Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Identification of more than two hundred navymen attached to the Welisara navy camp as superspreaders of the coronavirus after being allowed to go to their villages on leave without first being tested, shows the fragility of that vicious ‘us vs them’ dichotomy in no uncertain terms.
From heroes to pariahs
Abruptly, the dynamic of social interaction changed overnight. Instead of paens of praise with which the South fetes the tri-services, they began to be treated like untouchables. So much so that Sri Lanka’s Department of Government Information and the Ministry of Defence had to issue pleas not to discriminate service personnel as carriers of the virus. Regardless, navymen turned from heroes to pariahs in a twinkling of an eye as it were. In some areas, their family members were attacked by villagers fearing that they were harbouring the virus. In Anuradhapura and Kurunegala, residents imposed their own lockdowns with traders refusing to open up their shutters and lawyers refusing to go to court.
Indeed, the sheer absurdity of this begs the imagination. Is this behaviour a hallmark of less developed mindsets, despite gleeful cackling about Sri Lanka’s two thousand five hundred years of unbroken recorded history? In what scientific or commonsensical context is infection of the virus equalised to shameful, stigmatizing behaviour? Certainly some anchors on private electronic media stations appear to be infected with this inferior mindset as they stigmatized Muslims as virus carriers. This was while their stations carried out highly publicised ‘charity’ campaigns, disregarding the fact that racism weighed far heavier to the bad in the scales than a few bags of rice or grains.
The poisonous propaganda became so great that that even otherwise sensible and rational Sri Lankans started grumbling about the population density of ‘Muslim villages’ etc. But when low income households exist in clusters, these are inevitably densely populated, irrespective of whether they are Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim. This is amply illustrated by the other notable super spreader in the past ten days being the unfortunate pilgrim who, returning from a traditional Buddhist pilgrimage to Dambadiva, unknowingly infected others in her sprawling low income neighbourhod in Colombo 12, which then traveled as quickly as the snap of a finger to similar areas in the capital.
Responsibility lies in command structures
So are these all to be sitgmatized and rejected? And did it take members of the tri-services to be infected for the Department of Government Information to instruct the media not to demonise covid patients? The earlier directive of the Ministry of Health in this regard was ineffective as television stations just carried on regardless. But the question is very simple. Why reject unfortunate victims while failing to recognise that lack of proper health and quarantine procedures was the root cause for the spread? This column had long been making the obvious point that, arrivals at the Sri Lankan airport should have been quarantined and tested irrespective of country of origin of travel far earlier in March. In the absence thereof, maligning patients facing a frightening disease is adding insult to very palpable injury.
Similarly, the police and the tri-services should have been given proper protective equipment and should have been quarantined themselves in batches with stringent testing done. The weapons that they are given to carry may be of use in a war but cannot be a substitute for protective equipment to meet the threat of a supervirus. Most importantly, navymen should not have been allowed to return to their villages at a time when ordinary Sri Lankans were strictly barred from traveling inbetween districts.
This ban was quite properly for fear that non-risk areas would be infected. In the absence of enforcing that basic cautionary measure, hundreds of asymptomatic navymen took the virus back with them to their villages. So of what use was that one and a half month lockdown imposed on the country at great economic and human cost if minimum safety measures were not implemented? As such, it is not the tri-forces who should take the blame but their superiors in command. Let us be very clear on this point.
Need for a correction course
That responsibility cannot be shrugged away by patriotic songs played ad nauseam on media or by the Army Commander repeatedly prefacing the term ‘heroic’ when referring to the tri-services. None of this matters if personnel ferrying quarantined persons to camps and to hospitals are not protected. The same goes for public health inspectors who have now warned that they will disengage with the public health process if they are not safeguarded.
Reportedly, President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had advised Sri Lanka’s anti-virus strategy to proceed with course correction. Sober reflection is needed in regard to many questions. Undue militarisation of the process rather than allowing experienced public health officials to lead, prioritising of elections and politicisation of relief and welfare measures roundly condemned by election monitors are just some. Doctors had been calling since three weeks ago to increase the testing percentages so that asymptomatic carriers would be detected. Yet this increase in testing was seen and steeply so only after the Elections Commission determined that polls could not be held as scheduled. Merely a coincidence, some may say to the knowing winks of cynics.
On its part, the Opposition cannot simply scream of the Constitution, by the Constitution and for the Constitution (to horribly twist that epochal characterization of democracy by Abraham Lincoln) while resting on compromised ‘yahapalanaya’ laurels. It is immeasurably rich to hear former Ministers pronouncing that they would have handled Sri Lanka’s covid-19 pandemic better. This is one year to the devastating Easter Sunday attacks by a few homegrown Islamist jihadists who inflicted colossal loss of lives. Much of this was enabled by a chronically dysfunctional President (Maithripala Sirisena) and Prime Minister (Ranil Wickremesinghe) who, along with their hangers-on were more intent on political power plays than the security of the country.
From tragedy to farce
So the Opposition cannot just issue anodyne advice on how best to tackle the pandemic. This seems to be a hard truth that Sajith Premadasa, leader of the infant National Unity Force (an offshoot of the United National Party), needs to learn. And the less said about copious letters fired off by the UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe to global leaders on the covid-19 pandemic, the better. This exemplifies tragedy to farce of a particularly stupid kind. Certainly the Opposition’s chronic inability to rise to the challenge and the crisis persists.
Yet it is superficial to argue that if the global pandemic had hit during those chaotic times, we would have been in a far worse off state. Comparing one political regime to its successor allows Sri Lankans to comfortingly believe that, despite indications to the contrary, we are somehow better off than ‘what could have been.’ Thus, when the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe ‘yahapalanaya’ alliance clearly veered off balance, it was parotted that ‘if the Rajapaksas were in power, things would be worse.’ That thinking was desperately illusionary then as it is currently.
Now the danger is doubly so as a pandemic-frightened nation hopelessly struggles in an economic, socio-political and Rule of Law quagmire. In sum, speaking up and questioning authority has never been more important than in these turbulent times.