How Mauritius’ unique political culture helped it beat COVID-19
When a welfare state and good neighbours prove their worth.
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Every day at 6pm, one of the co-author’s 10-year-old son would ask: “Mama, how many new cases today?”. For the last 27 days, the reply has been “none” (apart from two recently imported cases in quarantine).
Like every family in Mauritius, we have kept a close eye on the pandemic. We hoped that our nation would beat the deadly coronavirus. On 11 May, we rejoiced. All 322 people with confirmed cases had recovered. Mauritius was free of COVID-19.
This was even more of a relief given the dire warnings just three months before. The World Health Organisation (WHO) had estimated that Mauritius had the highest risk of exposure in Africa and would have the second highest rate of infections. Its model projected nearly 90,000 moderate, severe or critical cases and over 800 deaths on the island.
In the end, however, Mauritius recorded just 332 cases and ten deaths. How was it able to handle the crisis with such apparent success?
In theorising why Mauritius was able to contain the virus, one might turn to various “inherent advantages”.
For instance, the fact Mauritius is a small island arguably made it easier to close borders. Having a small population may make it more straightforward to monitor and control the spread of a virus. Indeed, nearly two thirds of small island nations have reported less than 3 cases per 10,000. This compares to, say, 60 per 10,000 in Spain or 52 per 10,000 in the US.
This, however, cannot be the whole story. Many small islands suffered heavily. For instance, Mayotte’s rate of infection was 60 per 10,000 population; Iceland’s 51 per 10,000; Maldives’ 28 per 10,000; and Malta’s 13 per 10,000.
Other theories might suggest that Mauritius benefited from the same factors that have contributed to lower rates of transmission in Africa more broadly. Against all predictions, the continent has contained COVID-19 better than Europe or the Americas. Increases in new cases in Africa have been relatively slow and death rates much lower than in other parts of the world.
In explaining why, some point out that many African countries have the advantage of low population densities and young populations. Some have posited that the build-up of malaria resistance might also be helping and that the experience of handling past epidemics meant many countries already had important processes in place.
Very few of these factors apply to Mauritius. It has the 19th highest population density in the world. It has an aging population. And it has been malaria-free for over 20 years.
A rapid response
How, then, did Mauritius manage it? A big part of the answer is that – like in many countries in Africa and unlike many in the Global North – the government in Port Louis heeded early warnings and acted promptly.
With more tourists visiting each year than there are permanent residents, the virus was bound to enter the country. With a population of 1.3 million often literally living on top of each other, the risks of it spreading were high.
The government therefore initiated a rapid response. As soon as 22 January, it began screening and isolating at risk passengers at airports. From 28 February, it established quarantine centres for visitors from infected areas.
When the first three cases were confirmed on 18 March, Mauritius closed its borders and imposed a 24/7 lock down. By that time, the government and private sector actors had already initiated a media and corporate campaign to inform the public and workers of protective measures to contain the spread. Officials also ramped up testing, eventually testing 8% of the population, one of the highest rates in the world.
In its response, the government certainly benefited from certain advantages, though they were more rooted in political culture than biology.
To begin with, Mauritius has a strong centralised developmental state. This facilitated the rapid mobilisation of resources for testing, tracing, isolation and treatment. It helped it provide free health care to all patients with COVID-19. And it allowed the government to offer a strong social welfare buffer throughout the curfew. This included generous wage assistance schemes, the distribution of food, and support for the self-employed and those working in the informal sector.
With a history of paternalistic (but democratic) political leadership, Mauritius was also able to prioritise public health over the economy with little opposition. The country implemented some of the most stringent curfew rules, halting economic activity for several weeks. These restrictions were accompanied by daily televised government briefings, which reminded citizens of the dangers if they broke the rules and emphasised collective responsibility.
In asking Mauritians to obey the measures, the government benefited from a long-standing culture that frequently calls on people to act in the interests of national unity. In Mauritius, which is made up of many ethnic and religious groups, people are expected to celebrate both their own cultural traditions and those of different communities. This Eid, for instance, the whole country mourned the inability of Muslims to celebrate together.
These norms may have contributed to people closely following the government’s guidelines even as the curfew has now lasted over ten weeks, the last three of which have been COVID-free. It may also account for the fact that 69% of the population say they support the government’s handling of the crisis.
Finally, the fact Mauritius is a highly connected society may have also helped in its collective response. When someone falls ill or dies, most Mauritians will find a direct or indirect connection to that person. On a small island, illness and death are always close to home and no extended family can remain unaffected by a national crisis for very long.
Mauritius’ next challenge
These characteristics of Mauritian society were all important factors in the country’s success. Among other things, they contributed to the country’s highly-educated and community-minded population accepting temporary infringements on their freedoms.
The recent passing of the so-called COVID-19 bill in parliament has anchored many of these restrictions into law for the length of the pandemic. This means certain suspensions of rights that were to some extent voluntary have now been encoded in the legal code.
This new legislation eases payment terms for bills, rents and mortgages, while simultaneously restricting workers’ and individual rights. Among other things, the bill removes the night shift extra payment allowance, reduces annual leave from 21 to 7 days, makes overtime pay optional, and allows the police to arrest people without a warrant in cases of “reasonable doubt”.
The challenge for Mauritius now will be how to manage the need for centralised coordination and control while preserving the individual rights and freedoms that are a cornerstone of all democracies.
As a Mauritian, I fully agree with the article and also share the concern at the end. I hope that the government, that has wide public support, will not squander it with unnecessary and undue limitations of right. The infringement on habeas corpus hasn’t gone down well and I wonder if ironically, the post COVID management is not going to cost the government its place in the next elections.
Speaking of which, the current government was elected in December 2019 in a surprise improvement on its previous results. It could also explain why it took bold decisions irrespective of whether they were popular or not as it won’t be facing electors soon.
Difficult post ‘covid free’ times ahead , though. Economy is in red.Public outcry is becoming more vocal and on a daily basis.There is a real danger of social unrest.
Time will tell if government will be able to overcome the coming numerous challenges ,mainly economic ones .
As a patriot ,I hope that our country will emerge out of this crisis stronger and well positioned to retain our position among the bests in Africa and internationally.
I think that the person writing this article has been wrongly guided. Some info in the beginning is wrong. There was testing before the 18th of March. Indeed had the Government done the right thing when OMS declared it a pandemic, there should have been no cases at all in Mauritius. Yes, the population has contributed widely to solving the problem by staying at home. But one thing is sure, the government has handled this Covid 19 very unprofessionally.
The last elections are under protests, with Judiciary cases lodged and not yet examined due to COVID 19, and loopholes in our Constitution.
The acting Government may be “Legitimate”, but not “Legal” till the lodged cases be fully examined. Some of decisions taken during COVID 19 may be considered same- legitimate and not legal – taken in the ” National Interest” .
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Like another commenter said, with the pandemic over now and most economic activities restored to a pre-pandemic level. This article needs to be revisited and analysed to ascertain whether the Mauritian authority got their covid strategy right.
From my viewpoint, the economy is still yet to recover, and the service sector that caters to much of the GDP needs to be bolstered by Govt stimulus. Inflation, especially food/commodity prices, is another concern.