Sliding into dictatorship?

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The power grab by the government under the Covid-19 and Quarantine bills (now acts) are being deployed as a slide into a dictatorship by opposition parties and concerned corners while the government itself is dismissing such concerns as demagoguery.  Which of these two narratives is correct can only be gauged by a dispassionate analysis of the necessity of the continuing lockdown imposed on the country.

The trouble is that the debate around the lockdown has been an extremely dishonest one. The lockdown has been championed by the government as necessary for saving lives while attempting to deny that the lockdown itself comes with costs of its own. Last Thursday, the opposition attempted to ask what some of these costs were, the finance minister simply refused to answer the question. Padayachy deliberately conflated that pandemic itself with the lockdown – which is a policy decision by the government in response – to sidestep the issue. But there are questions that need to be asked: how many businesses (particularly SMEs) have been pushed into bankruptcy under the lockdown? How many jobs and futures have been put into peril? What is the psychological toll on citizens being confined? What about the rise in domestic violence cases as testified by the minister herself? How many of the mass lay-offs, that the Covid-19 bill will facilitate, will be caused by external factors such as the crisis in tourism and manufacturing, and how many come as a result of putting the locally-oriented economy into the deep freeze for months on end? And then about other issues directly linked to the lockdown decision: those to civil liberties caused by a curfew order that the former chief justice said was the worst drafted law he had ever seen, the economic blow to citizens due to profiteering by some retailers, and now more recently, by taxi drivers and some auto insurance firms. All flowing from the lockdown policy. It is only after all these costs of the lockdown itself are taken into account can an enlightened verdict be rendered about this policy decision.

And then, of course, those pushing for the continued lockdown – and restrictions flowing from it – must also answer a couple of questions. Until a vaccine is developed and then administered in every corner of the earth that’s years down the line, a return of Covid-19 is inevitable. What do we do until then? Stay sealed like a pleasanter version of North Korea? On 20 April, the WHO warned that only two to three per cent of the world’s population had developed antibodies to Covid-19, making it likely that a second wave of the virus would be as bad. But with lockdowns precisely engineered to limit contact with the virus, how are populations supposed to develop antibodies to limit the virus’ effects? Most of all, we need to stop fear-mongering. Sensationalism aside, Covid-19 has killed 316,915 people globally so far. The flu kills 500,000. Most of those it kills are over 80 years of age, while in Mauritius the average life expectancy is 71 for men. So we are not quite in apocalypse territory just yet. Every slide to authoritarianism has been lubricated by exaggerated fears. Our government using Covid-19 to arrogate more powers to itself is no different. This means that the opposition has to stop trying to have it both ways, trying to use Covid-19 to hammer the government and then feigning horror when the government uses these fears to justify giving itself more dictatorial powers.

The government has to be honest with the people and tell them what the lockdown has really cost Mauritius. Only then can we see whether this has all been worth it. And whether the government is right about it saving lives, or whether this was just about accumulating more power all along.

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