Jocelyn Chan Low: “If 2021 were an animal, it would be a chameleon as it symbolises deceit”

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“If 2021 were a historical figure, without hesitation, it would be Walt Disney. This is not because he created some fantastic characters that have made us laugh since childhood. Likewise, in Mauritius, the story of the savatte dodoman and his princesses did provide hilarious moments on social media.”

For the last interview of the year, we sit with Historian Jocelyn Chan Low and go over the major events that happened this year. We dissect the good, the bad and the ugly and invite our guest to sum up the year for us and project us into 2022. A light-hearted interview that reveals a fair amount of creativity. 

A year has gone by. From the point of you of a historian, what events that took place during 2021 we will still be talking about years from now?
It’s not easy to make a selection from those that happened this year because in essence, History is a dialogue between the past and the present. The type of questions that a historian asks from the past are shaped by the problems affecting his present.

What could these problems be?
Who can guess what these problems will be in a specific future? Only Time can show the significance of any particular event. What seems trivial today might be looked upon as the beginning of a new chapter in the near future.

But from our standpoint today, what are the problems that stand out?
The collapse of the fragile unity of the opposition is surely an important landmark in our political history. Not only did it lead to a change in the constitutional post  of leader of the opposition, Xavier Luc Duval of the PMSD replacing Arvind Boolell of the Labour Party, but it also revealed the extent of Navin Ramgoolam’s grasp on  the Labour Party  while putting a brake on the momentum of  an opposition dynamic that had  developed since the Wakashio protests.

Did this play in favour of the government?
Indeed, it gave the government the opportunity to try to turn the tide by September/October.  In a parliamentary system like ours, the opposition is an important element in the system of checks and balances. And when it dissipates its strength in internecine quarrels, it contributes indirectly to abuses by the regime.

What about the economic and social fronts?
On those two fronts, the return of Covid 19 through new variants amidst a lockdown and further restrictions were of great significance. It showed clearly that the pandemic is here to stay for a while and that Mauritius cannot live forever in isolation and has to cope with the new normal.On the international scene, the institutionalisation of the new cold war between China, the re-emerging power, and the US, the hegemon and her allies through the setting up of AUKUS was an important landmark. It will have profound geopolitical consequences for us, given the Agalega affair.

“Like a chameleon, 2021 was marked by changes in tones and colours, as we moved from Covid-free to lockdown and from Covid- safe to further sanitary restrictions with the Delta variant soon to be superseded by Omicron.”

When you look back on this year, what will make you angry?
There are so many things to be angry at: the poor governance leading to  the country being put on the black list of the EU high-risk third countries, the perception that key institutions are being controlled by Lakwizinn, the doormat  behaviour of the MBC, the Kistnen case  dragging on, etc.

If you had to single out one thing, what would it be?
The way parliamentary affairs are being conducted – the naming and shaming, the unruliness and lack of proper behaviour that led to indirect criticisms and censure from the president of the Seychelles. This is unacceptable in a country where an elected deliberative assembly dates back to 1791. The perception that the parliamentary opposition is being silenced adds greatly to the growing feeling that democracy is being eroded in our country. This perception was multiplied when the ICTA came forward with its famous proposal to regulate the internet. This mad initiative was thrown away but still by the end of the year the IBA Amendment Act was passed.

It’s not the first time in our history that the authorities try to limit the freedom of the press, though, is it?
No but, in the past, each time it happened, the press showed great solidarity to combat these measures. For example when the editor of Le Cernéen was prosecuted by the authorities, Remy Ollier, a bitter adversary of this newspaper, came to his rescue, arguing that freedom of the press is whole and indivisible. We saw the same union sacrée at work to fight the Newspapers and Periodicals Amendment Act of 1984. But this time, this did not happen. Guess why...

The Ministry of Health has been in the news quite often this year. Is that significant?
Yes, the Ministry of Health can be singled out for the dismantlement of key measures to control the spread of Covid 19, like contact tracing, strict 14 days quarantine etc. just before the opening of our frontiers to regular flights. This contributed indirectly to creating a false sense of security in the public while the Delta variant had just entered the country.  And of course the ministry can be also be blamed for the latest scandal of procurement of Molnupiravir, where it appears some influences seem to have been at work to steal public funds. 

In the middle of this grim, is there anything that makes you smile?
One can smile out of joy or due to some funny happenings. On the later count, we can single out how our vice prime minister tried hard to portray Mauritius as Covid -free a few days before strict measures had to be enforced to control the spread of new variants. Or the savatte dodo saga where Mauritians showed great ingenuity on the social media platforms in their condemnation of what they saw as indecent favouritism.

Are there any good news worth mentioning?
Yes there are some, like when Mauritius being struck out of the EU black list, or was delisted on the scarlet list of destinations for French nationals. The tourist arrivals picking up rather quickly too were ground for satisfaction. We can add here the conduct of important primary and secondary end of cycle exams. Despite alarms, they went on relatively well. And the younger generation, our future, was kept more or less safe despite the pandemic.

Would you think of 2021 as a year in which we made progress in some areas?
Given the philosophy of the past budgets, one could have expected significant developments in public infrastructure. This has not yet been the case, despite a few achievements like the Victoria urban terminal. On the whole there has been significant progress in the engagement and structuring of civic society; The Avengers, Bruno Laurette, Dev Sunnassy, Nelkanth Dulloo, to name just a few, joined Rezistans ek alternativ in keeping alive a vibrant political and social activism at grassroots level. This type of activism had long been abandoned by the traditional political parties. Whether all this will mature into a third force on the political scene is another matter, given the great odds they are against in our political system. But these are signs of hope that political engagement on the field is not dead.

Another area where there has been great progress is in the awareness that there is no alternative to vaccination to fight the pandemic. The vaccination campaign has been a great success despite counter propaganda by some individuals influenced by pseudo scientific and conspiracy theories. And despite hesitations and some inevitable mess at the start, the campaign for the booster dose is gathering pace. It is revealing that there has been no great outcry this time when the government decided to make a booster dose mandatory for the sanitary pass as from 15th January 2022.  This shows that the public in general has finally come to realise that the pandemic is here to stay and that measures will have to be taken at individual level to cope with it.

“Politically, the opposition seems to be moving once more towards a greater measure of unity and coordination. Will this really happen and how long will it last given the conflicting interests at stake?”

If 2021 were an animal, which would it be?
At first sight, the choice may be difficult. Given the scandals on procurement of medical supplies to fight the sanitary crisis, one could have opted for the hyena, as it seems there were many around preying on dead bodies. Or else it could have been the skunk, given the stink of spreading corruption. However, I would opt for the chameleon, as it symbolises mainly deceit. Like a chameleon, 2021 was marked by changes in tones and colours, as we moved from Covid-free to lockdown and from Covid- safe to further sanitary restrictions with the Delta variant soon to be superseded by Omicron. This unpredictability is characteristic of the chameleon’s appearance. But mind you, it also symbolises adaptability. And this year, Mauritians seem to have adjusted ‘bon gré mal gré’ to the new normal. It’s a good sign of the resilience of our society. 

If 2021 were a historical figure, who would be the one it takes most after?
Without hesitation it would be Walt Disney. This is not because he created some fantastic characters that have made us laugh since childhood – I’m sure most of us remember the Looney tunes! Likewise, in Mauritius, the story of the savatte dodoman and his princesses did provide hilarious moments on social media. More importantly, Walt Disney embodies success despite several failures in a career beset by so many ups and downs, exactly like 2021. However, in the end, there were some breakthroughs like getting out of the black or scarlet lists. Also, the Prime Minister’s Office did step in after Xavier Duval’s revelations in parliament about the procurement of Molnupiravir by the Ministry of Health. Even the ICAC has started investigating the matter! After all, everything is not lost. And the opposition too seems on the way to a reunification, while Omicron, far from being a curse, could well become nature’s solution to the pandemic.

2020 was seen as a year that most people wish it hadn’t existed. Would you extend that to 2021?
Definitely not, though it’s true we are still in the transition phase towards the post pandemic era which will also be characterised by a shift of power on the global scene, generating a new cold war. There are encouraging signs that we will be sailing into new waters in the near future. Anyway, the shock of 2020 has been absorbed and the world has shown its resilience and has managed to develop the right responses – political, economic and scientific – to limit the damage after a period of trial and error. In Mauritius, we now know better how to cope with the situation though there is still some refining to be done.

What are the most important lessons 2021 taught us?
The lessons are many: Firstly we may be an island, a small rock in the middle of the Indian Ocean, but we cannot live forever in isolation and cannot escape a global pandemic forever. As such, we need to always upgrade our public health infrastructure to cope with such situations. At the same time, there is an urgent need of efficient watchdogs to prevent the dilapidation of public funds by an established mafia while citizens have to be always watchful and engaged to prevent the erosion of our hard won democratic rights.

If you were to write a history book about 2021, what would the first two sentences be?
2021 was a year of paradoxes. It was also a year of transition towards the post pandemic era. 

How is 2022 looking?
There is a lot of uncertainty given that we do not have enough data on the Omicron variant which will soon dominate the Covid scene. We can also expect a continuation of the cold war between China and the US and this will definitely weaken the global economy and will have great geopolitical consequences for the region.

And politically?
Politically, the opposition seems to be moving once more towards a greater measure of unity and coordination. Will this really happen and how long will it last given the conflicting interests at stake? As to the government, will it finally listen to the public demand for better governance and a stop to autocratic tendencies that can only mar its image? Only time will tell.

What are your hopes and wishes for the country in the coming year?
Like most Mauritians, we yearn for an end of the pandemic and for political, social, economic, cultural and religious activities to go back to normal, and that school children be back at school, meet their friends and have a normal school life. The new generation has been sacrificed for too long.

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