March 28, 2021
It was Saturday, March 6th when we first heard rumblings of four cases of coronavirus in the community. A press release was sent out saying that contact tracing was being conducted and that anyone who went to a church service in Curepipe on Sunday, February 28 needed to remain in isolation, call a hotline, and be tested. Because Curepipe is 45 kilometers south of us and we had not been in that area, we did not think much of it. So on Sunday, March 7th we went to our church as usual and stopped by the grocery store on the way home. As soon as we pulled into the store parking lot, we noticed that it was packed. Still, we did not think a lot of it because the stores can sometimes be busy on the weekends when people are off work to do their shopping. Then, as we approached the entrance, we noticed a line of people with carts waiting to get into the store. Not understanding what was happening or why there was a line, we went on into the store. There were people everywhere and long lines at every checkout counter. An eerie feeling was in the air, like everyone else knew something that we did not. The children became restless, and not wanting to wrestle with them in the long checkout lines, I took them outside while Aaron waited in line. It was only after weaving our way back through the crowds and out of the store that I became aware that the line of people waiting to get into the store (which we had unknowingly cut) stretched all the way around the exterior length of the supermarket. The adjoining restaurants that would normally be open were closed, and there was a palpable tension in the silence of everyone waiting.
By late afternoon, the announcement came that schools would be closed March 8th, 9th, and 10th following the identification of two children who tested positive for coronavirus. With this announcement, it became clear why there were such long lines at the grocery store. People were afraid. But they weren’t afraid of coronavirus. Instead, they were afraid of starving if a total lockdown was imposed like the one that occurred in Mauritius in March 2020. At that time, when coronavirus was new and this small island with limited resources had no protocols yet in place for quarantine or testing, the government imposed a total lockdown without warning. Everything was shutdown immediately, including grocery stores, and people were restricted to their homes. This went on for eight weeks. Eight weeks without being able to buy food or leave the house. We have been told that people were literally starving or sneaking food to their neighbors if they had any to spare. Thus, everyone was worried and trying to prepare even though nothing was closed at that time except schools, and only for three days.
March 11th and 12th were public holidays, and the schools would be closed those days anyway, so initially we were hopeful that maybe this would simply be a week-long break, and we would be back to school the following Monday. On March 8th, there were only 10 positive cases identified after contact tracing and more than 750 PCR tests. On March 9th, there were 15 positive cases, and the announcement came that a total lockdown would be imposed for one day, Wednesday, March 10th, followed by a period of confinement lasting from March 11th to March 25th. During this confinement, we would be restricted from going out without the proper work permit (which we don’t have), with the exception of being able to go to the grocery store, pharmacy, gas station, or bank on the two days a week designated by our last name. All other businesses, restaurants, public transportation, and schools were to remain closed. With this announcement came a general increase in dread and anxiety. Still, no one knew whether the government would change course and decide to implement an extended total lockdown. As Aaron and I sat looking out from our balcony that night, we could see that the streets were empty except for a lone police car with lights flashing patrolling for anyone violating the lockdown while an eerie stillness filled the air.
After the announcement of these new restrictions, I thought it wise to go to the grocery store on our next designated day, Friday, to stock up on a few extra supplies in case a total lockdown was imposed. I was not sure what to expect when I went out, but I noticed an abnormal lack of vehicles on the road. When I turned into the parking lot of the store, police officers were pulling cars over at random to check IDs and make sure that no one was there without it being their proper day. I found a parking space easily and walked to the store entrance. I was not surprised to see a line waiting to get into the store, but I was surprised as I followed that line around the front of the supermarket, and down the entire length of adjoining shops and restaurants and then doubling back on itself again. I finally found the end of the line and settled in for a long wait. As I waited, I observed my fellow shoppers and pondered the scene. Most people were alone, silently waiting and moving a few steps forward every couple of minutes as the line progressed. Others were with a friend or family member, but they all just waited. While I could see the look of fatigue and sometimes surprise on the faces of newcomers joining the end of the line, no one said anything. And with the exception of a few ex-patriots who struck up a conversation in line ahead of me, most people remained silent. I thought how odd this scene was when contrasted to what I imagine a similar scene would look like in the States. I imagined that in the US people would be grumbling and complaining about how outrageous it was that they had to wait so long to get into the store and how at least one or two outspoken people would be voicing their opinions loudly in anger or trying to push to the front of the line. But here, everyone just waited.
I have been told that part of the reason Mauritius has had a more successful response to coronavirus is because it is a collectivist culture. This means that people are more inclined to think in terms of community or what is best for the larger goal or group as opposed to being individualistic and focusing primarily on autonomy and individual rights or goals. As I stood in that line waiting to get into the store, I couldn’t help but think that this was a perfect example of collectivism. No one wanted to be in that line or wait that long, but everyone knew that it was a necessary precaution, and I would also like to think that we all understood that every person in that line was just trying to provide for their families—making no one’s wants or needs more relevant or pressing than anyone else’s. By the time I reached the entrance, I had waited more than an hour to get into the store. And even then, there was a sense of calm in the store. It was not overcrowded, and I was impressed that within a day or two the store had clearly delineated a one-way system for the checkout counters and workers wove seamlessly among the shoppers restocking shelves and making sure that everyone could get what they needed. It was a beautiful display of everyone seemingly working together, or at least cooperating, toward the common good. By the time Aaron went grocery shopping the following Friday, the lines were gone, but they are still checking IDs and requiring masks and temperature checks, the latter of which has been standard protocol for the past year even when the island was considered covid-free.
Monday, March 15th, marked the first official day of online learning for Lighthouse, although optional assignments were available during the initial school closure the previous week. The start of online classes brought a whirlwind of changes in our house. First, it meant that Aaron, who had planned his upcoming units and instruction for in-person classes, had to quickly adjust and figure out how to adapt the material to an online format. It also has meant that he is locked away in a room for eight hours a day for synchronous instruction and then spends nights preparing and grading. For me, it has meant that my new full-time job is managing schedules, zoom meetings, and schoolwork for three children. My typical “school” day starts around 8am and goes until 4pm during which time I alternate between helping each child individually with their work and making sure that everyone gets logged in to the right meetings at the right times. The first few days were a bit overwhelming, and I had flashbacks of the disaster that online learning was for us last March in the US. At that time, Aaron and I were both working full-time jobs that had to be managed online, and frankly, we didn’t have the time, energy, or flexibility to fully support our own children’s learning. It is a predicament that I know many working parents have found themselves in over the past year. As such, our youngest two (both in preschool at the time) just stopped learning, and our school-aged child did the bare minimum to get by until the end of the school year last May.
Having had that experience, I am thankful for the blessing that not having a job outside of the home has been right now. It has given me the time, energy, and flexibility to devote to helping them continue to learn and grow academically, which is especially important given that the younger two are both at critical points in developing pre-reading and reading skills. I can also see how each child benefits from and enjoys the individualized attention, which has helped foster positive relationships. For now, we have settled into a routine, and the children are mostly cooperative about coming to do schoolwork when it is their turn and being patient when it is not. We are all restless and miss being able to go out, enjoy the beaches, and explore. We also miss being able to see our new friends, classmates, and colleagues, but we are grateful to have a comfortable home, food, health, and devices that allow for continued learning and connection online.
The current confinement restrictions have been extended until at least March 31st, after which the first phase of reopening is set to commence. In this phase, some businesses and restaurants will be allowed to reopen for takeout and delivery. Schools, however, will remain closed for the foreseeable future, and we will still only be allowed to go out two days a week. In addition to the confinement restrictions that have been put in place, the government also initially closed the airport to all incoming traffic (it has since reopened) and quarantined off several towns where the majority of the outbreak clusters occurred. They have labeled this area the ‘Red Zone,’ and it is forbidden for anyone to travel in or out of these restricted zones without proper authorization. To date, there have been 268 positive cases identified since the onset of the community outbreak on March 5th. Twenty-nine of those are considered recovered at this stage, while 239 remain active. It is interesting to note that 220 of those cases were identified through contact tracing, and 35 were identified in quarantine centers. Health workers have also administered thousands of PCR tests in the past few weeks in the contact tracing process, a process that was developed initially to combat—and ultimately eliminate—malaria on the island.
This recent lockdown has also dealt another blow to Mauritius’ already struggling economy, which has suffered from the lack of tourism over the past year. Mauritius had just begun rolling out its public vaccination campaign on March 8th and had hoped to reopen borders when the vaccination rate reached 60% among the general public. During the initial days of school closure, Lighthouse was encouraging staff to try to get vaccinated; however, the vaccination process is not without challenges. Aaron went on March 9th, the day assigned according to our last name, to get a vaccine at the nearest hospital. After waiting for three hours and barely making it to the front of the line before closing, he was told that he could not be vaccinated there because he was an ex-patriot, which apparently is not true according to other ex-patriots who were able to receive vaccines at other hospitals and clinics. The next day the vaccination campaign was temporarily suspended, and it is now being reorganized. Further complicating vaccine distribution is that fact that at least one hospital was temporarily closed this week for sanitization following an outbreak of coronavirus among the staff. As such, none of our family has been vaccinated, and it is unclear when we might be able to receive a vaccine.
Regardless of the challenges and what may seem to be a strict response to only a few cases, we remain grateful. The death toll from coronavirus in Mauritius is 10—only 10 since the onset of the pandemic a year ago, and the island was basically covid-free for the past nine months or more. When I look at this in comparison to the almost 550,000 lives lost in the United States, there is no comparison. Even if you calculate the number of deaths by percentage of the overall population for each country, Mauritius’ death rate due to coronavirus is far below that of the US. And I must admit that this has all been a bit disorienting, like a strange déjà vu, re-experiencing the onset of a pandemic but different. Different rules, different culture, different protocols, but strangely familiar. As we adjust to yet another new normal, we remain positive, hopeful, grateful. Which reminds me, a friend recently commented that they had come to appreciate my “positive spin on things.” To be honest, this comment caught me off guard. Of all things, I have never thought of myself as a “positive” person—hopeful, perhaps, but not positive. Reflecting on this, I realized that, for me, it has nothing to do with positivity and everything to do with choosing my response. As holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” We may not always be able to choose our circumstances. But we can always choose our response. And that, I believe, makes all the difference.
With peace, love, and gratitude from Mauritius…