Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
If Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany and the unfolding multiple crises in the United States teach us anything, it is that a country is lost not by a spectacular turn of the coin in a single event but by a series of challenges to the moral resistance of a people, each one a little deadlier than the last. Silence as the response to the first transgression of an autocrat, an authoritarian is papered over by the reassurance offered to oneself that this is only a small evil. But as the extent of that evil gets bigger and bigger, it finally overcomes everyone and everything in its path.
The slave mentality and the ‘unfree citizen’
Thus too, the human mechanism of coping with evil is not only to ignore its cruelty but also to applaud it wildly. As the Nobel Laureate Boris Pasternak, once driven close to suicide by the Soviet regime’s repression of his critical writings, said when writing on the terrors of the October Revolution, ‘the unfree man always idolises his slavery.’ Nothing changes very much, it seems, regardless of the era, the people or indeed, the country. The devices of propaganda remain the same throughout; repeat a lie enough times and eventually the people will believe it to be the truth.
These are reflections that are not out of order in this nation where the mantra of patriotism, the worship of the ‘Ranaviru’ (warriors) and the myth of the Sinhala Buddhist master race has been hideously warped into an ideology that is the very opposite of what the Gautama Buddha taught. But regardless, the adoring faithful fall for this propaganda as much as hard core supporters of United States President Donald Trump continue to beat his drum even as Americans struck by covid-19 die like flies in a country which boasts the best medical health experts who are routinely ignored. What drives this slave mentality, one can only wonder?
The fact is also that, the ‘Ranaviru’ exist solely as political cannon fodder. If this country’s respect for its soldiery was so high, it would not have, at the minimum, condemned Navy personnel to the cramped and covid infected quarters of the Welisara camp in the first instance while employing them in the fight against covid-19. Indeed, as we push this Government’s bluster and ballyhoo aside, two of Sri Lanka’s most menacing covid-19 clusters, the Welisara Navy cluster and the still stealthily metamorphosing Kanthakadu Rehabilitation Centre cluster beg one significant and dangerously common question,
Remarkable coincidences of virus emergences
How did the number of covid infected individuals within each of these purportedly ‘contained’ centres reach such high proportions of and by themselves before the spread became public through officers and personnel exuberantly interacting with the general population sans precautions? The answer that necessarily ensues is both logical and devastatingly simple.
Despite frequent wagging of fingers by military and health officials who exhort the public to ‘behave responsibly’, that dictum has been ignored by state authorities at the precise points that they should have observed caution to the highest possible degree. For it is surely no remarkable coincidence that the largest clusters by far have emerged from state run centres. And these are not purely matters of public health. There is a direct overlap of questions in issue with state accountability resulting from the conversion of the governance system into rule by decree through military task forces under the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency.
So state officials and Sri Lanka’s Army Commander must stop beating around the bush in warning about the risk posed by overseas Sri Lankans returning home as if that was the only problem in issue here. Neither are we much helped by the state media and the no less pro-government segments of the private media tripping over themselves to remind their viewers that the Navy cluster has ‘now recovered in full’ or as Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said on Friday in scoffing at a ‘second covid wave’, that the ‘situation is well under control.’
All these actors must be firmly reminded that the entirety of the citizenry is not (yet) at a point of a developed slave mentality to swallow propaganda that is being churned out. The point is not about foreign arrivals but our own control protocols needing to be tightened. The Welisara navy cluster was bad enough but one would have thought that lessons were learnt. That assumption was however disproved by the very same negligence occurring the second time around, with an appalled public reacting to the Kanthakadu cluster this week with frantic bursts of panic as the numbers grew.
Tactics of Stalinist Russia must be deplored
The solution to this is not to threaten penal punishment if citizens inform each other of a developing health risk situation in the country. Throwing people into jail on the basis that ‘rumours’ are being spread is a tactic of Stalinist Russia and must be deplored. Instead, public confidence must be instilled by those preaching discipline to citizens practicing this themselves. At the rate that this is going, any reasonable man or woman may well ask as to at what point will a third infection cluster erupt from within the bowels of the state and military managed centres?
Given the high level of spread within these centres, it is safe to assume that, despite vigorous denials, protective measures were simply not followed. That is apparent even to a child. In fact, this question may perhaps be asked by that very twelve year old child from the Rajanganaya hamlet who has become infected with the virus following the quarantining of more than five hundred in the area. This was after a Kanthakadu rehabilitation centre counselor returned home and apparently mingled with all and sundry, at funerals, at functions and other public venues.
So did his colleagues with the result that by mid week, the pockmarked regions of Sri Lanka having covid-19 infected persons seemed like a measles inflicted map. Their children had meanwhile been sent to school with no thought of the risks that may ensue. There are no less troubling corollary propositions that follow. It is apparent that risks of a virus spread were far from the minds of these unwitting carriers. If so, what exactly is being taught to the personnel serving at these centres?
Who bears responsibility for failure of health protocols?
In the end result, who bears responsibility for community and social upheavals let alone the profound economic and mental distress caused by failure of health protocols at state managed institutions? These are not public health issues alone but relate to wider questions of democratic accountability. Even as the President lambastes officials of the Central Bank for not responding adequately enough to mitigate the economic woes of the global pandemic, that is not enough.
Questions were asked earlier in relation to the Welisara covid cluster and are asked yet again, in regard to the recent Kanthakadu covid cluster. Who must carry institutional responsibility for these happenings on the eve of a General Elections no less? Why are officials selectively singled out for public reprimands while others are left unscathed?
The President, the Prime Minister and this Government must answer to these questions, as uncomfortable as they may be.