18 May, 2022


A Bell Tolls For The World

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Epidemic diseases are not random events that affect societies capriciously and without warning. On the contrary every society produces its specific vulnerabilities. To study them is to understand that society’s structure, its standard of living and its political priorities.” ~ Frank M Snowdon (Epidemics and Society – from the Black Death to the Present)

This week, Chinese authorities heaped praise on ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, absolving him of the charge of disturbing public order. The rumourmonger has been declared a ‘hero who fought bravely’ by the very system that persecuted him for warning about a new SARS-like virus.

The exoneration came too late for the whistle-blowing doctor and for the 13,000 people in China and worldwide who had died of the Covid-19 pandemic, so far. That pandemic could have been avoided, had President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders heeded the whistleblower-doctors instead of punishing and silencing them. According to a study by the University of Southampton, had Beijing responded two weeks earlier (around the time of Dr. Li’s warning), the number of cases could have been reduced by 86%.  

Even with the benefit of the Chinese example before them, political leaders from orient to occident persisted in ignoring or downplaying the threat from Covid-19, cleaving to the myth of business as usual. Donald Trump said the virus was just like the flu, and will vanish miraculously. On the day Italy’s infectious cases exceeded 400, the leader of the ruling Democratic Party urged Italians not to change their habits. Iranian leaders refused to lockdown virus epicentres in the country and went ahead with a planned parliamentary election. Sri Lanka’s Tourist Board put out an ad touting the country as a safe-zone from Covid-19. The ad claimed great health screening, best health care, only one confirmed case and 34 days with no case – and continued to run even after the WHO declared a global pandemic. 

Such blindness and inaction enabled Covid-19, birthed in China, possibly of a food chain that involved pangolins and men, to become a global pandemic in three short months.

The velocity and the spread of the virus’s sweep demonstrates that while closing national borders is a necessary measure, the eventual solution will have to be a global one. If the virus retains a hold on even a single land, the rest of the world will not be safe. To paraphrase John Donne, in our globalised world, where migration and tourism are ubiquitous, not even islands are islands. 

The Hong Kong flu epidemic of 1968 which killed one million people and the Asian flu epidemic which began in China in 1956 and killed 2 million people barely touched us in our teardrop island. Those days of splendid isolation are long gone. Tourism is our lifeblood. And we have a Diaspora that is second (in terms of numbers) only to the Jewish Diaspora. we are unique only in our own besotted eyes. Any bell that tolls for the rest of the world tolls for us too. 

The need for a political ceasefire

In Iran, election in the time of Covid-19 caused a low turnout, enabling hardliners to score a landslide win. That might have been what Lankan rulers were hoping for when they insisted on going ahead with the parliamentary election despite a burgeoning epidemic. Politics trumped over commonsense to such an extent that a police curfew imposed on areas pinpointed as the virus epicentre was hastily lifted to facilitate the nomination process.

The Election Commission has postponed the election, using the powers accorded to it by the 19th Amendment. Had it not done so, the virus would have claimed many more victims by now. A stark warning of how the campaign would have done the work of the virus was provided by a Gampaha District candidate who also happens to be a medical doctor. Not only did she organise a meeting to felicitate herself; she also praised the participants (who were seated shoulder to shoulder) for coming to her meeting even against the advice of medical professionals. Had the election not been postponed, Sri Lanka would have been overwhelmed not only by a viral pandemic but also by a stupidity pandemic.

The election has been postponed but the electoral mindset, created by the dissolution of parliament and the nomination process, continues to pervade. Some of the party leaders might play safe, but individual candidates and their supporters will resume campaigning the moment the curfew is gone, leaving thousands of disease vectors in their wake. Hours before the curfew came into effect, a candidate in the Badulla district went around in a truck distributing pirith pan (Buddhist holy water) to people. This sort of behaviour would go national the moment the curfew is lifted, undoing whatever good the days of forced isolation had achieved.

The only way out is for all contending parties to come to an agreement to suspend campaigning until the situation stabilises. Once such a multi-partisan agreement is reached, party leaders would have the necessary political space to stop their candidates from engaging in their infantile battles for preference votes. 

Unfortunately, this necessary political ceasefire is yet to happen. The President seems to think this is a problem he can solve singlehandedly, with the support of the military, just as he ‘won the war’. At a meeting of the Covid-19 task force, he dismissed the idea of a national lockdown, with a cackle. The imposition of the curfew points to a welcome change. Perhaps it had something to do with Basil Rajapaksa having to place himself in self-quarantine, a measure necessitated by a meeting with a local-level politician who had subsequently tested positive for the virus. If campaigning resumes before the epidemic has been seriously incapacitated, no one will be safe, including the president and his family.

A political ceasefire is necessary for financial reasons as well. The government has spending money only till end April. To approve finances beyond that date, the parliament has to meet. The government has obtained a loan from China, but that is merely a stopgap measure. Since a new parliament is not possible before end April, the old parliament will have to be reconstituted. Therefore, the only option is for the president to rescind the gazette that dissolved the parliament, thereby restoring the status quo ante. 

If the President is willing to take the first steps towards a political ceasefire, the opposition must cooperate, using their numerical strength to pass whatever sums necessary not only to beat back the epidemic, but also to keep the country functioning and to provide relief to the more vulnerable businesses and households. 

Countries that have managed to keep the contagion under control all engaged in aggressive testing. Even non-symptomatic people were tested, resulting in early detection and isolation. That means many more testing kits, as well as other facilities, from hospital beds and protective gear to ventilators. Funding these necessities might require unpopular measures, including the cancellation of some of the more irrational tax benefits of December 2019. If the government is courageous enough to propose these measures, the opposition, in turn, must be principled enough to back them, and not turn them into propaganda footballs. 

A political ceasefire is also necessary to develop the right societal attitude in the face of a common threat. Cooperation, unity, solidarity – this is what we need today. Elections are times of intense competition, not just among parties but also among members of the same party. An election campaign, in this time, will turn common or garden political, ethno-religious and societal cracks into deadly faultlines. In a situation characterised by inter-party and intra-party fighting, the pandemic will become the lesser enemy. Until we wake up one day in the situation of China or Italy.

Avoiding a Stupidity Pandemic

American astrophysicist, Neil de Grass Tyson, said that “we are living in the middle of a massive experiment worldwide – will people listen to scientists?”

Sri Lanka’s record so far is not very encouraging. Our responses to the epidemic seem to be characterised more by prejudices and preferences than by facts and reason. Placing an army general at the helm of the campaign against the epidemic is as inane as asking a medical doctor with zero-military training to lead a war. Most of the quarantine centres are located in the North and the East because the political leaders are unwilling to antagonise their Sinhala base. In an even more disturbing development, most of the treatment hospitals are located outside the North and the East. 

Contrary to claims by some circles, Lankan doctors have not developed a cure for Covid-19. The use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are experimental at best. The false boast of the two drugs being certain cures might make uninfected people disregard the threat posed by Covid-19; and some of the infected who are unwilling to go to hospitals might decide to try a spot of self-cure. (Contrary to claims by some local politicians, these drugs have not been approved by America’s FDA as a proven cure for Covid-19).

People turn to religion in times of crisis. That is understandable. But given the nature of the crisis, this embracing of religion must be done individually and not collectively. Catholic and Islamic religious gatherings have been cancelled by respective religious leaders, but the Buddhist hierarchy has failed to take similar precautionary measures. The monk in charge of Siripada issued a statement asking pilgrims to keep on coming. Ven. Galkande Dhammanada Thero has reminded us that even the Buddha, when sick, followed the advice of physicians such as Jeevaka and Komara pachcha. But his remains a lone voice of reason in a sea of myth and superstition. 

The silence of the Mahanayake Theros combined with the government’s hands-off attitude has created a vacuum in which mass gatherings in the name of faith can still take place. The best case in point was the Christian religious ceremony in Jaffna conducted by a pastor from Switzerland who was tested positive for Covid-19 after returning home. Whether he brought the virus with him or whether he contacted it here is uncertain. What is certain is that hundreds of people have been placed in danger. The only way to avoid such instances is for the government to ban all mass religious gatherings and for religious leaders to ask their followers to practice their faith from the safety of their homes.  

Yesterday’s incident in the Anuradhapura prison is a warning about another danger area that can explode to our common peril. The overcrowding and appalling sanitary conditions in our prisons renders such basic precautions as washing hands or maintaining social distance utterly impractical. The virus will spread like wildfire if it manages to gain even a bare foothold in any of the prisons. The government needs to think of precautionary measures now, such as reducing the overcrowded state in prisons by releasing those convicted of minor offenses or are in jail for not being able to pay fines.

We are today in a place we have never been before, facing a fast moving and still mutating virus. According to a report by a US federal task force, the pandemic might go on for 18 months or more, and it might contain of several waves. A certain percentage of those who are cured can become sick again. Or a second wave can come from abroad, once controls are relaxed.

The world must formulate a globalised response, rich countries helping poor countries, scientifically advanced countries assisting countries where science lags. Hopefully, the IMF, the World Bank and other multilateral finance institutions will set up special funds to assist the more vulnerable countries to cope with both the virus and its possibly even more devastating aftermath. According some analysts, China’s GDP growth in the first quarter of 2020 will be as low as it was in the immediate aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Worse economic devastation will confront countries like ours.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the ongoing pandemic is the primacy of social spending, the importance of robust public health and education systems. Sri Lanka has so many private hospitals, yet none has offered its assistance to the government free of charge. Instead, two of the hospitals were trying to milk the epidemic by offering the Covid-19 tests at extortionate rates. If we fail to understand that for countries like us true national defence lies not in attack helicopters or warships or sophisticated weapons, but in an expanded public health service, in more hospital beds, intensive care units, outpatient units, doctors and nurses we would have learnt zilch from this crisis.

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Latest comments

  • 11

    The speech by Ranil followed by Mahinda’s to me sounded like a pre-arranged drama, for public consumption. If Ranil is serious he should press for the withdrawal of the Gazette notice to dissolve the Parliament by the President and re-establish the old Parliament. I am sure JVP and Sajith’s group will support this whole heatedly. If Ranil does not do this then we know that there is a deal between Ranil and Mahinda.

    Its also sad to see that the media and human rights bodies have totally ignored the human rights violation that happened at Anuradhapura Prison. Prison is suppose to be a very safe place. Prisoners are also humans and they have the same protection as other civilians. No one can walk in and kill them. This happened during Rajapakse’s previous government when 27 prisoners were targeted and killed. This time 2 killed 4 injured. Prisoners do not carry arms, even if they had arms or gas tanks, its the fault of the Prison Officers to have allowed them to have them. Ranjan Ramanayake when he came out of the Prison, first thing he brought to the notice of the public was the lack of security in Prisons and that there was an acute shortage of Prison Officers. At least after that announcement Rajapakse brothers should have taken necessary steps to strengthen Prison Staff. This did not happen. To kill unarmed prisoners is a grave violation of Human Rights. This would be another issue that’s going to be brought up at the next UN session. Hope this topic is discussed at tomorrows all party meeting. Mahinda as Minister of Law and Order should resign immediately.

    Calling army to a Prison is a serious matter. Sri Lanka is not a Military state, today army is involved in every civilian matter, this is not right. If Sharvendra is such a strong person to lead the army, lead the armed forces, lead Corona irradication etc, why do we need a President and a PM?

    • 0

      The SL government is yet to come up with a relief package to help the
      private sector and self employed. Securing the jobs is the only way to minimize the adverse economic impact.

      This has been done by many western countries including Scandinavian countries, some EU countries, USA, Australia and NZ.

      Atleast 50% of the wage bill of the private sector companies which are badly affected should be paid by the government over next 6 months and if not labor laws should be changed to retrench staff.

  • 8

    I don’t know whether the Sri Lankan government is following what is happening in the West.
    EU countries, North American countries and the UK have allocated massive funds for worker and business benefit programmes, in addition to injecting capital to their economies.
    Some countries have already closed down borders for a month.
    In the meantime, they have requested their citizens to return home and also swiftly repatriating them from vacation hot spots all over the world, via chartering flights.
    This shows that when the repatriation completes within the next few days, these countries will declare a total lockdown in their countries, I guess, for about 3 months, initially, until the end of June.
    One slide from a leaked presentation (made by a doctor at the University of Nebraska) obtained by Business Insider has revealed that American medical authorities believe that there will be eventually 96 million infected people which could lead to 480,000 deaths in the US.
    China is obviously not responsible for the spread of the Coronavirus as China rightfully informed the WHO as early as December 31, 2019 about a cluster of 41 workers attached to Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, suffering from a mysterious pneumonia.
    The first patient in the US was found on January 20.
    The first patient in the UK was found on January 31.
    France has detected 3 cases on January 24.
    As at February 21, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain and Sweden had several cases.
    It is the Western and North American countries which should take responsibility of the rapidly evolving outbreak in their countries for not taking measures early to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, other than wasting their time in naming and shaming China for the virus.

    • 9

      Also Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization should insist the US to lift inhumane economic embargoes imposed on Iran to save millions of lives in that country.

  • 4

    This article highlights the truth. The Govt should have prepared well considering the fact China (Origin of Corono) and Srilanka hold close political relationship, particularly with the current Govt. So far President has not had an all party meeting along with Helath Professionals to discuss how to work together to tackle this problem. President should have postponed the election long days ago considering the nature of the virus spread internationally.

  • 0

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  • 6

    Agree with SJ on this.
    I would read into Tissaranee with a grain of salt. These are the Colombo civil society circle, who would occasionally come out from their hiding just to take on Rajapakses and democracy, nothing else.
    The Chinese have handled this situation much better than anyone else could.
    Western welfare capitalist states and the US are not prepared to handle this health care crisis that they have created. In fact, healthcare is just an individual responsibility for them as people are just asked to self-quarantine.The hysteria behind all this will be used to get people to consent to authoritarian measures/bills for the benefit of the ruling class – thats it.

    • 4

      Fooly, You have to be even handed. The Chinese doctor who identified the problem was maligned by the authorities. After he died, he was exonerated for doing the right thing. Had the Chinese authorities acted then, the problem would have been solved. The Directors of Health are doing a good job in Sri Lanka not the dim-witted Rajapakses who hoarded our money. We can trust them to do what is needed. The credit should go to the nurses, health workers and doctors who tirelessly work on this issue, not t the RajaPukkas.

  • 0

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  • 1

    “The exoneration came too late for the whistle-blowing doctor and for the 13,000 people in China and worldwide who had died of the Covid-19 pandemic, so far.”

    I read somewhere that more than 1 million people died in China. There are a number of reasons why this estimate may be accurate. First, China has a large population of elderly people. Secondly, more than 30% of Chinese men smoke. With a population of 1.4 bn (mostly men), it is safe to assume that several hundred thousand men died. Third, China was unprepared for the crisis. Their hospitals are substandard. This virus is very contagious. You cannot put 50 people with the virus in one room the way China did; it is like walking in a minefield. Not only the patients, but the doctors and nurses got the virus as well. Finally, there was a large cover-up initiated by the Chinese government. Bodies were simply cremated. Doctors were threatened not to disclose real statistics.

    • 4

      This surpasses manifold the b*** s*** that Trump is capable of dropping.

  • 2

    Why do the authorities not acquire the


    IAM SURE “. THE JUST ANOTHER FOOL “ May not agree with my suggestion as a man who protects interests of those who looted but the truth is space available UNUSED WHY MR PRESIDENT.
    “. S a t a k a y as “

    • 0

      Open all the 5 star hotels now remains vacant and send all the returnees for Quarantine instead send them to the North and East. These returnees brought foreign exchange to our country.

  • 2

    Sorry I have to state that one has to be a total idiot to speculate this kind of garbage.
    This person may be somehow related to Trump. There are much more dangerous viruses if Chinese want to create chaos!

  • 3

    You cannot trust the Chinese to tell the truth. They already knew about the deadly Corona virus long before the rest of the world came to know and take any precautions. By then it had spread like wild fire and it was too late. The Chinese were so angry that the innocent doctor who first discovered this deadly virus divulged the information to the rest of the world and was eventually killed for spilling the beans. The Corona virus killed many people especially in Wuhan Province where it all started. Many patients suffering from the virus were seen being dragged out of hospital and homes against their will and killed as seen on TV. Their homes were sealed from the outside and were not allowed to leave. No sooner the Covid-19 started to spread in the US suddenly China declared overnight that there were no more suspected cases of Corona virus in China and free of this dangerous pandemic. There is something very mysterious about the Covid-19 pandemic which shook the whole world and brought about an economic disaster and the downfall of many rich nations never seen before.

    • 2

      Inform the WHO (which is full if praise for Chin) of whatever you seem to know!
      How sick can some minds be!
      To solve the apparent mystery read the Article by Dr Darini Rajasingam here.

  • 1

    Chinese cities are heavily polluted, this puts a strain (severity depends on age and pre-existing conditions) on the respiratory system. So even without the virus, many Chinese (in China) have breathing problems. The smog from the factories in industrial cities used to be so bad that Chinese wore masks when going outside. To reduce emanations from cars, the government in Beijing put restrictions on when people can drive. Also, keep in mind the congestion. China has 1.4 billion people. Chinese tourists were able to spread the virus to 5 other continents, so you can how infectious the virus is. There is also some element of politics here. The CCP does not want to admit it failed to take warnings in December seriously. The CCP has a 5 year economic plan that cannot succeed without foreign investors.

    • 2

      The most polluted cities seem to have ducked the virus.
      It was Italian tourists who did it to us.
      Also it could have been the American that did it to China in the first place.
      Give us another one unlike the other ones.

    • 2

      Here is another to whom any stick will do to strike China.
      The desperate lies in the article about the source of the virus have already been debunked.
      The ‘protesters’ of HK have nothing useful to say after the Chinese state defeated the infection in HK as well.

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