THE sudden spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus has caught both the government and larger society by surprise and generated collective alarm. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been chiding the people for failing to be more careful about their safety and taking the necessary precautions. Until the recent outbreak took on serious proportions, people felt obliged to wear face masks to avoid being questioned by the police rather than for their own personal safety and that of those around them. Participants at social gatherings frequently put aside their masks after they got inside the venue. The belief that was propagated by the government that Sri Lanka was the second most successful country in the world in terms of containing COVID-19 took a firm grip on the popular imagination.
President Rajapaksa is reported to have said that if this was a real war, like the one he fought against the LTTE, he would know what to do. In leading the war with the LTTE as defence secretary, president Rajapaksa and his team of top military commanders looked at the lessons of the past and the known behaviours of the enemy and designed effective counter-strategies. But this war against coronavirus is one within the community and needs a different approach that is more inclusive and participatory than that of the military, which is usually exclusive and top-down only. Making the point that wisdom comes late in the day, too late to make a new beginning, the philosopher Hegel said ‘The Owl of Minerva sets flight when the shades of twilight are already falling.’ But it is human ingenuity and leadership that dares to rectify the mistakes that have been made by learning from the past and not repeating them. This applies as much to resolving peacetime problems as to wartime ones.
The COVID-19 spread has now reached the level of the community. More and more of Colombo is being shut down as a desperate measure. Where there is community spread, the problem cannot be solved by decisions made at the top without reference to what is happening at the ground level. Those who are working on health issues at the community level, including both medical personnel and civil society organisations, need to be brought into the campaign. Sociology Professor Kalinga Tudor Silva has stated that ‘In order to address these challenges effectively, we need to have a broader community participation at all levels, inclusive decision making and a two-way flow of information in place of a purely top down communication pattern.’
THE lax attitude towards the coronavirus pandemic on the part of the general population was, in large measure, due to lack of adequate knowledge. A fatal trend of non-transparent decision making was set early on in the COVID-19 crisis. At the root of the problem was the political desire to hold elections early and so the truth of the situation was confined to only a few. The responsibility for this needs to be borne by the government and not simply attributed to the lack of commitment of the people. Even after the coronavirus statistics had surged, large political gatherings were to be seen in which those government leaders in attendance appeared to demonstrate a cavalier attitude to safety concepts as social distancing and the wearing of face masks. The tragedy is that the government was caught by surprise as much as the rest of the population because they did not know of, or foresee, the spread of the invisible enemy.
The failure in knowledge gathering and sharing could have been avoided if there had been more participation of those from outside the government, including the political opposition, independent professional associations and civil society organisations with experience in working with communities at the grassroots level. Apart from those in the central government, subsidiary layers of devolved government could have been utilised too, such as the local government authorities, to make the war against coronavirus a major national one conducted at all levels. Apart from those in the central government, subsidiary layers of devolved government could have been utilised too, such as the local government authorities, to make the war against coronavirus a major national one conducted at all levels.
There is a concerted campaign in the social media that is focusing on the government’s failures. The inability of the government to halt the spread of the coronavirus is the main theme of this anti-government propaganda. There are invidious comparisons made between the indecisiveness of the present government and drawing comparisons to the previous government which was also indecisive. There are several examples of decisions being made and changed with regard to the extension of lockdowns and withdrawal of subsidies given to the consumer and producer items. There is a parallel to the initial period of the previous government where it was opposed from the very beginning and not given the time and space to settle down and figure out what needed to be done.
IN TIMES of crisis and economic scarcity it is easy to scapegoat and target minorities which can then spread into violence. There is hate news that focuses on ethnic and religious minorities with the allegation that the government is not doing enough to put them in their place. Starting with the Easter bombing last year and continuing to the presidential and general elections, government politicians attacked their opponents for their failures in ensuring national security and being single minded in their decisions. They pledged to ensure national security and to secure the position of the majority community whose vote they campaigned for and obtained in an unprecedented manner. However, social media posts indicate that the manner in which the government secured its two-thirds majority in parliament by obtaining the support of Muslim parliamentarians who voted from the opposition has eroded confidence in the government leadership’s commitment to the pledges they made.
The question is how the government will seek to ensure the continuing confidence of the people in its governance and decisions it takes. The political columnist Tisaranee Gunasekara has pointed out that ‘the 2021 budget will allocate less money for health than the 2019 budget did. According to the Appropriations Bill for 2021 (approved by the cabinet in early October) allocation for health decreased by Rs 29 billion compared to 2019. The war ended more than a decade ago. The pandemic is a living reality. Yet defence tops the 2021 budgetary allocations. The second place goes to highways, which gets more than double the money allocated to health.’ Now that the 20th amendment has been passed into law, president Rajapaksa is best positioned to make the decisions that call for sacrifice but which are fair by all.
The virulent coronavirus is not the only destructive problem the country faces. There is also the deeply felt disaffection of the Muslim community, and also sections of the Christian community, at the practice of compulsory cremation of COVID-19 victims. This is practised nowhere else in the world and is contrary to World Health Organisation’s guidelines which have brought a black mark to the country internationally. There are also the deep wounds of the 26 year war and missing persons and those incarcerated in prisons without trial for over a decade which continues to be as a black cloud hanging over the country. It is to be hoped that president Rajapaksa can give the enlightened leadership that unites the country to face these challenges and overcome them all with the vision of the wellbeing of all. Keeping in mind his pledge at his inauguration to be the president of all Sri Lankans and not only of those who voted him into power, the president could call all political parties to come together as a National Emergency Task Force to deal with the coronavirus crisis. In opposition leader Sajith Premadasa and JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake the country has responsible national leaders with the capacity to give their support to do what is right without being politically partisan.
Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.
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