A tale of a Mayor’s token

Quarantine Ruminations – 3

Wednesday, 2 June 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Mayor of Moratuwa Samanlal Fernando is only a small cog in a giant machine. He has exposed the enormous obscenity of the entire machine


To those who have no fear, to those who have overcome their fears, and to those who are still battling, “You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing. It is not the time of your judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not” – Pope Francis, Extraordinary time of prayer, St. Peter’s Basilica 27 March 2020

The Government has separated what is necessary from what is not. It has chosen what matters and what passes away. 

Legislation on the Port City has been fast-tracked. The tender for the construction of a highway on pillars has been awarded. The foundation stone for a new high-rise headquarters for the People’s Bank has been laid. 

The spread of COVID-19 virus continues unabated. Each day of last week indicated a breach of the number of infected on the day before. Finally, the circuit breaker is in place. That it will work is our fervent hope. 

The Government is yet to formulate or announce a transparent road map defining the parameters of an equitable, prioritised eligibility for the two doses of the vaccine that covers the entire population. 

In self isolation, one has plenty of time to think. It is easy to blame. It is much easier to politicise. It is hard to come to grips with the problem together and find solutions together. This self-isolation is not easy. In normal times, we dismiss the absurd and the ridiculous as just rubbish that pass through our minds. In self-isolation that discretionary dismissal of the comic, the absurd, the wicked and the mad is not available to us. In self-isolation the world encroaches on you. To be informed you must follow the news – good, bad, ugly, and absurd. 

The news – good, bad, ugly, and absurd

Last week, I watched the overbearing Minister of Ports in a radio control room throwing his weight to douse a fire on a cargo vessel anchored outside the port. Next, I watched Minster Johnston Fernando personally supervising mass vaccination in Kurunegala, with the gusto of a medieval baron in his bailiwick.

The real treat on TV was the Moratuwa Mayor’s insistence that the MOH should vaccinate only those who carried tokens issued by him. With the lady medical officer offering spirited resistance, the encounter was finally tagged as an ‘ugly incident’. It blotted an otherwise well-planned vaccination campaign was the final verdict. But is that how it turned out? Just a little blot in the landscape? 

That moment of the Mayor parading his token was much more than a moment. It placed the revulsion of a nation in deep freeze burdening our tortured minds. The harsh rhetoric of Mayoral invective hovered ominously over a nation tyrannised by a virus on the loose. It was much more than just an unfortunate incident. 

Minister Johnston Fernando had no such problems with the Medical Officers who dispensed the vaccine in his fiefdom of Kurunegala. Although there was some talk about the Mayor of Kurunegala and the Mayor of Moratuwa singing from the same hymn sheet, only the Moratuwa Mayor ended up in the clinker. 

The verbal duel between the ‘City Boss’ of the ‘Pohottu’ party and the medical professional with expertise in public health had its positive side. 

Public health professionals

Today, more than ever, there is a growing societal understanding of the role of public health professionals. The incident served to demonstrate that medical professionals as opposed to unionised peddlers of medicine are better equipped to command public trust. The people are ready and willing to listen to the risk assessment by medical professionals. 

The people now know that balancing risks and benefits in the face of this great pandemic uncertainty should not be made the exclusive preserve of the political class. With knowledge and information, readily available from authentic sources, the people are justifiably reticent of all politicians. 

The Moratuwa Mayor’s token is the symptom of a deeper decease that has made our body politic rotten to the core and rotten from the core. 

It is emblematic of the clientelist politics of the patrimonial state. If only it were not about life and death, it would have been passed off as politics as usual.

Offering access to the vaccine as a reward for political allegiance or loyalty is a despicable act of modern-day barbarism. 

When a representative democracy finds itself in the middle of an epidemic, the sensible thing to do, the decent thing to do, and the obvious thing to do is to agree on a common measuring scale to prioritise potentially competing ethical values. 

What we experience today is the sum of our collective folly since introducing the Republican Constitution of 1972 and the dismantling of the once independent public service. It started in 1972 and continued to gather a momentum of its own. 

Metamorphosis of independent public service

A revealing, anecdotal narrative of the metamorphosis of an independent public service into the compliant tool of the politician is provided by Sarath Amunugama in the first volume of his biography – ‘The Kandy Man’.

The cosmopolitan Kandyan, bohemian aesthete and judiciously agile civil servant describes his rise in the public service with a winning directness that makes my generation yearn for a lost past when the public service held its own against the capricious politician. 

Since D.S. Senanayake embarked on reclaiming the lost ‘Rajarata’ for our landless peasantry, our politics turned in to clientelist or patronage politics.

At the beginning it was the obligation of the gentry towards the less fortunate. Competitive party politics after Independence made it a serious business. Politics became the fine art and the precise science of deciding Who Gets What. 

Leaders who display authoritarian traits climb up the ladder offering and conferring special privileges on apparatchiks such as our mayor who are more active backers than the usual run of the mill type. Doling out special privileges to such Jaunty Johnnies is vital for their interests. Cronyism is foundational to clientelist politics. 

Sarath Amunugama, the social anthropologist, in his ‘The Kandy Man’ offers a folksy portrayal of the hierarchal social relations of our countryside. In engaging detail, he recounts how the peasantry developed personal bonds with their political patrons. 

If you can get a copy, it makes interesting reading in these times of self-isolation. 

Patron-client politics has permeated political system

This clientelism, also referred to as patron-client politics has permeated our contemporary political system. 

Under the all-powerful Executive Presidency and the proportional electoral system that deprived the constituent a link with an accountable representative, patron client politics has become a huge corporate undertaking. 

Here enters the expertise of the professionals and the whiz kids of the ‘Viyath Maga’. There is an enormous literature on the patrimonial state built by Suharto with the intellectual input of an Indonesian elite known as Suharto’s Berkeley Mafia. Good reading in quarantine times. 

Authority linked through ties of interests and friendships in the corporate machine can manipulate those relationships to attain their ends.

The reader may wonder how that is relevant to this essay on the pandemic and the vaccine. It is relevant, because the mass vaccination scheme, if there is one, has no logic, order or worst of all, public trust. 

Since retirement 20 odd years ago, I have lived in cloistered relief, maintaining the barest links with the go getter smart class. Despite those tenuous links, I know of several people who have got their second AstraZeneca jab in the past fortnight. That tells me that the mass vaccination of our nation must march many miles more before it earns public trust. There is great disorder under the heavens. 

Now, well-meaning intellectuals and academics such as Dr. Harini Amarasuriya, National List Parliamentarian representing People’s Power 3%, may plead with the electorate to think long term. They plead in vain. 

The unfairness of the economic system compels the hungry to focus on immediate consumption. They repudiate the abstract future economic benefits she offers, with the anguished sigh that is the universal luxury, known only to the wretched of the earth. 

In these terrible times, I am not pleading for an unattainable placid utopia made of perfect people. My plea is only for some breathing space for the humbled and the pillaged who are afraid to die. The Mayor of Moratuwa is only a small cog in a giant machine. He has exposed the enormous obscenity of the entire machine.