By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Tackling a social calamity is not like fighting a war… Rather than muzzling the media and threatening dissenters with punitive measures (and remaining politically unchallenged), governance can be greatly helped by informed public discussion” – Amartya Sen (Listening as Governance)
A year has gone by since the Easter Sunday massacre in Sri Lanka. Innocent blood was shed by a group of radicalised Lankan Muslims pledging allegiance to the IS. That barbaric bombing – and its fear-filled aftermath – shaped the year that followed. Arguably its most significant progeny was the landslide presidential victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The first anniversary of the massacre was commemorated in the midst of another calamity, a pandemic that has caused more deaths globally than any terrorist attack. The nature of the pandemic should have caused some papering over of the fissures in Lankan polity and society; after all, viruses are no respecters of ethno-religious or political affiliations. Yet the opposite has happened.
The pandemic, instead of uniting Lankans against a common threat, has heightened our divisions. The narrative of the pandemic has become interwoven with pre-existing narratives of ethno-religious fractions and enmities, creating a seamless whole of us vs. them, of innocent victims being targeted by evil carriers of the virus.
This divisive misrepresentation of a common and natural threat as ethno-religiously motivated enemy action is no accident. It is the result of a conscious effort by the ruling party to use the pandemic to advance its authoritarian political agenda via a parliamentary election that is fatally infected with the anti-democratic virus.
The arrest of prominent lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah under the PTA provides a stark warning of how the pandemic is being used to further political repression. A police spokesman accused the lawyer of associating with the Easter Sunday suicide bombers. The accusation and the subsequent media coverage have fed into existing anti-Muslims hysteria (which was ratcheted up in the last couple of weeks with Muslims being depicted as plague-carriers, deliberately endangering the health of the nation).
According to media reports, Hizbullah was merely a lawyer for the Pettah spice merchant, the father of two of the suicide bombers. As the BASL stated, “The arrest is based on certain functions attended to by Mr. Hizbullah in his professional capacity as a member of the Bar.”
In other words, Hizbullah is being persecuted for the crimes of his one-time client. His arrest is aimed at creating a terrifying new reality, where a lawyer could be punished for the actions of his clients. The devastating effect such a practice will have on the entire judicial system is not hard to fathom.
Hizbullah’s arrest is not an isolated incident. On 2 April, DIG Ajith Rohana announced that two Police teams had been appointed to investigate social media users who ridicule Government officials engaged in anti-corona efforts. Many have been arrested for spreading ‘fake news’ on social media, a euphemism for anti-Government posts. Former Parliamentarian Ranjan Ramanayake was arrested on charges of curfew breaking. According to the internet, former Minister Mangala Samaraweera has been summoned to the CID on charges of misusing State property.
As several cartoonists have pointed out, arrest, arrest, arrest rather than test, test, test is the Government’s favoured response to the pandemic. Perhaps Colombo is imitating the best practices of China; for instance, Beijing recently arrested critic Ren Zhiqiang for calling President Xi Jinping a clown over his handling of the pandemic.
Use the pandemic to criminalise dissent, to punish dissenters, to kill the discussion and turn democracy into a mere signpost – that seems to be the Government’s game plan. If it works, the democratic in Sri Lanka’s official name will become as meaningless as its other official name, socialist.
The humanitarian operation against COVID-19
The first COVID-19 patient was reported in Sri Lanka on 27 January when a Chinese tourist tested positive for the virus. The second patient, a Lankan tour guide, tested positive on 10 March.
Between the first and the second incidence, an attitudinal sea change happened both in Government and in society. The first incidence was seen and responded to as a medical problem. The health officials took the lead; contact tracing was carried out not as a military operation; the language used was markedly neutral. Both the patient and suspected patients were treated with dignity.
By the time the second and the third patients were reported, the official response to the virus had been politicised and miltiarised. The Army was put in charge. Loaded terms were used to shape a new narrative. Patients became carriers. Possible patients became suspects, who were caught. Suspected patients were asked to report to police stations. The virus was criminalised turning those who were affected into not patients deserving of compassion and pity, but criminals who had to be treated with suspicion and fear. Terms such as ‘caught’ and ‘uncovered’ became popularised further strengthening this new attitude; even the term ‘arrested’ was used occasionally.
A new low was reached when several Muslims tested positive. On the internet, comparisons were made between Muslim patients and Muslim suicide bombers. Both were accused of trying to destroy the health and vitality, peace and security of the motherland. Every action of a Muslim patient became suspect.
For instance, when a Muslim cancer patient who had gone to cancer hospital tested positive for COVID-19, he was accused of deliberately spreading the disease. Ignored were salient facts – that around 30% of those affected by the virus are asymptomatic; that many others show symptoms no different from a common cold or flu. Without testing, there is no way of knowing whether a person is sick or not. And in Sri Lanka, testing is not available on demand and the Government is more ready to arrest than to test.
Incidentally, another Lankan who tested positive this week too visited a private hospital several times to obtain treatment for a pre-existing condition. As a result, the hospital staff had to be placed in quarantine. It was not the patient’s fault as he too didn’t know he was infected. That is normal human behaviour. When such behaviour is criminalised, we are opening the doors to a cruelty pandemic that will infest societal and personal relations long after COVID-19 becomes a memory.
A key part of the problem is the Government’s depiction of the pandemic as another war. Anti-coronavirus measures are cast in the mould of a Humanitarian Operation. The ethno-religious identities of certain patients were highlighted by the country’s anti-corona czar, the army commander, and by Government ministers. This strengthened the narrative of the pandemic being a threat to the nation promoted by the usual enemies of the nation, this or that ethno-religious Other.
Historically, plagues have been times for scapegoating – generally focusing on traditional enemies or vulnerable segments of the populace. As historian Richard J. Evans pointed out, “You can plot the progress of syphilis across Europe in the 1390s, after it was introduced by Christopher Columbus’s crew when they returned from the Americas, by the names it was given: the “French sickness” in Germany, the “German sickness” in Poland, the “Polish sickness” in Russia, “the disease of the Christians” in Turkey, “the disease of the Turks” in Persia, and so on” (New Statesman – 10 April 2020). When the target of pandemic inspired conspiracy theories are not foreigners but an ethnic or religious minority, the situation turns infinitely more dangerous. When instead of fighting such lies, the Government tolerates them with a wink and a nod – and even joins in, on occasion – the danger becomes infinitely greater and more immediate.
Jacme D’ Agramont, the Catalan medical professor who wrote one of the first known tracts on the bubonic plague in April 1348 (while awaiting the arrival of Bacterium Yersinia pestis in his native Catalonia), posited that pestilence can occur in two ways, naturally and morally. The first, naturally understood pestilence, was exemplified by the bubonic plague. The second, morally understood pestilence, involved “an unnatural shift of courage and of thought in people, from which comes enmities and rancours, wars and robberies, destruction of places and deaths…” (Regimen for Preservation from Pestilence).
In Sri Lanka, if we fail to prevent the politicisation of the pandemic, we will ensure that the naturally occurring pestilence is succeeded by a morally occurring pestilence – race riots targeting this or that minority. Such an outcome might help the political agenda or some, but for the country it will be an unmitigated disaster.
Using the pandemic to disembowel democracy
Soon after Chinese whistle-blower-doctor Li Wenliang succumbed to COVID-19, a group of Chinese scholars and academics wrote an open letter to the country’s leaders. Titled ‘The Right to Freedom of Speech Starts Today,’ it accused the Chinese authorities of using “disease control as a pretext to illegally deprive citizens of their constitutional rights, including the right to free speech, right to freedom of movement, and the right to private property.”
China is not the only country where leaders are trying to use the pandemic for authoritarian ends. Donald Trump claimed ‘total power’ for himself, before being forced to back down in the face of opposition – including from a segment of his own Republican Party. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro joined a protest demanding the return of military rule.
In Sri Lanka, the Government is doing its utmost to hold an election in pandemic conditions, ensuring that both the exercise and the outcome will be unfree and unfair. Two members of the Election Commission has succumbed to Government pressure, proving that independent commissions are as independent as their members.
During last week, the Government started setting the stage for a ‘historic proclamation’ declaring victory over COVID-19. Pro-Government media claimed that the battle against pandemic was almost over with Sinhala headlines such as ‘Corona bids goodbye’ (turned out to be not a goodbye but an au revoir). A private TV channel took this peddling of fake news to a new level by airing a chart in which weekly and daily figures were artfully mixed to create the impression of a flattened and downward headed curve. The Government then announced a relaxing of anti-pandemic measures, limiting the curfew to night-time hours (the logic of this decision remains incomprehensible, unless the Government really thinks the virus is a terrorist and night is when it does its fell work).
Parallel to this bogus depiction of an inevitable victory ran another track aimed at forcing the Election Commission to pander to the Government’s political calendar. The Commission was openly threatened and ridiculed. The plan was to declare victory over the pandemic, have an election in a repressive atmosphere where rights are curtailed in the name of preventing a second outbreak, and win with a landslide. That plan hit a snag when a large number of patients were reported from Bandaranaikepura in Kotahena. (According to some websites, the patient zero of this particular cluster was a pilgrim who returned from India on 18 March on a Government chartered flight. She and the other pilgrims were not sent for quarantine but allowed to go home. If this story is true, the Government’s plan to have elections before 2 June was stymied by its own mishandling of the pandemic.)
The only way to beat back the pandemic before it claims a high death toll is to follow the example of success stories and test as widely and as often as possible. To excuse its unwillingness to test, the Government claims lack of resources. Perhaps Colombo can learn from the example of the US State of Maryland which circumvented President Trump’s well known aversion to increased testing by appealing directly to South Korea for test kits. Seoul responded by sending a special flight with half a million test kits. The fact that the State’s First Lady was a South Korean American did help.
Even without such a built-in advantage, Colombo is likely to succeed if it makes a direct appeal to Seoul. (Taiwan is not an option given the sensitivities of Beijing). The fact that the Government is not doing what it can to enhance our testing capacities or even to use existing capacity cannot but create the suspicion that its unwillingness stems from its political need to keep the known patient numbers as low as possible. Maybe the Rajapaksas, like the Lt. Governor of Texas, believe that “There are more important things than living;” having a viral election and winning a two-third majority in Parliament, for example.