COVID-19 and the way forward for Sri Lanka

Saturday, 23 May 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Clearly, COVID-19 could be an eye-opener to show us the way forward if we could make an effort to understand the reasons as to why we got into the present situation, what our mistakes had been and what we need to do to rescue ourselves – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara

 

 

The new COVID-19 virus has taken over the entire world causing fear and uncertainty within human beings irrespective of the barriers of race, colour of skin, economic, or social status. It has been proved that neither money nor power can shield an individual or a country from this new virus. 

Some believe that COVID-19 is the punishment that nature has delivered for the misdeeds of mankind. Selfish and irresponsible actions of man have destroyed the forest cover on earth, reduced biodiversity, increased pollution of the atmosphere, and the water resources. This mindless exploitation of the environment has contributed to climate change harmful to life on earth. 

In that sense, this new virus may be a warning delivered by nature to compel humans to rethink and change their behaviour and priorities and their interaction with nature. Can COVID-19 also be an eye-opener for countries, individuals, and social groups? The answer would depend on man’s ability to learn from the mistakes and his willingness to change.

History shows that every 100 years there has been a pandemic that has threatened the human race. In 1919 there was the Spanish Flu that swept across Europe, America, and some parts of the Asian region. A century later, even the developed countries in the world were not prepared to cope with the next pandemic, and the world was taken unawares when COVID-19 arrived in 2019. 

Since the last pandemic, the path of development in the world led to globalisation and the economies of some countries becoming superpowers and others becoming excessively dependent on global trade to keep their industries running and to meet the domestic demand for food and other consumer goods by importing them from different countries. When COVID-19 forced economies to shut down, countries like Sri Lanka that depended on imported items of food and other essential goods were badly affected. 

Since profit maximisation and achieving political power through economic power became the primary goal of economic activity in general, comparatively limited resources were diverted to the health sector as service sectors provide relatively limited opportunities to maximise profit. 

The capacity in the health sector in many developed countries was not enough to meet the requirements during this pandemic. As a result, the front line workers in the health and other service sectors who were directly involved in handling the COVID-19 patients did not have adequate protective gear and some of them got infected with the virus. Doctors had to make difficult choices in providing care to the patients as the availability of hospital beds, ventilators protective gear, etc. was grossly inadequate. 

 

In the past, when politicians made wrong and selfish decisions and engaged in racism indirectly, we have either believed their lies or been passive onlookers. Weeks of curfew time allowed us to think and realise the mistakes we made in the past as individuals and as citizens of Sri Lanka

 



Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, these inadequacies could be addressed to a reasonable extent due to the small size of the numbers affected by the virus and the commitment of the health sector workers and the members of the tri forces and the police, as well as the foreign aid we received. However, Sri Lanka like the rest of the world saw a partial collapse in the economy and the daily life of the people.

Weeks of lockdown in the country created conditions that gave us plenty of time and reasons to reflect on many things. Every family faced the challenge of avoiding starvation during the shutdown period. When life changed so drastically, the reality of the situation brought home some fundamental truths in life which we had ignored before the pandemic.

COVID-19 caged us in with no access to markets or banks. It dried up sources of income to many, including daily wage earners. The plight of these urban wage earners was worse than that of the low wage-earning agricultural labour. Supply of imported food and manufactured items dried up. Some of these imported goods could have been produced in Sri Lanka had we followed appropriate policies. 

The inability of local farmers to sell their produce while consumers were deprived of the opportunity to buy this produce highlighted the weaknesses in our marketing and management systems and our lack of far sight not to have realised the importance of growing at least one or two easily grown vegetables at home instead of growing ornamental plants imitating others. 

Problems that arose regarding the adequacy and the distribution of Government relief measures to all, showed the flaws in our political system and our inability during the past decades to use our vote to elect the right politicians who could make the right decisions for the country. 

Unity was vital in addressing the COVID-19 problems, particularly in a multiracial society. However, decisions regarding the last rites for the dead caused unfair anguish to some creating divisiveness and mistrust instead of unity. Had there been racial conflicts due to negligent decision making, our plight would have been worse. 

In the past, when politicians made wrong and selfish decisions and engaged in racism indirectly, we have either believed their lies or been passive onlookers. Weeks of curfew time allowed us to think and realise the mistakes we made in the past as individuals and as citizens of Sri Lanka.

Wrong perspective

As individuals, do we have the right perspective in life or have we distorted the relative value of things. In other words, do we have the correct attitude? The mistakes we have made in the past show there is something wrong in our perspective. 

Many people consider money and political power can get you everything. This attitude had driven some people to earn more and more by legal as well as illegal means. This promoted drug trafficking, corruption, and deceit. Due to this wrong perspective we came to respect the wrong people, give value to the wrong things, allowed ourselves to be misled by power hungry politicians, consider some jobs as inferior and devalue them, we adopted lifestyles that exceeded affordability, ignored ethics and our core values. 

Did COVID-19 prove that money and power could get you everything? On the contrary, the rich were humbled and came down to the same situation as the not so rich. It was the committed health workers, the members of the tri forces, and the police that won the respect and gratitude of the people. They were the people who were honoured. The rich and the powerful, the politicians did not come anywhere close to them.

The pandemic forced us to adopt a new lifestyle which included social distancing, standing in a queue waiting for our turn, self-discipline, helping others, simplicity in eating, dressing and traveling. We did only what was essential and that reduced the cost of living and mirrored the extent to which we had wasted resources by following our earlier lifestyles. 

We learnt that respect comes to people who work with commitment and the generous and not to those moneyed and expensively dressed who bask in the glory of their money and power. We also learnt the value of giving more time and attention to our family members instead of taking them for granted. Another home truth is that what matters is the freedom to travel and not the size or the price of the car. 

In the future, we could choose either a simple lifestyle that is more affordable, less stressful and has better values or return to the same old lifestyle that is wasteful and prompted by our ego and the desire to keep up with the Joneses, which however is stressful and lead us to indebtedness or corruption and illegal ways to earn the money we need to live that life. 

We can also be a trendsetter by adding proper values and ethics to our lives in place of shamelessly imitating others and feeding our ego. We can make the right decision that is needed to move forward, if we have the backbone and the brains to differentiate between right and wrong.

Characteristics of Sri Lankans 

The past few months highlighted the commendable as well as unacceptable characteristics of Sri Lankans. We witnessed the generosity and hospitality of Sri Lankans which is unique compared to other countries. 

The number of innovative products that surfaced from various quarters showed the concern of individuals and groups to help the effort to contain the spread of the disease. It showed Sri Lanka has the potential to keep standing during a disaster and go forward. On the negative side, it was made obvious that Sri Lankans generally lack the discipline to stand in a line to await one’s turn and follow rules. 

In many countries, governments did not have to resort to curfew to keep people at home. Only an order to stay at home and go out only to get essential supplies and services was sufficient to keep people at home. Even though there was panic buying in the initial few days (less than a week), supplies were available, and in all stores, just a small note to request that a particular quantity be bought by each buyer was enough to stop panic buying. 

The discipline of the individual made this possible. Sri Lanka is the only country that enforced a curfew that lasted for weeks. Even curfew did not prevent some from going out unnecessarily. What happened after the liquor bars were opened showed that the Government cannot be blamed for imposing a curfew, but it can be blamed for opening the bars so quickly.

When a member of the Navy got infected as a result of trying to curb the drug trafficking and hundreds of naval officers got infected with COVID-19, the entire country felt how far the drug menace has penetrated society. When incidents of drug trafficking and police drug hauls were heard in the news it did not touch the general public, only the immediate family of the drug addict felt the devastation that drugs could cause. 

But now it is obvious to others too that the security of the country too can be compromised due to this drug menace. It is time to realise that we have put into power some people who are alleged to have connections with drug dealers. We could sit back and think and learn to use our vote to put the right person into the right place for, what matters first is the security of the country and the health of the nation. 

Mistakes in the development strategies 

This pandemic showed us the mistakes in the development strategies that our leaders have followed during the past and our failure to select the right politicians to rule the country. Had they diverted part of the scares resources borrowed at high-interest rates, into the agriculture sector instead of building monuments, airports, harbours, office buildings to accommodate endless ministerial offices, we could have increased agriculture production and productivity, cold storage facilities, value-adding facilities and improved the marketing services. 

If that happened Sri Lanka would have been self-sufficient in most of the food items we now import and we would have seen frozen and tinned vegetables and fruits on the shelves in our markets during this pandemic like in other countries. We could have exported them to the Middle East, used the passenger air crafts to carry them during the epidemic. 

We need a two-pronged strategy to develop the agriculture sector, one strategy to reach self- sufficiency in food and other essential goods as far as possible and to ensure availability throughout the year. Processing facilities to add value and for canning, cold storage facilities, distribution, and marketing become important facets of this strategy. The other aspect of the strategy is increasing export earnings in the agriculture sector and providing access to finances and technologies to new entrepreneurs. 

Government

Even during the pandemic, actions of the Government showed that the priorities of the Government are not always the priorities of the people. The priority of the people now is to survive and for that nearly half the population needs financial assistance from the Government at least until the income generating opportunities are restored. 

Even in the US the Government came forward to assist citizens financially to compensate the loss of income due to coronavirus irrespective of their political alignments. No politician got involved in the distribution of the benefit and checks were sent direct to the recipients. 

It is said there is a cash crunch, a problem with public financing, and no financial aid has been received suggesting that Government is unable to do more for the people even if they have no way of living. On the other hand, there were reports of substantial financial assistance given by bilateral and multilateral donors to tide over this difficult period. 

A priority of the Government even before ending the shutdown seems to be building more highways with borrowed money and cabinet approval has been given to borrow millions for this purpose from a foreign country. If there is a financial difficulty even after receiving aid, it is worth considering what caused this financial situation and why building highways is the priority at this moment. 

The drastic reduction in taxes by the new Government disregarding the huge debt burden of the country reduced government revenue by nearly 40% during the first few months and dissolution of parliament without obtaining Parliamentary approval for a mini-budget put the Government in a difficult situation. 

What the priority at the time should have been to get Parliamentary approval for a mini-budget to access the consolidated fund for essential items of expenditure and not extending the borrowing limits to enable the government to borrow during the interim period between the dissolution of Parliament and the inauguration of the next Parliament. 

The way forward is to reconvene the old Parliament and get approval to draw money from the Consolidated Fund to assist people to live during this period, help the industries and the export sectors to survive. The Government’s priority now should be to select the growth engines in the economy that could help the country to leap-frog from the present helpless situation to a more stable economic situation and assist such sectors to wade through this dangerous period to stand on their feet and restore the jobs and earnings. 

In the immediate future, an increased supply of agricultural products could bring down the cost of living and help the poor, but farmers cannot do it at present due to the lack of funds and marketing arrangements. It is possible to increase food production and improve marketing by using the armed forces the Army has done an excellent job in Jaffna and Battaramulla in growing rice and vegetables etc. 

Even though the construction sector is considered as an engine of growth when new constructions are required to meet a vital need for the efficient functioning of other sectors and they have a return on investment, provides jobs for the local population and not imported laboru and does not add to national debt to make it unmanageable. It is not an answer to the problems created by COVID-19.

 

We need to take into our own hands the task of nation building by becoming disciplined, law-abiding, productive and rising above racism as well as rejecting corruption and intimidation more effectively. If we take responsibility for our behaviour into our own hands and become disciplined individuals, the world will be a better place for us and others. The world will then regard Sri Lanka as a paradise in every sense of the word

 



The way forward

Clearly, COVID-19 could be an eye-opener to show us the way forward if we could make an effort to understand the reasons as to why we got into the present situation, what our mistakes had been and what we need to do to rescue ourselves. 

The first thing we could do is change our perspective. Our past mistakes show that we need to make a change in our attitude and our lifestyles. We need to change our perspective to reject money-based values and learn to value honesty, righteousness, self -discipline, and ethical behaviour to enable us to recover from the present situation and enable us to make right decisions regarding lifestyle, relationships and our performance and that of others and the way we should exercise our political right. For instance, we would not value and approve people who are dishonest or resort to corruption if we have proper values and ethics.

Secondly, as individuals we have an obligation to do more to contribute to the GDP for if the country advances, it benefits us and our children. It is the youth in the country that can take forward the country by becoming more innovative and energised to move away from the dependency on the government to find a job and find ways to earn money from a legitimate business. 

There is data available about imports and consumer items in Sri Lanka and other countries, products made in the world using our local raw materials, herbs, fruits, vegetables which could give an idea about what kind of product to select to start a business. Ability to surf the internet can be used in this endeavour.

It may be that the contribution we make to the GDP as employees including professionals is not what it should be. We need to commit ourselves to our job to deliver our service more efficiently, honestly, and not become a piece of baggage to the organisation or puppets to the politician. 

If we follow the directions given by politicians and disregard rules, regulations, the law of the land, and ethics, all our systems will go wrong and cause nearly half of the Sri Lankan population to suffer and be hunted by politicians every time the government changes. What we gain by obliging the politician in the present will be insignificant to what our children and grandchildren would lose in the future. We have the manpower, entrepreneurship and innovative skills necessary to rescue the country provided we change our perspective Thirdly, we need to take into our hands the responsibility of discharging our duty as a Sri Lankan voter by electing honest people to represent us and reject people connected to the drug trade or supported by drug lords, people who have turned politics into a business, and people who practice divisive politics, intimidation and are supported by racist movements. 

We need to take into our own hands the task of nation building by becoming disciplined, law-abiding, productive and rising above racism as well as rejecting corruption and intimidation more effectively. If we take responsibility for our behaviour into our own hands and become disciplined individuals, the world will be a better place for us and others. The world will then regard Sri Lanka as a paradise in every sense of the word.

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