Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
In terror filled months which stretch endlessly into each other, the covid-19 pandemic has seen thousands die, obliterated assumptions of functional ‘First World’ health systems, stamped incredible images of shoppers fighting over toilet paper in Australia and the United States on our unwilling retinas and led to the best as well as the worst of humanity on display.
It is almost as if all our favorite ‘extinction-event’ movie blockbusters were stupendously combined into one long, persistent nightmare from which the world just does not seem to be able to wake.
Tilting at windmills of ‘criticism’
So if ever there was a time to put petty differences aside, that would be now. Yet, on the national stage as well as internationally, the contrary is true.
Did a China-centric policy on the part of WHO delay crucial warnings of human-to-human transmission of the virus with the declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern coming as late as 30th January 2020? The jury is (definitively) out on that question. But as the WHO and US President Donald Trump trade barbs on that score, global statistics of the dead and dying increase by the hour.
Meanwhile, Sri Lankans face constraints on freedoms of speech, expression and information from many quarters. Recently, the acting Inspector General of Police announced to the consternation of many, that those who ‘criticise’ public officials will be arrested. He was grievously wrong on both the law and civilised democratic practice.
Now, to add insult to palpable injury, top-lofty Chinese officials in Colombo’s mission are tilting at windmills in regard to perfectly harmless publications from this newspaper group, including one report which had informed that a Sri Lankan consumer group was deliberating filing legal action against China for negligence
The mission’s baffling response splattered over online media and replete with copious colloquialisms including one laughter inducing reference to the American lawyer who had filed a law suit against China for negligence as a Reagan-era ‘pettifogger,’ scarcely befitted a diplomatic response. It was more ‘diplo-muttic’ as it were. Indeed, it looked curiously as if parts were written by a typical propagandist while other parts seem scribbled by an angry teenager. This was far from a sober refutation by a diplomatic mission if facts had been misrepresented.
China’s counterproductive defensiveness
China’s defensiveness does not help its cause. It may legitimately protest that references to the ‘Wuhan virus’ smacks of racist branding. However state policies encouraging animal ‘wet markets’which form ideal breeding grounds for viruses to thrive, cannot be just brushed away. There are far more credible grounds to source this virus, as well as other recent companion viruses, to the appalling killings of exotic animals for the rich and wealthy. Conspiracy theories of a virus grown in a lab and disseminated deliberately in Wuhan are simply too much to swallow.
So also is masking the dreadful truth of the scale, significence and the human-to-human spread reported by doctors in that city, who were then stigmatized long before after China reported coronavirus as ‘a pneumonia of unknown cause’ to the WHO in late December 2019. The sooner diplomats manning local missions recognise the justifiable anger of populations who feel that the Chinese political establishent did not inform the world early enough regarding the human-to-human spread of the coronavirus, the better.
Meanwhile as we endure close upon a month of lockdown with ‘high risk’ Districts under continuous curfew amidst the steady increase of covid-19 infected numbers, political games played by both the Government and the Opposition do not augur well for the citizenry.While the Rajapaksa-led administration seems set in stone in refusing to reconvene Parliament, (or at least a representative gathering of the House), the Opposition in turn, seems equally determined to postpone parliamentary polls till 2021. It is obvious that the poll cannot be held within the next few months. But do we really need to stress on 2021 at this point? Is this not a matter best left for deliberation when there is a more of a handle on what exactly the nation is facing, rather than this dreadful uncertainty that prevails?
The stark, hard truth of people starving
Leaving aside elections and whatnot, there is a stark, hard truth staring at us right now. Food scarcity has become a creature of the present, rather than the hypothetical ‘gonibilla’ (malevolent ghost) with which Sri Lankan parents used to scare stubborn children. Local politicians handing out the odd basket of essential supplies to pitifully grateful recipients will not suffice. Increasing numbers of not just the poor but the middle classes just do not have money to buy food even if vegetable trucks come to their neighbourhood.
And this is where, as Sri Lanka’s Election Commission warned, food distribution must be depoliticised. As main economic centres which the essential chain links in the supply of vegetables were shut down this week, we were informed that a new mechanism has been devised to distribute vegetables. But allegations abound that these processes are controlled by political supporters of the Rajapaksa-led Podujana Party and that curfew passes are given only to the favored.
And rolling back an earlier absurd rule that medicine can only be obtained through prescriptions whatsapped to elusive phone numbers, pharmacies remained open this week allowing anxious people to get their medical supplies, albeit after hours of waiting in line. Absent a proper system in place to get basic supplies and medicine to the desperately needed, curfew violators numbered nineteen thousand in police custody by Thursday. How, by the way, is social distancing rules are practiced in cramped and foul police cells?
These are paramount issues that must be resolved through an all party consensus, not silly meetings of waffling politicians which disperses with everyone saying contradictory things. As the WHO Secretary General warned America’s President a few days ago, ‘the coronavirus should not be politicised…lest you want body bags to increase.’
On this at least, he was right.