COVID-19: Mauritius kept it simple
Summary: On 11 May, the 332 people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Mauritius had all recovered. There had been 10 deaths. Cautiously and respectfully Mauritians celebrated. Earlier WHO estimates that Mauritius would have the second highest rate of infections in Africa with 90,000 cases and over 800 deaths have been firmly refuted.
Many factors could explain how Mauritius survived such a dangerous prognosis. It is a small island, which made it easier to close borders. But all the other factors were counter-intuitive. Unlike the rest of Africa it has an aging population and a very high population density – the 19th highest in the world. Strong malaria resistance among African people could have helped but Mauritius has been malaria-free for over 20 years. Africa has plenty of experience in the processes of handling past epidemics but Mauritius, broadly speaking, does not.
The real reason may be the simplest of all. The government heeded early warnings and acted promptly. On 22 January, it began screening and isolating at risk air passengers (mostly from China) at airports. On 28 February, it established quarantine centres for visitors from infected areas. On 18 March it closed its borders and imposed a 24/7 lockdown across the country, which has only just been partially lifted. There had been a media campaign to inform the public and workers of protective measures to contain the spread of the virus. Officials accelerated testing, eventually covering 8% of the population, one of the highest rates in the world.
What else? Mauritius has a strongly centralised state, making rapid mobilisation of resources for testing, tracing, isolation and treatment much easier. It provided free health care to all patients with COVID-19 and offered a robust social welfare throughout the curfew – generous wage assistance schemes, food distribution, and support for the self-employed and informal workers.
The government imposed some of the most stringent curfew rules, all but halting economic activity for 11 weeks. In the first two weeks of the lockdown the police handed out a staggering 2820 fines to motorists contravening the curfew. These restrictions were accompanied by daily televised government briefings, which reminded citizens of the dangers if they broke the rules and emphasised collective responsibility. There do not seem to have been many press conferences.
The government benefited from a well-entrenched culture in which the interests of national unity are understood and respected. Mauritius is made of many different ethnic and religious groups, and people are expected to celebrate both their own cultural traditions and those of different communities. People closely followed the government’s guidelines even over the last three weeks of the curfew ended, which were COVID-free. There is public support for the government’s COVID-19 bill, which makes payment terms easier for bills, rents and mortgages while restricting certain civil rights, reducing annual leave, restricting overtime, and increasing police powers of arrest.
It is impossible to know if these essentially political measures have helped or hindered the government’s success. The big challenge for Mauritius now is how to keep applying centralised coordination to maintain a united front against the virus while preserving civil and political rights across the country.