COVID-19 relief and electioneering 

Thursday, 26 March 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

As scenes of kilometres-long queues leading up to supermarkets, with individuals responsibly standing one metre – as per appropriate social distancing etiquette – gave way to those same individuals then pushed up against each other once inside said supermarkets, the Government must have realised the folly of its ways. 

For all the good work done by curfews in keeping the COVID-19 scourge at bay, all of it was potentially undone in a matter of hours. Credit to the Government for realising this error – though a little foresight would not have gone amiss in this instance – and swiftly putting in place a task force to manage the process of distributing goods door to door across the country in collaboration with key suppliers and supermarket chains.

The idea is a solid one, one that will perform the crucial act of getting food to those that need it most while crucially keeping the population from coming into contact with each other. As such it’s an understandably costly operation, and will use up a large amount of public funds and resources.

In this context it’s curious that former Minister Basil Rajapaksa was chosen to lead the Task Force. The younger Rajapaksa is no longer a Member of Parliament, with his highest position now National Organiser of the SLPP.

While elections have been postponed, they are still likely to be held sometime towards the end of May or June, and in this context it must not be forgotten that the country is still technically in a period that is building up to the elections. Taking this into consideration, the Government having handed the reins of the operation Basil, Rajapaksa must now ensure that this much-needed service does not somehow turn into under-the-radar electioneering.

As it is, several of President Rajapaksa’s recently announced concessions – a six-month moratorium on the leasing loan instalments of all three-wheelers; interest free loans of Rs. 10,000 to Samurdhi recipients and Samurdhi card holders through all Samurdhi Bank Associations; and the Samurdhi Authority to issue title certificates to Samurdhi and low income families immediately for issuing nutritional food items to low income families, to name a few – while widely needed, also overlap key vote banks. 

It is an unavoidable coincidence that many of these concessions are aimed towards low and middle income earners, social groups that are simultaneously the most impacted by COVID-19 as well as the key voter base in the upcoming elections. The most impacted areas, Gampaha, Colombo, and Kalutara especially, are significant voting blocs.

It is therefore critical that when this task force rolls out supplies to the population, the messaging makes clear it is an initiative performed by the government to respond to citizen needs and not as part of any political party’s agenda. 

Sri Lanka is a country where all parties of successive governments have abused state resources in the build up to elections. But such measures remain deeply unethical. The elections commission has also made clear that political parties should focus on battling COVID-19, and in that spirit it is vital that those responsible for helping the population through this difficult period behave in as ethical a manner as possible.

However by appointing Basil Rajapaksa as the head of a Government task force when other equally if not better qualified candidates were available, the Government risks conflating direly-needed relief measures with electioneering. It would have been better if the post was given to a reputable State official. Since the decision has already been made, it is now the Government’s responsibility to ensure that public finances are handled responsibly and as many people as possible in genuine need are assisted.