Mauritius battles Covid-19 explosion ahead of tourism reopening

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PORT LOUIS, MAURITIUS (AFP) – Hospitals are overwhelmed, ventilators are hard to find and there is no longer enough space at the main cemetery for Covid-19 victims in Mauritius.

Barely three weeks before it flings its doors wide open to international travellers at the start of the peak tourist season, the paradise island nation is struggling with an alarming explosion in coronavirus infections and deaths.

In just two months, cases have jumped over fivefold to more than 12,600 as at last Friday (Sept 10), by far the largest increase across Africa during this period, according to data compiled by AFP.

Since the pandemic started, Mauritius has recorded 1,005 cases of Covid-19 per 100,000 inhabitants, far higher than the continent’s average of 598.

The crisis is now so acute that 74-year-old former prime minister Navin Ramgoolam has flown to India for Covid-19 treatment, and the opposition leader has discussed his struggle to find a bed for an ailing friend.

“People do not realise how bad the situation is,” said one nurse at a Covid-19 treatment centre, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of possible reprisals. “We are already above capacity”.

In July, the idyllic Indian Ocean holiday destination, renowned for its white sandy beaches and turquoise waters, partly reopened to vaccinated international visitors.

But they had to remain in “resort bubbles” for 14 days before being allowed to venture further afield, provided they had a negative polymerase chain reaction test.

The government reduced that timeframe to seven days this month ahead of a full reopening planned for Oct 1, when tourists will be free to explore the island as long as they test negative up to 72 hours before arrival.

“The situation is worsening,” one doctor said on condition of anonymity, adding that medical professionals had been instructed not to talk about the crisis. “The priority of the government is to ensure a smooth opening of the borders on Oct 1.”

The government has not given any explanation for the surge, but local media reports speak of people ignoring social distancing guidelines and throwing caution to the winds after getting inoculated.

The authorities had ordered people in some sectors to have Covid-19 jabs or risk hefty fines and jail terms of up to five years.

As at Saturday, 61 per cent of the population was fully vaccinated.

Nevertheless, the pandemic picture remains bleak. Bernard, a worker at the leafy Bigara cemetery on the main island, said the area reserved for coronavirus victims was already full.

The dead are now being laid to rest at another graveyard in the north of the island, but locals are furious, saying Covid-19 victims are being buried too close to their homes.

L’Express newspaper reported that police had to be summoned last week when some youth began throwing stones at health workers who were burying the dead at Bois-Marchand cemetery.

The authorities have also been slow to paint a clear picture of the pandemic death toll, and announced a sharp revision to official figures Friday, from 34 to 89.

The Health Ministry explained its initial calculations by saying that the majority of the 89 fatalities were due to comorbidities and not directly caused by Covid-19.

Locals are conflicted about the relaxation of restrictions, with tourism contributing 25 per cent of the archipelago’s gross domestic product prior to the pandemic.

“We had closed the country but despite this, the number of cases exploded,” said taxi driver Paul Pierre, who said the prospect of a tourist surge made him “shudder”.

Hotel receptionist Diana Mootoosamy echoed his fears, telling AFP, “suddenly we find ourselves without a safety net”.

“By welcoming tourists, are we going to attract foreign exchange or (Covid-19) variants?”

Others say the economy, which shrank by 15 per cent during the last financial year, desperately needs the boost.

“My restaurant has been empty since March 2020. If the tourists don’t come back, I’ll have to put the key under the doormat,” restaurateur John Beeharry told AFP.

The country’s healthcare system is already struggling to cope. Opposition leader Xavier Duval rang alarm bells over his “traumatic” hunt earlier this month for a hospital bed with a ventilator for a close friend.

With family members in tears, Mr Duval tried several private clinics and the main hospital with no luck, before one centre agreed to admit his friend – but only for 48 hours.

“All this indicates that the system is overwhelmed,” he said, calling the situation “alarming”. “I’m afraid Mauritius will come to a stage where we might need to decide who will get air supply and who will have to die.”