By Tisaranee Gunasekara
We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty…”
– Yeats (The Stare’s Nest by my Window)
What kind of government reduces expenditure on health in the midst of a global pandemic?
In the first week of October, the Lankan Cabinet approved the Appropriations Bill for 2021. Of a total estimated expenditure of Rs. 2.68 trillion only a paltry Rs. 159 billion was set aside for health. Defence got Rs. 355 billion. Highways got Rs. 335 billion. Health didn’t get even half of what the Highways got.
In 2019, with no global pandemic, the Sirisena-Rajapaksa administration set aside Rs. 188 billion for health. In 2020, amidst a global pandemic with no seeming end, the Gotabaya-Mahinda regime reduced it by Rs. 29 billion.
Imagine the level of ignorance, the depth of self-delusion, the degree of myopia required for such a decision. Imagine the same ignorance, self-delusion, and myopia informing and shaping governance for four more years and beyond. Imagine where Sri Lanka will be in 2025, ruled with such blind certitude and strategic incompetence.
A newspaper report published on 1 November illustrates the woeful state of unpreparedness in which the Government wallowed. The Ministry of Health has not ordered a single new ventilator since 1 March, or increased the number of ICU beds.
It is a dangerous thing, to believe in one’s own propaganda, especially when the gap between hype and reality is of abysmal proportions. The Gotabaya-Mahinda Government proclaimed the battle against the pandemic won, conclusively and forever.
Government leaders acted in gross violation of health regulations, eschewing masks, ignoring social distancing. Final victory was declared sans random community testing, the only way to discover if the virus is present in the larger society or not.
Annihilating the virus became a key propaganda theme in the Parliamentary Election campaign. Post-election, the pandemic turned into a non-issue, as the Government focused all its energy on getting the 20th Amendment through, with the dual-citizenship clause intact, a necessary precondition to ensure dynastic succession.
The current wave of infections broke while the battle for the 20th Amendment was raging. Had the Government prioritised the pandemic even then, the disaster that has befallen us, and the infinitely greater calamity that is awaiting us could have been avoided. Timely travel restrictions and widespread random community testing could have prevented the virus from spreading its tentacles island-wide. Placing a cordon sanitaire around Nuwara Eliya, Badulla, Ratnapura and Kegalle Districts might have shielded the vital plantation economy from the virus. Had the Government really cared about keeping the economy going, it would have done at least that. It didn’t.
Asked whether he takes responsibility for America’s pandemic woes, Donald Trump replied, “No.” Having enabled a new wave of infections through neglect and inaction, the Lankan Government too is now absolving itself of all blame. According to a statement by the Presidential Media Division, everything is the fault of the media and the public. “Following the successful containment of the virus before, media as well as the people have forgotten everything and shirked responsibility. The result is the current situation.”
When leaders refuse to take responsibility for their mistakes, course corrections become impossible. Having shut down the Western Province for 10 days, the Government ordered its reopening, for no good reason (some websites claim it is to enable celebrations to commemorate presidential investiture and prime-ministerial birthday). The Army Commander claimed, “The President instructed him to identify all corona patients in the Western Province by Monday” (Lanka c news – 6 November). An impossibility – unless the entire population of Western Province is tested – as China did in Wuhan, and we can’t.
It is ludicrous to believe that health regulations can be observed in our packed-like sardine busses and trains. The only result of this premature and unplanned opening would be to make it easier for the virus to travel from person to person, from town to village, from workplace to workplace. This is not a recipe to save the economy but to devastate it. No economy can retain its vitality in a country of sick people.
A year of avoidable disasters
The Gotabaya-Mahinda regime is one year old.
Are the Rajapaksas better off today than they were one year ago?
Is Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka is demonstrably less democratic and less free. It is also poorer, more dependent, and less sovereign, more vulnerable than ever before to contending pressures from America, the chosen home of so many Rajapaksas and China, their sugar-daddy. It has less forest cover, less justice, and less transparency, more lawlessness and more abuse.
Some of the woes can be blamed on the Wuhan-born COVID-19 pandemic, but only some. The financial downturn began before the pandemic. Tax revenue in the first quarter of 2020 decreased by 26% (143 billion rupees), thanks to the President’s irrational tax cuts. Fiscal deficit increased by 24% (88 billion rupees). Public investment decreased by 44% (95 billion rupees). Recurrent expenditure, inflation and money supply all increased. The GDP contracted by 1.5%. The sprint to disaster was already underway when the pandemic reached our shores.
John Mulaney, an American stand-up comedian, compared the Trump Presidency to a horse loose in a hospital. “No one knows what the horse is going to do next,” he said, “least of all the horse”
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhkZMxgPxXU&list=LLCafjVVFYrsmdjZ7O5SJ4Pw&index=201). With a horse in hospital, anything, absolutely anything, is possible.
Sri Lankans are no strangers to incompetence and ludicrousness in their governments, but perhaps not to the degree we witnessed in the last year. Remember the world (in)famous ‘kudu poosa’ (the drug-running cat) who escaped a maximum security prison. Or think of the fate that befell turmeric. This staple of Lankan cooking is the new cocaine, with the Navy busy chasing smugglers and the Police busy arresting them.
Confusion is another new norm. The day Western Province reopened, the Minister of Transport said bus fares would not be increased and the State Minister of Transport said they would be. The controversy over antigen test kits is rapidly turning into another tragicomedy. Then there was the Daily News claiming that President Gotabaya and President Xi had a Zoom meeting and the Chinese Embassy saying they did not. In some parts of Colombo and Gampaha, curfew was lifted in the morning and re-imposed, sans warning and indefinitely, by evening. The Rajapaksa state has become a state of flux.
Nothing beats the strange case of the malfunctioning PCR testing machine, imported from China (outside tender procedure, according to some media reports). The machine broke down, none could fix it, and then, like in the Humpty Dumpty poem, technicians came from China to the rescue. They said the machine was fine, the problem was the table. This we know from statements by the Chinese Embassy. The Health Ministry is as silent as the dead.
Was it really the table? Or was the machine faulty, like the 600,000 Chinese made facemasks the Netherlands was compelled to recall early this year because they didn’t fit or the filters didn’t work?
Just weeks after he assumed the presidency, Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited the Narahenpita Economic Centre. He sat in a rice shop, and talked to a telephone, presumably verbalising a circular about bringing down rice prices.
Eleven months later, the price of rice remains as uncontrollable as ever. The Government has lost the battle with the lords of rice-milling, assuming the battle was even waged. In the meantime, the Government has approved the importing of 5,000 metric tons of basmati rice. When the public complains about the price of nadu or samba, maybe some political leader will wonder, in genuine bewilderment, ‘Why don’t they eat basmati?’
The World Bank has predicted that Lankan economy will contract by 6.7% in 2020. The IMF puts the figure at a slightly less worse -4.6%. The Government’s response is to delay the publishing of GDP figures for the second quarter.
Goldman Sachs has identified Iraq, Sri Lanka, Angola and Gabon as ‘at high probability of default’ in 2021 (Reuters – 27 October). The Government’s response is to seek another loan for $ 700 million from China.
As Lankan humourists have claimed, Viyath Maga has turned into Vipath Maga and Kiyath Maga. Last week, the Government cancelled circulars 5/2001 and 2/2006, removing more than half a million acres of forest land from the protective custody of the Ministry of Forest Conservation. They are now in the hands of divisional and district secretaries, a prelude to their denuding in the name of development. Environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardane has warned that a large scale land grabbing is in the offing (https://groundviews.org/2020/11/09/sri-lanka-set-to-lose-more-forests/).
The Appropriations Bill for 2021 has allocated a measly Rs. 2 billion for Environment and an even more measly Rs. 1.2 billion for Forest Conservation. Given the rate at which the forest lands are being axed, even these paltry sums may be too much.
The Biden-Harris victory in the US may – or may not – mark the beginning of the end of the global national-populist wave. Be that as it may, national-populists world over have lost their crowning glory with Donald Trump’s electoral defeat. The ones standing will be looking for new alliances and inspirations. Last week, Sri Lanka’s SLPP and the Chinese Communist Party held a joint conference on ‘governance experience’.
The Rajapaksas can learn much from China, especially the art of silencing dissent, be it from outspoken doctors or uppity tycoons. The latest example of the latter is Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, an occasional critic of the Chinese leadership. Beijing has responded by suspending the IPO of his Ant Group hours before it was to be launched. Doubtless it will be permitted to go ahead once Mr. Ma comes to heel.
Yes, there is much that the Rajapaksas can learn from the Chinese.
Vistas of ignorance and superstition
In April, Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner bragged to journalist Bob Woodward that President Trump is “taking the country ‘back from the doctors’”.
In Sri Lanka, the doctors were never in command of the anti-pandemic efforts. The control was always in the hands of political and military leaders. Before the Parliamentary Election, there was at least the pretence of giving medical professionals some prominence. Now even that pretence is gone. The President decides and the General informs. Any doctor impudent enough to voice contrary opinions is removed.
Donald Trump, the holder of the world’s most powerful job, dreamt of firing Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for refusing to bow down to his commands. Dreamt, threatened, and failed. Lankan rulers demoted Dr. Jayaruwan Bandara for just one unacceptable statement about community transmission. The message was simple – obey or go. Dr. Bandara’s fate has had a salutary effect on all other medical professionals.
In October, while the new wave of infections was beginning, the Head of the Epidemiology Unit, instead of warning about the inevitable threat to Colombo from the Minuwangoda cluster, rushed to reassure that no COVID-19 patient had been detected in Colombo. The falsity of that assurance became evident days later, when the first patients were discovered. Now the same gentleman is singing lullabies about playing IPL under pandemic conditions, claiming it is as safe as houses. Who cares about science or evidence?
Under Rajapaksas, only the servile survive.
The GMOA has officially accused Brigadier K.K.S. Parakum of verbally abusing the Head of the District Hospital of Sampathnuwara: “Para demala, Prabhakaran, thrasthavadeen, thopi maranawa, meka mage area eka” (alien Tamil, Prabhakaran, terrorist, will kill you, this is my area). If any disciplinary action was taken against the Brigadier, it is yet to be made known. The GMOA is learning, just as the pro-Government monks did over the 20th Amendment, about their utter dispensability. Now that the Rajapaksas are in power, all the rest are karapincha (curry leaves).
Parliamentarian Rohini Kavirathna called the Health Ministry a ship without a captain. Actually it is a ship captained by a bunch of people who don’t know bow from stern and bridge from funnel. And in stormy seas too.
In a new turn, clever charlatans are joining delusional politicians and ignorant military men at the helm. A monk who claims to have attained arhathood went on a chopper-ride sprinkling pirith pan over Sri Lanka to beat back the virus. Royal physician Eliyantha White is channelling Kundalini power to fight the pandemic. The video of the Health Minister devoutly throwing a pot (of whatever) into a river is symbolic of where we are at as a country after just one year of Gotabaya-Mahinda rule – and the vistas of ignorance and superstition awaiting us down this road.
British-American political commentator and former Editor of the New Republic, Andrew Sullivan warned: “No serious democracy can have a delusional, utterly incompetent, psychologically disturbed madman as president and survive” (https://andrewsullivan.substack.com/p/trump-is-gone-trumpism-just-arrived-886).
By electing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, a majority of Americans took the first essential step of saving their democracy. America’s national nightmare seems to be ending.
Ours has just begun.