In recent days the image of Mauritius has plummeted on the international scene with the Wakashio scandal. It is not anticipated that we wish the international community to brandish our quarantine policy as another scandal in the way:
We are baffling the rights of our own people to return to their homeland after the closure of our frontiers by the introduction of astronomical quarantine fees,
We are categorizing our own people and discriminating against different groups when it comes to payment of quarantine fees,
We are using Covid-19 as an excuse to manipulate Mauritian and international visitors into selecting specific hotels charging exorbitant prices for their quarantine services by limiting the number of hotels available at the lower price range.
In spite of the mass demonstrations in Mauritius and in many other countries where Mauritian expatriates live, the government sadly does not seem to have got the message or simply does not seem to care. Let us remind ourselves for a moment of what the mass protests have been about. They have been against the institutionalization of blatant nepotism, corrupt practices, absence of freedom of the press, manipulation of the media and social media, the drugs situation and money politics amongst others. We unfortunately see some of the hallmarks of these very practices in the quarantine policy which has become effective as from 1st October 2020.
At the outset it has to be stated that there are other less costly and less restrictive strategies which could have been put in place in the fight against Covid-19 to accompany the re-opening of the frontiers but we are not going to look at these options here. Prior to adopting any specific strategy an in depth risk-benefit analysis should have been carried out.
Let us examine the quarantine policy that this government has come up with and see how there has been failure to respect basic principles of good governance, failure to respect basic human right principles and failure to ensure equity in access to public health services to the Mauritian population. It is not a bad idea to make certain category of people pay for quarantine services but we have to ascertain that there is fairness, equity and we should ensure that we do not rip off people.
There are two aspects of the quarantine policy which we need to examine in depth, firstly as to how this policy leads to the creation of two categories of Mauritians and secondly the process by which quarantine facilities have been selected.
Let me first elaborate on the first aspect, the creation of two categories of Mauritians based on eligibility for free health services. As far as I am aware, Health Services are free of user cost and are free for all Mauritians, irrespective as to where they come from, whether they live in Mauritius or whether they are students, workers on contract or patients who have been on treat- ment from abroad. In fact, government has also up to now kept health free of user cost for all Mauritians including those who have settled abroad.
Now the Ministry of Health and Wellness seems to have decided to break down the quarantine service into two components, the medical and health service on the one hand and the 'hotelry' services required to provide the service on the other hand. It is hoped that with time it does not come up with similar decisions for other services. It has been decided, without any discussions with the population or in Parliament, that henceforth the medical and health service evaluated at some Rs 13,500 will still be free but the 'hotelry services' will have to be paid by Mauritians who happen to come from abroad irrespective as to whether they are returning students, returning patients or returning Mauritians who have been simply stranded abroad because of the closure of the frontiers. Up until now nothing has been said regarding Mauritians who live locally and who may require quarantine services. Would they also be required to pay the 'hotelry services' relating to quarantine. If not, are we therefore creating two categories of Mauritians? The way these decisions have been taken beg the following questions:
What kind of a democracy are we living in? Should such decisions have been taken without any prior discussions in parliament? What are the legal implications of such decisions? Are these decisions in breach of our basic human rights? Are we in breach of the Constitution regarding our protection from discrimination?
Governments are here to serve the people with the people. In Mauritius, most unfortunately it would seem that democracy has been hijacked and government is there to serve itself. In such a situation it becomes primordial that the society fights back. It is therefore hoped that individuals, organizations and, in particular, the Opposition take the government to task legally on this issue. Section 16 of our Constitution ensures that we are protected from discrimination. Subsection 3 defines 'discriminatory'. Though this kind of discrimination is not specifically mentioned, it is clear that if the concept of "il y a la loi et l'esprit de la loi" is borne in mind, it is unimaginable that the legislator at the time would not have considered it discriminatory to categorize Mauritians as we are doing under the quarantine policy. It is hoped that we can still rely on the judiciary to protect the people from unfair, discriminatory policies from government.
Now let us look at the second aspect of the quarantine policy, the setting up of authorised quarantine facilities in some specific hotels. Good governance requires that once it has been decided that government will procure a service, in this case 'hotelry' services, from the private sector, all processes are followed in line with the procurement legislation and equal opportunity principles. There is a perception that these principles may not have been adhered to. Here again it is vital that the Opposition, non-governmental organizations, the regulatory bodies concerned follow up the matter and take necessary actions as required. It is hoped that we do not uncover the same practices followed with the procurement of medicines, personal protective equipment and medical equipment. Government is surely aware that there are different categories of people who travel and that not everyone can afford three star to five star hotels and as such there should be a wider range of quarantine facilities at more varied and affordable prices. There should logically be many more quarantine facilities at the lower price range. Furthermore there has been no communication about any additional costs should the quarantine pe- riod be extended. It is also unclear as to whether there is presently an intended duopoly of the market for air travel to Mauritius do- minated by Air Mauritius and Emirates airlines. If so, we need to know the reasons thereof and the duration such a duopoly would last. This state of affairs is also making matters worse as the cost of airfares has sky- rocketed and for the benefit of the population, such a situation, if intended, should not be made to last.
It has nonetheless to be emphasized that if we are living in a society where we hope that there is still an iota of social justice, quarantine should be totally free of user cost to:
1. Mauritian citizens who have a return ticket booked and who have been stranded.
2. Mauritian citizens who are on a student visa.
3. Mauritian citizens who are returning after having completed their studies.
4. Mauritian citizens who have been overseas for treatment not available locally.
5. Mauritian citizens working on contract abroad but who are resident locally
It is hoped that this is not too much to expect from a government which genuinely cares for its population. It is also an opportunity for the united opposition to walk the talk and to engage in this struggle, be it through the legal system, for more social justice in our society.