As we all agree COVID-19 is the biggest threat the country has faced in its recent history – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
By Chandrasena Maliyadde
I have been debating in my mind whether to write or not a piece on matters evolving around the COVID-19 pandemic. Since this is more than a national calamity but a problem world-over, my friends prompted me to write. COVID-19, its origin, its causes, its impact, its control, its aftermath are matters of concerns for many of us. Whether this is a challenge or an opportunity or a challenge in opportunity or an opportunity in a challenge is being debated. As usual in Sri Lanka, we might turn the subject of COVID-19 in numerous angles and end up in academic discussions and mark as another opportunity missed and forget it.
At this time, people are worried how you and your loved ones could avoid getting affected by the virus, whether you would run short of your daily essentials (of course alcohol, cosmetics, luxuries include), when can you get back to your job or business, when will your child go to school, and so on.
As we all know COVID-19 better known as coronavirus has caused immeasurable damage to all the countries around the world. It is the biggest unimaginable threat to our living and social-economic environment. Every state, every organisation and every person with sense is considering a way-out of the disease through immunity, avoidance, distancing, and therapeutic treatment while the insane have resorted to spraying, in taking, and injecting disinfectants. They are all equally worried about the future of themselves, their children, country, economy, etc. Economies, from individual to global, from democratic to authoritarian, from developed to developing, from inward-looking to export-oriented have all come to a virtual halt.
Governments have introduced several measures from curfews, lockdowns to voluntary isolation to halt the spread of the virus. Further, Governments have introduced various financial relief packages across the country and the businesses. Sri Lankan Government is no exception. It has taken swift action for prevention, contain spread and cure. It has mobilised the entire health machinery and network, police network and armed forces in the combat. I need not elaborate, as many others of different walks have already commended, explained and written about the yeoman service and the contribution they made collectively under the direction of the President. Incidentally, the President is the only elected person at the national level in the absence of honourable members of the constitutionally supreme Parliament.
Specific to us Sri Lankans
While the swift action is taken and the speed at which COVID-19 was combated, there are certain things specific to us Sri Lankans in this blessed land. The process of the COVID-19 battle commencing from curing and hugging the Chinese woman who was found positive has taken the form of a pageant. It reminds me of the Kanda Udarata Esala Perahera (Kandy Eslala Festival) seen many moons ago as a child. When the COVID-19 virus starts taking its course, various personnel neither knowledgeable nor specialised in epidemiology or virology invaded the media. Some medical personnel specialised in areas other than epidemiology came on social and electronic media (in the absence of print media) and started speaking at length on the virus. They did not represent the Ministry of Health.
They prescribed traditional medicines within the government health systems. They called for the use of herbal smoke/vapour (දුම් ඇල්ලීම) from a pot filled with boiled water and some herbs in households to boost immunity. They would have forgotten what was taught to them in the medical faculty. They were the whip crackers (Kasa Karaya) who come at the forefront of the pageant. They make the biggest noise in the pageant. They get the opportunity to relieve their digestive system through passing gas as the ordure and the sound get mixed up in the milieu of cracking whips.
Fortunately, established Ayurveda medical specialists have come forward to deny these claims and stated that smoke is not a treatment recognised in any credible medical system in the world. The epidemiologists and other medical experts qualified to talk about the virus came after a lapse of time on the screen in the manner the Nilames come towards the tail end of the pageant.
I often listened to BBC world. COVID-19 virus and its impact are being analysed in different dimensions and perspectives on BBC. Most, if not all, opinions come from university academics. They provide details of statistics, the outcome of research conducted, innovative technology and solutions and recommendations. There are 16 universities and many affiliated institutes with research facilities in Sri Lanka; there are Senior Professors, Professors, Associate Professors, Assistant Professors and Professors emeritus.
When Sir Ivor Jennings located the University at Peradeniya, it was meant to be a place to nurture intellectualism, to produce people of calibre, of moral and intellectual stature, to take up positions in the academia. Unfortunately, university academia in our country is the least heard during the pandemic. I have read somewhere that the biggest crime of the time is the silence of intelligentsia. I do not think that the curfew, lockdown and the isolation imposed by the Government would restrict their liberty to speaking out as I have seen them moving around in their luxury vehicles during curfew hours.
The public would not have noticed that there is another category which is not talked about much. It is the public servant. Despite having one public servant to look after every 14 persons of our population (or is it that 14 persons are looking after one public servant) we hardly hear any contribution made by them in this crisis. Even the very existence of public service is not heard. Public service is arranged so hierarchically, that a public servant cannot even raise their back which is warming their seats without the aid of a KKS except to answer a call of nature.
They may be enjoying working from home. They have got the independence (except those who are married) and depoliticisation at home that they always demanded. I do not think that the Government would misunderstand me and request public servants to stay at home forever, considering the contribution they can make by saving electricity, water and other utilities and extra payments outside salary and saving fuel cost to the cash trapped Government.
People with ‘civilised minds’, critiques and democracy lovers view that many aspects of administration that can easily be performed by civil authorities are being entrusted to military or retired military officers. But ruled and ruling are not happy about the outcome of the civil administration. Two prominent subjects were handled by the civil administration during the crisis. Independent powerful Election Commission, apart from holding the election could not even decide a date for the election. It managed to get all key citizens from the First Citizen downwards and the leading President Counsels to the court. The other matter vested with the civil administration is the distribution of concessionary packages offered by the Government to poorer segments during the crisis. I need not waste readers’ time on the mess created by the civil administration.
No single public servant or a trade union agitated. Even all-mighty GMOA which always talks of any issue from the agony of the peasantry to signing of International Trade Agreements, other than medical/health, meekly welcomed a military officer as the Secretary of their Ministry. They are used to strike work for the duty-free vehicle permit leaving cardiac patients unattended on the hospital corridors displaying that people can be heartless but happy.
In the COVID-19 pageant, the role played by media personnel in electronic media cannot be underestimated. They are expressing views, conducting interviews, in addition to bringing details of coronavirus, its spread, responsible people, and measures taken and so on. Their coverage includes sensational aspects and zero news value. The Centre for Journalism and Education has requested media institutions and personnel when reporting the pandemic situation to respect the privacy of those said to have contracted COVID-19. But, media provide details of number, height, weight, age, sex, civil status and many other things of dependents of a person identified as virus-positive and is very careful to be silent on the inflicted person.
One would wonder whether we listen to gossip during the news hour. Media tried to attach the “label of culprit” to their identified category. Initially, it was the Muslims. They protest against American action against Muslims in the Middle East and condemn Muslims in our country. When they could not substantiate what they say they switched over to Navy personnel. I came across a warning issued by the Ministry of Defence to media in reporting about navy personnel. As the saying goes more the merrier; we have many media stations. They compete among themselves to be the “first” in reporting resorting to various unethical tactics. To make the matters worse there is a competition among media personnel within the same station.
The important role played in this pageant by the former Parliamentarians should not be undermined. As usual, they make summersaults (reminding Kandyan dancers), hilarious statements, and imitations, to make the spectators happy. They say the Parliament should be reconvened immediately to come out with the strategies, simmering in their heads, to combat COVID-19 and resolve issues surrounded it.
Those who are more vociferous in reconvening the Parliament are the ones who are absent in attending and speaking during normal times when the Parliament sessions are on. Most of the Parliamentarians are never heard or cannot be heard what they utter reminding the famous proverb “Silence is Golden”. They talk of “Parliament Supremacy enshrined in the Constitution” and entertain us reminding us of puppet masked stilt walkers in the pageant.
We should not undermine the role played by some Buddhist clergy in the pageant. Buddha has preached on “Maithriya” (Kindness and Compassion). Pirith Sajjayanawa (Chanting) is for the blessing. A soothing and correct rhythm is an important aspect of Paritta Chanting. The use of these rhythms is not confined to Buddhism alone. In every religion, when the followers recite their prayers by using holy books, they follow certain rhythms.
We can observe this when we listen to Quran reading by Muslims and the Veda Mantra Chanting by Hindu priests in the Sanskrit language. Some lovely chanting is also carried out by certain Christian groups, especially the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox sects. But, these days we hear only the sound of chanting pirith daily round the clock. Closer the Ramadan, louder the sound of the pirith chanting was.
Recently I got a video presentation of several populace cities around the world. They are all empty but make havens for wild animals. Animals freely walk around. There was no picture of any of our cities. I inquired from my friend who sent the video presentation.
His response was “Yes; there is a picture of Colombo with a long queue of men standing in front of a wine store.” This reminds me of a statement made by the Police spokesperson. He said our people will never abide by the rule but break it. More than 50,000 persons have been taken into custody for violation of curfew regulations. We cannot blame people.
The way the rule was imposed is wrong. The Police Department could have imposed a curfew and told the public to go out as much as possible during curfew hours. People would break the rule and stay in. Well, citizens are the spectators of the pageant. Can you name a better category of entertainers than our fellow countrymen?
Hypocrisy of face-covering bans
The face mask has come to stay. Police insist on wearing the mask while health personnel are flexible. You may recall that Legislation was passed against covering the face by Muslim women, namely the burqa and niqab, after the Easter Sunday attack last year. Police are duty-bound to ensure the execution of the law. But some Buddhist clergy were stricter than Police. Many Muslims have pointed out the irony of making people wear face masks: We are all niqabis now; coronavirus masks reveal the hypocrisy of face-covering bans. As a twist of fate today we witness Police personnel and Buddhist clergy walking in the pageant with their faces covered. Muslim women must be laughing from both ends.
Some are critical of deaths caused by COVID-19. They claim that these deaths would have been prevented and more deaths could be expected with the opening of the country. But none are talking of prevention of deaths caused by COVID-19. The curfew and the isolation restricted movement of people and vehicles. Before the COVID-19 invasion, Sri Lanka was one among the countries which recorded the highest number of deaths caused by highway accidents. This was among prominent news daily. We hardly hear of a death caused on highways these days.
Then there was news on sexual harassment. This is now simply prevented by the facial mask and a sneeze. A girl who wears a mask and could sneeze well is safer even at midnight. The discipline which could not be introduced in the school, in the temple or at home had to be imported to tame us.
Isolation was prescribed by the Ministry of Health and Police for safety and better health. Our people went all the way and got isolated from other communities. Instead of uniting and fighting against the coronavirus, we started to divide and fight amongst ourselves. In many other countries, we hear that the citizens irrespective of religion, ethnicity or the nationality get together and act, as one nation against the pandemic. In Sri Lanka, we use the divergence to point the finger and find scapegoats.
As we all agree COVID-19 is the biggest threat the country has faced in its recent history. Other countries and international agencies express their satisfaction on the way the Government handled the crisis and contained the spread of COVID-19. But, we have taken the Government to task for short term political gains. As typical to Sri Lankans, we failed to get our act together as one nation. We all play a role in the pageant without exception adding insult to the injury.
(The writer has served as a Secretary to three ministries. His services were required by the Government after his retirement. He can be reached via email@example.com.)