Mauritius: Vijay Makhan - "We need to discard our egos and allow the nation to work as one entity"

interview

This week, Weekly speaks to Vijay Makhan, political analyst and Mouvement Militant Mauricien stalwart about how he thinks the population has coped with the lockdown, how the government has performed and what kind of a society he hopes will emerge out of all this.

We have been in lockdown for over a month now. Have we as Mauritians been up to it?

In general, after a few days of gross indiscipline, gradually, it seeped down in the majority of the public that we are facing an invisible, indiscriminate killer disease and we mostly fell into line. We started to follow the protocol laid down by the authorities. The sensitisation campaign launched by many individuals or groups on social media alerted us to the danger of the initial careless attitude of some of our compatriots. However, protective masks and gloves as prescribed are not readily available. Even health carers who are on the front line of the battle we are waging are complaining of the inadequacy of basic protective equipment. Reportedly, orders for same have only recently been placed. Yet, the highly contagious nature of the virus was known since January, if not earlier. On the other hand, we have to acknowledge that the health personnel was on the alert at the airport since early February, monitoring the temperature of all arriving passengers. I can testify to that. As regards the unavailability of masks, fortunately, our people are quite creative and have come up with ingenious ways of protecting themselves, notwithstanding the efficacy or otherwise of their contraptions.

The result is that there have been few cases of coronavirus recently. Some days none. Are we on top of things yet?

I am no expert in the field. But on the face of it and considering the information that is relayed to us daily by the National Communication Committee, one could be tempted to say that we are on the road to freedom. However, the virus is around and taking into consideration how the situation is evolving in the world, it would be imprudent to so believe. Our own experts outside of the official circle, be they practising medical specialists, pathologists or epidemiologists, have expressed doubts about the statistics that are being fed to the public daily.

What kind of doubts? These are figures compiled by health professionals, aren't they?

Yes, but even the ordinary citizen knows that the only foolproof method to contain the spread is by testing on a larger scale than is being presently done. One has to bear in mind that there exists a category of infected persons who do not show any symptoms and therefore are not tested. Also, the bell is tolling all over the world, for a possible second wave of this viral attack. Those in the know, that is those who have the expertise, even predict that a second wave would be probably deadlier.

But even the BBC almost congratulated the government for the measures it has been taking. Is that too not justified?

I am not saying that the government is not doing the best it can. Unfortunately, sometimes it does seem that their best is not good enough. But you would surely agree that similar measures have been taken elsewhere as projected on the screen by the same BBC. Also consider that we have recorded nine deaths officially. Compare that to the situation in the islands of the region where no such casualties have been reported so far. So thumping the chest, if at all this is what we are perceived to be doing, is not justifiable. I believe that once this whole unfortunate episode is behind us, we will need to take stock of how we handled the matter and what can be done by an independent, I emphasise the term independent, national committee regrouping personalities known for their integrity, foresight and honesty of purpose. That committee would bring up our shortcomings, our lack of foresight, and propose remedial actions on the immediate, medium and long-term basis. In fact, what we would require is a general road map that would chart out the parameters within which we need to operate. The course charted should be flexible or broad-based enough to become a sort of blueprint that can be adapted to any form of future epidemiological onslaught or natural calamity.

Nobody is thinking that far. What do we do in the meantime?

We are a small nation but fortunately, we are blessed with a fairly intelligent and competent human resource base. The competence is available, be it here in the country itself or scattered abroad. We need to rid ourselves of our inflated egos and be humble enough to call on these competences, irrespective of their known or unknown political affiliations and allow them to place their services at the disposal of the country in its moments of need. Isn't it a paradox that while international organisations, governmental or non-governmental call on our local expertise, our own authorities will, a priori, determine their suitability on the basis of despicable socio-political considerations? It cannot and should not be politics all the time.

There is a debate raging on as we speak about whether the lockdown should be extended or brought to an end to allow Mauritius to go back to work. Where do you stand regarding this issue?

We have had one extension already. There is no doubt that the lockdown and confinement as we are now witnessing and living through have multifaceted consequences - psychological, social, economic, to mention just these. A prolonged lockdown will exacerbate the situation but we need to decide what our priorities are. While we should be alert to the consequences of such a prolongation, we should not succumb to any pressure to salvage the economy first and de-confine at the risk and peril of our population.

Lives over livelihoods?

Yes, I firmly believe that the health of the population should come first. Life is precious. The economy is man-created!

But won't the economy wreak untold damage?

Yes, we will need to brace ourselves to face the economic consequences. However, we are not alone in that league. Even before the advent of the virus within our shores, our economy was showing signs of weakness and the forecast was not rosy at all, whatever the ruling pundits may say.

Has this crisis brought the world together or instead highlighted the lack of solidarity between countries?

This attack has shown how selfish countries can be. The word solidarity will have to undergo a revised definition, considering the way that every country has been acting on its own. There has been no coordinated effort at fighting this common enemy of mankind. Scientific resources could have been pulled together. On the contrary, when one assesses what the so-called leaders of the world are saying and how they are behaving, it is clear that it is a free for all. It's developed into another form of war. The blame game is high on the agenda, threats are being traded liberally, medical and personal protective equipment are being highjacked, prices are being hiked. Even we are living through cases of hoarding of basic commodities and mercantile pricing of foodstuff.

India has just donated to Mauritius half a million tablets of hydroxychloroquine, a drug being tested in other countries as a possible cure for Covid-19. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma has donated to us medical equipment, testing kits etc. Is this not solidarity at its best?

Of course, international trade is going on at the level of medical supplies and other primary necessities, based also on inter-state relationships. The quality and level of inter-state relationship comes into play at such dire moments of need. We should applaud this transaction which, if anything, goes to prove that our relationship with India, as with China for that matter, is a very privileged one. And I don't think we have had to resort to any Trumpian threat to obtain those consignments! What I am saying is that there is yet to be an internationally coordinated effort to exchange experiences and benefit from best practices put in place with a relative success by certain countries in the larger interest of humankind.

Going back to the previous question, are we ready to come out of the lockdown yet?

If we envisage any form of easing the confinement and lockdown here, we should ensure that this is done under strict, very strict pre-determined conditions. People who flout the law should be punished and punished severely for they put not only themselves at risk but their families and others as well.

Have we drawn any lessons from the lockdown?

Many, particularly that a system of work from home, principally in the administration and other services sectors, is very feasible. This had been proposed a few years ago but we were wary of new methods. After all, we remain a conservative nation. We like our comfort zone. I believe we should, once this viral attack is behind us, work out the modalities of putting in place a permanent structure to enable the work from home practice. Imagine the windfall gains of such a system on the economy in terms of easing the pressure on public transport, less stress, among others. Another lesson we are yet to learn is to show more respect for our environment. We Mauritians, in general, live in a reasonably clean environment insofar as our own homes are concerned. But you will agree with me that once we step outside, a number of us simply could not care less about littering the country with our trash. Our beaches suffer the same fate. Does one have to wait for a fresh outbreak of chikungunya or dengue to take preventive action? All the rivers and rivulets that make the beauty of this island are an easy conduit for uncaring people to let go of their refuse-filled plastic bags and other household waste. No wonder river life has simply disappeared. After a month of lockdown, the situation must have improved. I hope the authorities will do what it takes to ensure that our environment is respected and protected both inland and on the beaches and in surrounding waters.

I agree that there have been positive outcomes but this lockdown has also meant a total lockdown of democracy, hasn't it?

Regrettably! We are celebrated as being a thriving democracy but by using the Covid-19 as an excuse, we have baffled the basic tenets of parliamentary democracy. We have simply shut out the voice of the people. Parliament should have been meeting. If the premises of our National Assembly are too constrained space-wise, we could seek alternative places like the Sir Harilal Vaghjee Hall or even the Swami Vivekananda International Convention Centre which, after all, is a polyvalent structure and has the necessary facilities. The question of social distancing would not even pose a problem! The sitting of parliament would enable the citizens to be properly informed and defective measures can easily be rectified as a result of the debates that would ensue around the coronavirus, with the emergence of ideas from one and all.

The sanitary pandemic will lead to an economic crisis and possibly a social one. Do we have what it takes to deal with both?

As I said earlier, the competence is available. We just need to discard our egos and allow the nation to work as one entity. There are surely many ways of addressing the crisis at both levels. But all hands need to be on board, indiscriminately. Use the expertise and competence where they are found. Recognise in your own citizens their capacity to rise to the occasion and, for God's sake, everything is not politics! We have the opportunity to stop certain practices that have gained currency of late for purely political reasons. Pecuniary freebies! Stop dishing out what we do not have and have not created! We have the future generations to answer to!

When do you foresee the end of this?

Oh Lord, how I wish I could forecast this. Maybe you should have a go at our local astrologers? Let me say this, however. Whatever the outcome of this pandemic, whenever it ends, I do hope a new society will emerge, a more caring, more respectful and more disciplined one. That could perhaps silence the guns in conflict areas? Wishful thinking?

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