans in terms of personnel, equipment and logistics has exacerbated the health crisis during the second wave.

In the end, what matters is not to win the battle of information or even win some credit but to win the war against the pandemic and to save lives. In the first phase, we were told that there would be one death per family if no precaution is taken by everyone; in the second phase, unofficial sources have already projected the number of deaths in the coming weeks. Let us still hope that even if the authorities have not learnt the lessons from the experiences of other countries, they can at least learn from their own mishaps and not repeat the same mistakes or bury their heads in the sand.

* Published in print edition on 26 November 2021

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