How Mauritius’s unique political culture helped it beat COVID-19
When a welfare state and good neighbours prove their worth4th Sep 2020
While we struggle to come to grips with the reality, extent and possible fallout of COVID-19, one country has successfully eliminated the disease – Mauritius.
A scary time for all
Every day at 18:00, the 10-year-old son of one of the co-authors 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 10 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 that 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 three cases per 10,000. This compares to, say, 60 per 10,000 in Spain or 52 per 10,000 in the USA.
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 that 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 ageing 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 its spreading were high.
The government therefore initiated a rapid response. As early 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 lockdown. 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 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 the country to 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’s 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 that Mauritius is a highly connected society may also have 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’s 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’s acceptance of the 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 that certain suspensions of rights that were to some extent voluntary have now been written into 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 seven 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.
– This article was first published in African Arguments, and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.