Today, in our street in Bambous, we woke up at 7 a.m. to the happy sound of the rubbish collectors chatting to each other, and all of us in the lane coming out to our gates to greet them and each other. The lorry made its grinding sound, scrunching up the rubbish, as workers called “Woah!” to the driver to stop, and then “Rule!” for him to move on. Again, we find out the hard way, via an epidemic, who the important people are. Rubbish collectors are perhaps, when you stop to think, the most important public health workers. In the case of Mauritius, they are in close competition with the malaria “tracers”, who helped eradicate the illness amid a people’s mobilization in the 1950s, and have since then kept the illness from again becoming endemic by tracking down every single imported case. Malaria was the highest cause of death in Mauritius, accounting for some one-third of all deaths at various times. These are the workers who should get the slightly higher salaries, if there is to be inequality in income. The epidemic is a good teacher of underlying truths, anyway. And it teaches us that the owners of wealth and capital owe their very lives to these men and women who collect rubbish, or trace illnesses that can spread. And no amount of money can buy off the illness. No amount of money can even get them admitted to a clinic for the supposedly superior humans. The epidemic reminds us of our human equality.
And this reminds me of another way of looking at health. On my very first day of studies at the London School of Economics in the Department where Prof Titmuss, known for his social study of Mauritius, worked, I was in a small tutorial group with Prof Abel-Smith, who was taking over from Titmuss and who published social studies about Mauritius. Anyway, Prof Abel-Smith asked us who were the most important doctors in Britain, or in any other society, in the raw terms of “saving lives”. We all guessed wildly. One suggested heart surgeons, another pediatricians, another General Practitioners, and so on. No-one got “the answer”. The answer is the public health doctors. And then he went on to say how it was not just the public health doctors, but all those who contributed to public health work who actually saved lives. He had the data at hand – for centuries and world-wide – to prove that he was right.
So, today is the fourth day of total lockdown in Mauritius. For those abroad now reading this blog, “total” means that as from Tuesday at 8 pm, all shops, supermarkets and bakeries were closed. This was in addition to everyone not an “essential worker” already staying home for four days before then. A fair number of people still mill around in any case, one of the good things about humans is that they are not blindly obedient. The Government has not really been able to speak to most people, explaining how the curfew works. Many of their representatives have difficulty speaking Kreol properly, perhaps because they, themselves, look down on their own language. Let alone having the political authority with the people to explain rationally what the situation is, and what is to be done. Then again, the Government will have to offer more equality in the present and in the future in order to get equal compliance from people. Class society is challenged in these times, and rightly so.
The draconian nature of the curfew measure has, according to the media, provoked three break-ins – one in a store that houses expired and damaged food products adjacent to a supermarket in Vallee des Pretres, one in a depot at Monte-S with biscuits and chewing gum, and one in Surinam where frozen goods were stored. The police have taken action. (Ram, my partner, as always ready with a joke said he would not mind some chewing gum. His stock is running out and it works to stop the dry mouth left over from his recent treatment at Candos Hospital!)
But, back to the serious matter of the total lockdown.
The draconian measure also provoked hideous police violence and torture, one scene in Cite Vallijee even filmed by the officers of the State involved. LALIT, famous for our work in setting up JUSTICE: Association Against Violence by Officers of the State, and having been denouncing this violence since the death in 1979 after the prison mutiny of Serge Victorine. Anyway, we called for immediate suspension of the officers, and in fact, one has been arrested and charged with torture.
It was JUSTICE that militated for a specific law against torture. So, the situation is precarious. Once inequality gets exposed so cruelly during an epidemic, the risk of looting increases. Looting is not a natural instinct so much as an instinct that comes about in reaction to class inequality when the “normal” order (which is in fact an abnormal disorder) is exposed raw in times of crisis. Looting happens when “law-and-order” collapses, and in its collapse we realize that it had, as its main function the task, an often invisible task, of maintaining that class inequality. All the laws of trespass and property protection maintain the otherwise unacceptable inequality.
Anyway, the food distribution that the Government planned – the 35,000 home-delivered basic goods to those on the extreme poverty Social Register of Mauritius – is being delivered by police officers. In Bambous they are being guided by the Blood Donors’ Association, I hear. In Quartier Militaire with the help of Village Council members. In Bel Ombre, people we know have received their parcels.
The on-line platforms that supermarket bosses set up have been over-subscribed really quickly, and we notice none of the big supermarket chains were involved in the plan, over these first two days. Dream Price says it has dealt with a few thousand orders. Some shops are, as a social service and without permits, taking orders quietly from clients either via WhatsApp and doing deliveries, or on the basis of low-noise placing orders in person, on condition people do not come in numbers at any one time. Anyway, the Government announced last night that it has opened debate on allowing supermarkets to re-open, when there are also home deliveries already in operation, but with strict rules enforced for “keeping a distance” from others. This followed a call by the Opposition Leader, Arvin Boolell.
But, in LALIT this morning, we were worried that access to basic food will be a problem, going forward. People who work for Government or for big stable companies will get their wages at the end of the month. Pensioners will get their regular income. But all those who work for small enterprises or who are their own boss, will soon be in dire straits. People who live from hand to mouth are in bad straits already. So, this morning, like others in LALIT’s central committee, I was involved in planning, drafting and sending the LALIT Program for the Emergency. (See the Program – in Kreol and English versions). To get over the medical and social crises provoked by the epidemic, there are two main things necessary that this Program responds to: immediate reassurance about food in the short and medium term, and the clearly articulated proposal of a new social contract going forward, one with more social equality. We sent it to the Press and to the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition as well as to the MMM leader. The Opposition Leader has replied, in general agreement with our proposals. Please do remember that you can circulate the Program for Action – not just by pressing a button alone, but by also contacting people, and asking them if they would like a copy of the program, and suggesting why, and asking them, too, to forward it. This way we build up support for rational action in response to the need to stay at home for weeks. For people who live in over-crowded housing, or with someone violence in the family, the advice is not easy to follow. In fact, it is well-nigh impossible. Which makes us realize the urgency of ensuring proper housing for all. And with the possibility of freight flights and ships being rare, we need immediately to move to food production and storage.
Talking about food, and on a lighter moment. In the afternoon, I baked two loaves of bread, which turned out exceptionally good. I am descended from a line of bakers on my father’s side, so it should be good. While my bread was baking, and looking gorgeous already, I also phoned a friend, who had meanwhile posted a photo of a loaf of bread she’d just baked which she described as so bad they had to throw it away. (It did not look that bad.) I gave some ideas for next time. Another friend is sending her a recipe for baking bread with baking powder.
A friend whose gas has run out has built a little fireplace for cooking on wood behind his site house. Then a friend found a relative who lives near him who had an old electric plate that was broken, which the friend repaired and is using.
Another friend’s mother has the illness, and is in the hospital. Although usually not too well and also of a certain age, she is, the friend reports, doing well and is quite chirpy. And now there are two children under the age of five with the illness. All to remind us that it affects us all.
Lindsey Collen, for LALIT, on a personal note.