Mauritius insists Covid is under control. Hospitals tell a different story
Is the government hugely undercounting and understating its Covid surge?
Unofficially, the island’s healthcare system is completely overwhelmed. According to a deluge of stories – many given anonymously – on radio stations and in the press, people are being turned away from hospitals. Private clinics have opened their wards but are running out of beds. Patients aren’t being changed or bathed, and hospital staff aren’t giving families accurate accounts of their conditions. Nurses are suffering from burnout, according to nursing associations and unions. And Covid-19 drugs such as Tocilizumab are reportedly no longer available, along with many other medicines.
Last week, the Mauritian government asked France for emergency oxygen supplies and has turned to India for assistance in the training and recruitment of medical staff. Authorities have mandated the controversial Samlo Koyenco Steel company to supply medical oxygen.
The stories keep coming in, yet the exact shape and scale of the Covid-19 crisis in Mauritius is unclear. The government reports the number of new cases daily, but official figures only count positive results from PCR tests and not – contrary to World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations – rapid antigen tests. Authorities expect those who test positive from lateral flow tests to get tested “officially” at a centre where queues can last for hours and, videos suggest, social distancing and proper mask-wearing are not enforced.
This system means that the real number of Covid-19 cases in Mauritius is likely to be far higher than the official numbers. When the health minister was questioned in parliament earlier this month, he revealed that there had been 13,698 positive results from rapid antigen tests in just two weeks, from 25 October to 7 November. That is nearly ten times higher than the official figure for the same period.
To work out Mauritius’ true death toll from Covid-19, journalists are piecing together information by going through deaths reported by funeral homes and centres. They report queues at crematoriums, which have now extended their opening hours late into the night, and incessant traffic in graveyards. An article in the national newspaper L’Express suggests that about a thousand deaths in just the past three months could have been Covid-19 related. That is more than double the official death count for the entire span of the pandemic.
The Mauritian government has repeatedly downplayed the situation with assurances that the situation is under control. At the same time, it is seeking to amend the Independent Broadcasting Authority Act in ways that would force journalists to reveal their sources, enforce higher penalties for supposed breaches, and allow the state to suspend media licenses without the possibility of appeal.
Media professionals and organisations have said the amendments are a stranglehold on freedom of speech. They would almost certainly curtail the vociferous outpourings of public grief and debate on the radio stations, the country’s primary source of non-government-issued news.
What authorities don’t seem to have grasped is that these kinds of measures will also heighten national hysteria. The lack of transparency only exacerbates the current, alarming situation. We’d at least know where we stand if there was openness around official figures.
Indeed, the government’s less-than-transparent communication was partly responsible for the panic over vaccines earlier this year, which enabled the anti-vax movement to claim a considerable share of media discourse. Many of the most prominent anti-vaxxers had gained celebrity status last year after protesting against the government following the Wakashio oil spill – another incident in which officials were accused of opacity – and the murder of an agent who worked for the ruling party. The fact that these anti-vaxxers had opposed the government before gave their claims credibility in the public eye.
From what can be gained from statistics, though, it’s clear that those who remain unvaccinated in Mauritius are at much higher risk and are putting greater pressure on the healthcare system. 892,586 people are fully vaccinated (of which 89,657 have received their third booster dose). Of the 348 deaths due to Covid-19 reported from the 1-29 November, 156 were fully vaccinated and 192 were unvaccinated. This suggests a mortality rate of 0.15% for an unvaccinated person compared to 0.016% for a vaccinated person.
We should know whether the Omicron variant has been detected in Mauritius by the end of the week. Already, it is being reported today that an Omnicron-positive patient in the neighbouring island of La Reunion had transited in Mauritius on the 19 November. If we do have local cases of the variant, and if it really is as dangerous as it initially seems, our healthcare system will be strained to breaking point, regardless of what the official government narrative might be.