FOUAD DIOUMAN

Having faced numerous ravaging cyclones, Mauritius should have been a beacon in terms of Emergency Response Plan (ERP). Yet, our Culture – with the resulting attitudes, behaviours and work ethics – can be formidable and fundamental hurdles.

The purpose of this paper is not to add fuel to the fire but to use various levers and some experience for a reflection. The attitudes and the way we work in Mauritius may prove to be fundamentally detrimental to a proper approach to develop or even adapt proven methods for efficient crisis management. Not strictly my area of expertise but, in the aviation industry, I have been thrown at the deep end, when logistics are stressed to the limit and you have to coordinate with cross-functional colleagues, manage staff, cancel flights at short notice, add new emergency flights, plan for crew and aircraft and, above all, communicate to and look after stranded passengers. A humble personal case study, much less serious than the Coronavirus pandemic, further illustrates my point below. My exposure in Mauritius dates back to 20 years ago. Up to the reader to decide whether things have changed and if we are better prepared.

My first experience of absolutely no Planning (and its essential corollary, Communication), even for mundane work, came when I joined the airport in the mid-nineties. You would regularly receive a memo from Port Louis mightily stamped ‘URGENT’, in red of course, one afternoon summoning you to a minister’s office the next morning. You just had to drop everything behind, especially looking after the crucial terminal facilities and staff – hence service to passengers – to concentrate on working to answer some PNQs or some other red herring questions from civil servants who did not possess even basic technical awareness, let alone expertise or practical experience of a subject or industry. This was from the top of the pyramid… The Ministers were far from being the worst, the top civil servants were hares caught in the limelight having no idea of what they were doing and the plethora of non-accountable advisers were the most vain and mediocre people I had ever met.

I learned from my General Manager that nothing had to be ‘Urgent’, it was merely a symptom of no planning. Extrapolating from my experience, I can fathom the distress within various departments faced with an unprecedented challenge potentially killing hundreds of thousands around the world, without an Emergency Response Plan. But here is a practical example of how things can be dealt with swiftly, with some method. A few months after starting work at the airport, surprise, surprise, we faced a cyclone. Thousands of passengers turned up at the airport… with no flights departing. I discovered the hard way that we were simply not prepared. There was no plan or procedure. The airport had been functioning for more than 30 years, I just assumed there was a plan: cyclones are not a surprise in Mauritius. The civil servants in charge left work at 4 pm as usual… It was a total meltdown and I was partly responsible.

We faced another cyclone a few weeks later. This time we were prepared. We made sure we planned that all flights within 48 hours would be definitely cancelled, proactively. Crucially, the process was drawn out well before and we only followed our Emergency Response Plan (which has to be detailed but also simple and practical to implement) to the letter. We took no prisoners: we informed (even dictated to) airlines and hotels NOT to send any passengers to the airport until further notice from us. When the airport re-opened, we had a packed schedule of departures, a backlog cumulated over 3 days. We ordered the airlines exactly which flight was to leave at what time. This new schedule was communicated to hotels too. I was surprised that the French General Manager of a five-star hotel called me to set up a table in the terminal to offer free drinks to passengers waiting to check-in. He came to serve the drinks himself. His gesture was incredible. But miracles do not happen: for months, we had indeed worked hard to develop trusted channels of communication with various stakeholders. Again I am no expert in crisis management. We used our industry expertise, care, empathy for customers and common sense, with a positive attitude by all parties. Things went very smoothly this time.

But here is the rub. No one from Port Louis enquired or cared to learn what happened. There was no PNQ. Around ten years later, I was kindly invited by a young and dynamic Minister to be part of a meeting between government and the private sector (on an industry topic). No less than two Permanent Secretaries attended the meeting. They were comfortably flanked by secretaries, who took notes. The high ranking civil servants did not utter one word, did not do anything, before or after the meeting. The Minister was working more than both of them combined. Their job was just to mark their presence. And that was not even – heaven forbid – for Emergency Response during extraordinarily circumstances, it was just their normal line of work. I did not know whether to laugh or to cry.

Sadly, the fundamentals for a correct approach to crisis management were simply inexistent in Mauritius, in that paradigm. Many government officers improvised daily due to lack of process and methods. Several highly competent technical resources from our team left the country for the UK and Canada. A mere glimpse of how the country was run was a strong incentive… I also met a few very talented and technical civil servants who were stifled by the system and higher administration. Many others stayed in their cocoon and waited for retirement, the name of the game.

Proper crisis management requires technical expertise in the given field, proven methods, processes clearly documented in an Emergency Response Manual as well as recurrent practice and training. If you allow me an artistic analogy to lighten the mood in these difficult times, crisis management is no place for the kind of creative improvisation we see at a jazz venue. It is more akin to a large symphonic ensemble encompassing widely different skills, with each participant strictly following the notes from their well-rehearsed partition for months and even years before, driven by a perfectionist, unforgiving maestro. The exact role everyone has to play at a given time has to be made very clear, and that encompasses public relations expertise. Needless to add, crucially, an open-minded, progressive attitude is a prerequisite. How many of these critical, life-saving boxes do we tick in Mauritius, a country driven more by politics than by process? Great people think about ideas, small people think about what other people are doing. Becoming like Singapore or Korea does not happen by talk and posturing – or by calling in a few foreign consultants now and then…