“The State is a product of society at a certain stage of development…” – Friedrich Engels
If the story of Sri Lanka’s battle with the COVID-19 pandemic is ever written, it is very possible that the Hansamali-Chandimal-Chamuditha episode would claim a few pages, if not a chapter. Not because any one of these three individuals has a direct bearing on the contagion, either as a victim or a healer.
As far as we are aware, none of the three has contracted the disease, nor has any of them advocated a native concoction as a cure for the world-wide pandemic, as several of their countrymen have already done. Their link to the narrative of the pandemic, is only incidental, but as happens so often in this country, the insignificant was given significance, the ordinary was dressed in the clothes of the extraordinary.
We learn that Hansamali is a model of some repute, while Chandimal is a well- known event organiser. To complete the trinity, we have Chamuditha, a media personality whose trenchant TV interviews capture attention; a people in lockdown mode have little to engage their minds and only a few outlets to relieve the tedium of their confinement.
The incident that triggered the drama was a birthday party held at a plush five-star hotel in the centre of Colombo. Usually a celebration of this nature is business as usual, hotels thrive on such events. However, these are not normal times. Apparently, there is a lockdown rule which prohibits a gathering in excess of a given number of participants (is it 25? lamentable is the uncertainty about these things).
As for compliance, we are not certain on whom the onus rests primarily, the hotel, the party organiser or the guests? There is no information as to whether all hotels complied with this rule, and that this particular party was the only reported case of a breach. Arguably, even diners at a restaurant, users of public transport, the participants at a meeting, workers in an office and so on should not exceed this number. The restriction on the number is an attempt to contain the spread of the pandemic and is in the interest of the public. For validity, the rule must be applied uniformly, without exceptions.
Apparently, in the minds of the partygoers they had broken no law. Either due to their ignorance or indifference, they went about it openly, themselves sending the event viral. Whatever the reason for their non-compliance, there was no attempt to conceal. Even while the party was going on, it had become news, opening the way to public criticism. Such disdain for health regulations, cannot be countenanced was the general attitude.
A few days later, TV news presenter Chamuditha had the main Police Spokesman before the camera. He was grilled, were local celebrities treated differently? Soon the matter acquired a new momentum towards more viral activity, many unseemly, even vile, leading to panic reactions, impulsive and incoherent decisions. As of now, the news is that the partygoers have been detained and sent to quarantine centres in other provinces.
If anything, the country’s desperate struggles with the pandemic have once again only underlined its weak administration, underperforming workforce, lack of resources and the frailty of the overall economy: all factors that go to the brittleness of our so called State. In every comparable statistic, our ranking is among the mediocre nations, and invariably in the middle-order of the mediocre.
Going side by side with this undeniable reality of a failed performance, is a deeply-rooted need to talk up, “how remarkable are we, how well we perform outside of our shores; our brains, our skills, our past-only the superlatives can do justice!” It is as if without such an unction for the self, we cannot explain our being.
The lost years since independence have shown us that building a modern state is serious work, a long sustained effort requiring great skill and foresight. Not every country can boast of success, some are even defined as failed states. In statecraft we have had only poor players; many amateurs, braggarts and scoundrels, in the words of the Bard in Macbeth “the way to dusty death, out, out brief candle, life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more, it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” When describing our post-independence elite, it is not possible to do better than Shakespeare.
Today, a state is not merely the king’s horses and king’s men. Over the centuries the concept of the State has been refined into a complex institution, representing multifaceted aspects. At one and the same time it expresses various, and even contradictory ideas; a regulator as well as a service provider, wearing both the munificent manifestation of welfarism, as well as the stern aspect of law and order.
The state will prosecute the country’s criminals, but will also guarantee the safety of its prisoners. It will take money from the people in the form of taxes, however do everything thing in its power to improve the quality of their lives. It will invest money, but will be frugal in rewarding itself. The state will enforce laws, yet will protect every citizen. Experience tells us that for a state to reach the desired stature, its levers should be in the hands of evolved persons, men of honour, learning and heightened sensitivities. In lesser hands, the machinery of the state could become a mockery, even a criminal enterprise.
The duty to protect is now considered paramount to a state’s legitimacy.
Answering to this duty, our State too, moved to protect its people from the pandemic now raging across the world. They have done many things to contain its spread; in a roundabout way, the Hansamali-Chandimal-Chamuditha saga is an episode in this endeavour.
In order to contain the spread of the pandemic, it was thought necessary to impose a curfew or a lockdown. A lockdown must have rules. One of the rules is that there should be no social events exceeding a certain number of participants. I have never understood why a lesser number is safer, there could well be infected persons even at a small gathering. However, that is the rule, we must comply, before we complain.
For violating lockdown rules, the penalty in most countries is monetary, a fine. The offender is not a criminal; he is only doing something he is entitled to do in normal times. There is no point in wasting State resources on transporting and housing a lockdown violator when that money can be spent on looking after a genuinely infected person.
If everyone who has been in the vicinity of an infected person is quarantined in this manner, a very large percentage of the population must be sent to these camps, which will soon breakdown due to overcrowding. The big tomes left in front of offices, where we write our personal details routinely, have thousands of names on them. It is wrong to expose anyone who is not infected to the possibility of infection. That is a huge failure in the duty to protect.
In our country, without even a basic test, lockdown violators are sent to a quarantine centre, to which the offender is transported in unseemly haste, convict like, together with other intended inmates. The process is bound to reduce him, to diminish his self-esteem, his residence acquires a certain ominousness, although he may well not be infected. Even when engaged in an act of assistance, the inherent coarseness of our State, comes to the fore.
The State cannot react impulsively, peevishly or revengefully. It is an institution that ought to act above such motivations, always rational and always objective.
When the servants of the State cannot adhere to such imperatives, they fail us all.