LESSONS IN THE TIME OF CORONA – what centuries of colonisation couldn’t do, COVID-19 has taught the (former Ceylonese) native to do: standing as (modern
Sri Lankan) citizens are now doing; practising social distancing and respecting personal space like never before in the island’s long history – Pic by Upul Abayasekara
I didn’t expect to say this so soon – especially, after my most recent comment of last week. But let’s be far more charitable to the government and its leaders in this present time of pandemic-driven crisis. And the calm, tough, cautiously optimistic, manner they’ve handled the emergency in the main.
Sorry to see that some folks may be right to be critical of the state’s SOP where they’re still showing through the cracks. Since no administration on earth in these challenging times is likely to get it right all the time every time, that’s hard on those who are trying – and getting it not that badly wrong (we all could hope). Shall we leave the politicking and personal preferences aside for just one cotton-picking season and praise a president under pressure and support the state’s operational personnel (it is the least a people in crisis could/should do!)?
Not to gloss over any lapses (there are some – in hindsight, the staggered lockdown with brief windows for stockpiling may have done more harm than the good of temporary relief for a lucky or early few). But to give credit where it is due (there is much of it… from the new key workers holding the line at checkout counters to hospital staff of all ranks or file). And take stock – literally (perhaps not for a while, now that the shut-ins in three districts are locked down indefinitely) and philosophically (we have all the time in the world – well… almost).
- Calm in the town square and marketplace (first phases in visible places, although the mass market scenario was chaotic) under tough yet fair law-and-order regulators reduces the possibility of anarchy, as well as potentially uncontrolled contagion
- Clear communication by a visibly composed executive leadership unfettered by political one-upmanship, which once compromised credibility and allowed corruption a free hand (though the iron hand in the velvet glove is visible)
- Contrast with the chaos and confusion of a previous administration: bolsters the average citizen’s trust in government and boosts the cooperation factor, helping to maintain law and order; as well as frees up vital state and private sector resources to focus on key tasks at hand (one must thank the powers that be for small mercies)
- To reinvent Sri Lanka’s national identity and character as (among others) orderly, dynamic, inclusive; compassionate/empathetic; caring/considerate; rational, not overly pseudo-religious
- To capitalise on and benefit from probably the best free health-care system in the region (if not the continent); to synthesise and regulate any grossly profit-oriented medical businesses
- To strengthen and consolidate public-private partnerships in the best national interest
- To reposition small government by true technocrats – as not only the need of the hour, but also the real deal on the way forward; rather than swollen cabinets and swollen-headed legislatures masquerading as people’s representatives… when a directly democratically elected executive head of state would do – Its present challenge (for e.g. to manage COVID-19 combating funds honestly and transparently) would set an example in this regard and erase, if not revise, previous black marks where ‘humbugs’ ‘helped themselves’ under the pretence of ‘helping the people’ in a time of another national crisis
There is also cause for concern in some quarters. And maybe not in the immediate practical sense of biting the bullet and battling it through with our heads down! But perhaps in the open fluid aftermath of the traumatic times we’re jointly facing in our erstwhile paradise, and across the planet. However grateful, relieved, etc. we may be – there is merit in keeping one eye on the bigger picture.
- That, as always, the weak and marginalised in many other respects (culturally, socially, economically, ethnically, age-wise, and so on) could fall through the cracks under a utilitarian approach to handling SARS-COV-2 in Sri Lanka – It’s not the toughest who survive, nor should it be
- That an opposition – weak and divided after the incumbent regime effectively neutralised a future threat at general elections by keeping nominations open until the political parties split and stayed that way, officially – capable of critically engaging strong government may not emerge; and that strategic timing of elections could skew the playing field
- That prolonged lockdown with periodic let-ups for the purposes of stocking up could create a hothouse of panic and hostility all round, especially if the overall plan including sufficient stocks and adequate distribution is not drafted and shared convincingly, and/or the plan – as in the ‘mad scramble at the end Tuesday’ was not as well-thought-out as one would have wished for
- The militarisation of essential and emergency services could shrink the space currently available for critical engagement or even dissent (let’s not forget the media in the rush, never mind the free media for the moment; and let’s not rush to regulate either or both – for fear that a vital function of a meaningful society could go under in favour of assured safety/security etc.)
- The bureaucracy strengthened by executive diktat in its hour of glory may take the upper hand over the political engine of legislature, eventually short-changing the electorate of being able to exercise its sovereign will
- The authoritarian modus operandi of governance could continue even after the crisis has been contained and the emergency declared is over or at least has been rendered manageable
Just remember, as you buckle down to doing your best under tough circumstances, that we’re all on the cusp of history. Rather than merely surviving it and reporting on it, each and every human being alive today is actively living through a watershed – weathering the worst of events, even rewriting the news and commentary books for posterity. Since 1918’s Spanish flu, there hasn’t been a pandemic like this. When it is all over, as it will surely be, whenever that is, and however it comes, everyone alive and dead of late would have been a part of shaping the new world order. Let’s not miss this opportunity to craft and create a brave new world with oh! such Sri Lankans among others in it.
(Journalist | Editor-at-Large of LMD | Writer on lessons in the time of corona)