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In Times of Crisis:WORDS MATTER


 In times of crisis, it is not enough to say any old thing – words have consequences. Words always do, but during crises the consequences can be grave. Words often imply demands. And in turn these “demands”, intended or implied, can contribute to causing massive numbers of deaths in times of an epidemic. 

Trump and his base opposed health measures – from masks to social distancing – and contributed to causing some 500,000 preventable deaths of the near 600,000 total Covid deaths in the USA, according to the estimates of Dr. Birx, then White House Covid Advisor. Had the other half of Americans not been so rational and so strict in respecting the measures, then the suffering and death could have been much, much worse. As it is, there are still over 1,000 bodies in cold storage lorries in New York City. Families have not yet, a year later, been in a position to arrange for their burial.

Modi and his followers, contributed, by egging on mass political and religious gatherings, to causing the suffering and tragedy unfurling right now in India on an even bigger scale than in the USA. It was preventable. 

We have also seen how conspiracy theorists, especially in France, have, by their words, their propaganda, caused vaccination programs to be slow, thus inevitably prolonging the epidemic.

Each of us as an individual, each journalist as a professional, needs to take full, personal responsibility for the consequences of the words we use.

Let us take just these two examples: spreading word calling for lifting Covid restrictions on gatherings at a time when Covid cases fester and even rise, and spreading word against Covid vaccination.

Public Gatherings 

Week-End of 9 May has a page 14 headline, “Situation alarmante: 30 cas en 48 hr”. It is indeed alarming. And yet the editorial on page 7, as though oblivious to page 14, begins, referring to the further postponement of municipal elections, “Si on peut voyager sur le longs trajets comme des sardines dans des autobus publics, on ne pourra pas, du moins pas des sitot, faire la queue et exercer tranquillement son devoir civique”. Surely, unless she does not read her own newspaper, she should be calling for more restrictions on buses, than for going ahead with elections? Or alternatively, for municipal elections to be held, if she thinks it feasible, with only on-line meetings – no gatherings? The editorialist knows the situation is alarming. She knows that everyone blames Prime Minister Modi with reason for persisting with regional elections thus provoking a major cause of the tragedy unfurling there now. 

If you think the Government should lift Covid restrictions further – even while there are dozens of Covid cases in the community – please also state why Mauritius won’t become like India, given that we are already in a “situation alarmante”. What is the specificity that will protect us? Please explain why Mauritius will not see the health care system and its supply-chains collapse, and then be unable to keep up with cremations and burials.

Covid is, as we write, on the verge of flaming out of control in Mauritius. 30 new cases in 48 hours. It is confirmed by the official site, in their “stats” section.

We can assume nobody is really wishing for the kind of suffering in Delhi to be unleashed here. Or unleashed anywhere, for that matter. But, judging by their words, you might think people did wish it.

Maybe some are blind. Maybe others “pe badine”. Maybe some are demagogues. Maybe others are trying to be clever. But, they each need to make it clear that they are not, repeat not, wishing for this type of tragedy to come upon Mauritius. Some people may think such a tragedy “plays into their hands, politically,” (“zwe dan nu faver”) as they flay around for an issue they can use as a stick to beat the Jugnauth government with. There are, incidentally, plenty of important issues to attack Jugnauth on.

But people should beware what they wish for. 

In any struggle, there is a danger of crying “discrimination!” MLF women warned of crying just “equal pay for men and women” in the 1980s. There were two ways, MLF argued, for the bosses and the state to respond: either they raise women’s wages or lower men’s. The MLF line did not win. The balance of class forces was, at that time, such that the government legislated to lower men’s wages to the level of women’s in the free zone. Not exactly a victory. The apt demand was “Raise women’s wages to the level of men’s!” Words matter.

Similarly, there are two ways to comment on the incoherence of Government Covid restrictions on gatherings. If you think over-crowding in buses is dangerous for the epidemic – we in LALIT happen to think so – then the sensible thing to say is what we are saying: Stop overcrowding in buses! The formal demand is that the Government immediately bring in measures that ensure social distancing, once again, in buses and on the Metro. This also means ensuring everyone gets a minimum income. The State can no longer pretend it hasn’t got any money. It has. It is subsidizing private sector lame ducks. So, it can pay to organize for us to be out in smaller numbers.

Alternatively, demands often veer towards the opposite, “If people are over-crowded in buses, then why can’t I go for a walk on the beach? Just alone?” You really do have to think one step further ahead of your own two feet. Social reality is such that, although there are people who go to the beach for a swim or a jog alone which won’t spread Covid, the tradition amongst the broad masses of working people is to go to the beach in large groups. It would be hard to stop this once you lift the ban on beaches. Ordinary social control is not easy on a beach, for a start. And, can you imagine police wondering around Flic-en-Flac trying to sort out the size of each beach party? It defies imagination. Beach parties include shared laughter and singing, hugging and touching – a wonderful aspect of Mauritian culture when there is not an epidemic lurking – but right now not ideal for curbing the spread of the virus. Thousands will risk coming together on the beach from different places – an epidemiologist’s nightmare – and tend to act, unintentionally, in ways that favour the spread of the virus. This, your demand implies, would be in addition to being crowded together on buses. 

It is similar, though for different reasons, for religious gatherings – where there is often chanting, singing, hugging and where, again, the usual social control over masks and keeping physical distance are often hard to enforce. We have seen this with funerals, where there are supposedly 10 people, but you end up with 50, and a new cluster takes off. How do you enforce social control of who to send away from a funeral? It is impossible. Of course, the hugging that is a very strong custom, even an instinct, just happens to help spread Covid like wild-fire. And this, according to some demands, would be in addition to being overcrowded in buses! 

So, if you are sore about Government incoherence, please frame your demand the other way around: “I think, if I can’t go to the beach or to a religious gathering, then Government should stop allowing people to crowd together in closed spaces for half-an-hour or more on buses or the Metro.” That’s a good demand.

This way, in the worst-case scenario for Mauritius (which we should not forget was the WHO’s original prediction based on population density and co-morbidity figures), you won’t find your name on the list of those who called for Government, at the wrong moment, to loosen the rules, thus precipitating disaster. We should right now – the Covid situation not being under control at all, be calling to tighten rules and for people to continue to get an assured income.

Just because you are against the Government does not mean you can say anything. Words matter. 

The bosses might not care about people as much as profits. That we know. They already carry the burden of that cruel and inhuman reputation. Tourism bosses want the borders opened. They are horses with blinkers. Their whole capitalist system will pay the price one day for this selfish greed. There are some right-wing fascists proud not to care who gets sick or dies. However many old, weak people die means nothing to them. “Survival,” they might say, misquoting Darwin, “of the fittest.” That, too, we know. 

But, the rest of us, as thinking people, as caring people, have a responsibility, when we use words – spoken and written – to think of the direction we are pushing things in by our words. Particularly during an epidemic. Particularly when the virus concerned is so stealthy and venomous. Particularly when it is in a rising phase.

Look for a moment at an article on page 2 of L’Express on 4 May, in the midst of the heart-breaking scenes of suffering and pandemonium in India described on page 10 of the very same newspaper. The page 2 article makes it seem a simple “choice”, a benign “preference”, as to whether gatherings be restricted or re-invented or what. 

Three or four people are quoted. These words then stand, as if innocent, without editorial comment. “Les marches citoyennes vont recommencer. Je travaille déjà sur quelque chose. Il ne faut pas que l’Etat utilise le Covid-19 pour nous empêcher de nous rassembler,” Bruneau Laurette is quoted as saying. “Ce dernier prévoir déjà un événement en mai”, the article says. That is now. He wants to challenge the Covid restrictions – fonse, latet bese. No ifs or buts. (Yes, the press is once again pumping him up. For the record, the man is an ex-MSM agent until the last elections; claims to have been Minister Ramano’s agent for four general elections, which means he was also an MMM agent; owner of a bouncer company; trained by the men of the Israeli Special Forces; he is a specialist in creating doubt by means of words, by asking insinuating questions, like: “Was the Wakashio wreck an act of war?” “Why was this boat here? Answer me that! Why was that boat there?” He points little arrows of light around a screen. “Did drugs come into the country on the Wakashio?” etc.) 

L’Express in the same article quotes a trade unionist, “La décision de rouvrir une majorité d’activités, ce qui occasionne des rassemblements sur les lieux de travail, les autobus, les bazars, etc, serait incohérente avec celle d’interdire les manifestations publiques.” In his favour, the trade unionist probably does not actually want the spread of the epidemic but has just slipped into demagogy by habit.

A religious dignitary interviewed says, he is “en faveur de la reprise des prières dans les lieux de culte apartir du 1er juin.” He presumably means if the epidemic situation does not degenerate because he refers to the end of the present restrictive regime.

The point is that the article, taken as a whole, calls into question the Government public health restrictions on gatherings – giving voice, without comment, to a demagogue populist, a trade unionist and a religious dignitary all calling for restrictions to be lifted. A second trade unionist is more nuanced in his replies. A Government advisor on the National Communications Committee defends the restrictions in the article, giving the other “choice”. In times of crisis, journalists should beware of “false equivalences” like that, as if the choices are equal, and one is not a direct cause of human decimation in some four weeks’ time.

It is, again, as though the L’Express editorial team failed to read its own page 10 that day. Otherwise, it would surely know that it is not really a “choice” between two equal things: to open up or not open up. To open up means risking becoming what is described on page 10 of L’Express. So, the journalist’s questions should really be couched in this reality: “Given that there have for a week now been over 3,000 deaths a day in India [4,000 a day now] following crowding in transport and big gatherings, and that health services in Delhi have collapsed, what do you think about restrictions here on crowded buses and in gatherings?”

Words matter. Especially in epidemics.

Anti-Vaccination Campaigns

The social media are full of anti-vaccination panic-mongering. Even Facebook and Twitter have been shamed into removing some of it – in English language at least – from their platforms. Major newspapers have given space to interviews of people who spread doubt, quite scurrilously, on vaccination. 

Playing on the fact that many people are scared of needles in the first place, these loony ideas against vaccines have gone viral, themselves, in some circles: that you will (like a dog at the vets) supposedly get a micro-chip put into you without knowing it, when you go for the vaccination; that they don’t actually inject you at all but only pretend to; that supposedly you will go “all twisted” the minute you get the injection, and lord knows what else. Bruneau Laurette in that same L’Express article comes out with all the classic anti-vax rubbish, distilled, so we might as well quote him. “La vaccination [est] un choix personnel”. This is just not so. It is not a choice between two brands of toothpaste. We take part in a national or international vaccination campaign, in order, collectively, to quell an epidemic. In the past, we have, collectively, eliminated small-pox, the big killer, and well-nigh eradicated polio that killed and crippled thousands of children – by means of acting together not by any “choix personnel”. Wisely, we take our little babies for vaccination. Laurette goes on, “A mon sens, la vaccination est plus un accord pharmaceutique en faveur des capitalistes qui veulent en tirer profit.” Well, this is not a reason to oppose vaccines, but for him to call, as LALIT does, for an end to monopoly profits on patents. Vaccines are one of science’s best inventions ever for improving the human condition. Laurette goes on, “De plus, le vaccin réduit mais n’empêche pas les risques de contracter le Covid-19”, which shows he probably does not know that vaccines produce collective immunity by enough people becoming immune enough to prevent the spread, until the virus dies out.

Laurette concludes this segment by, “Avec l’émergence des variants, il se demande si chaque mutation necessitera un nouveau vaccin.” If people collectively world-wide cannot quell the pandemic fast, yes, we may need new vaccines. It will be the fault, in part, of people spreading false ideas against vaccines like Laurette does. 

For good measure, he downplays masks, too. “Le masque ne protège pas non plus intégralement”. So what? Some protection is better than none. Enough protection can quell the epidemic. He shows he is oblivious to the need to flatten the curve to save health services, and to limit transmission until a world-wide vaccination roll-out. 

And of course, the Donald Trump punch-line also comes out in Laurette’s own words, “D’ailleurs, ce virus n’a pas été aussi mortel que le H1N1.”  “Covid,” he is saying in L’Express, without any editorial comment, “is just flu.” Again, this shows he does not know that the speed of transmission of Covid is much higher than for H1N1. While 4% get severe symptoms for H1N1, 20% of people with Covid-19 get severe symptoms. For H1N1, there were 284,000 deaths in the first 12 months, for Covid, there were 2,000,000 in the first 12 months. So, basically he is speaking “nerport”. But, he is quoted as if he were as reasonable as anyone else.

Words matter. In times of crisis they matter a lot.