By Basil Fernando –
“A large crowd of people gather here every day,” a social worker told me, pointing to a two-storey building that is now a toddy shop.
There was a banner with a familiar advertisement: Ra Bomu – lets drink toddy. People were going to and from the building. Pointing to the property annexed to the toddy shop, the social worker said it had also been purchased by the proprietor of the toddy business, indicating that this business was very lucrative.
“What they drink is of course not real toddy,” the social worker went on to say, “Some fresh toddy is mixed with lots of water and then some pills are mixed with the water which somehow give the taste of toddy, which is good enough for people to be buying it over and over again.”
He explained that arrack is no longer affordable as the prices have gone up significantly, so the ordinary folk have returned to a familiar alternative: toddy. The crowds that were going in and out were large enough to be seen from a distance.
The social worker said, “Drinking this kind of liquor is very harmful to the health of these people and it leads to untimely deaths”. That notwithstanding, he went on to say that the people take the alternative that is available to them and the hard working folk need some entertainment, and this is where they find it.
Then, pointing to nearby hospital, he said, “In one of the wards of this hospital itself, there are places which breed mosquitoes. The entire ward had to be closed for some time.” Dengue is one of the most common topics in private conversations. People are preoccupied with this problem and the official media itself has described as a ‘vyasanaya’, a disastrous situation. Just few days back there was a two hour programme aired at the same time on all the media channels in the island that was entirely devoted to giving various kinds of explanations and advice on how to prevent dengue and what to do if they discover that someone has already got the illness. It is rare, almost unheard of, for such a program to be aired in that way.
Explaining this situation, the social worker said, “There is a particular juice made of green apples and this juice has now gone out of sale in many places.” It is said that this juice is helpful in improving the blood count of the patients suffering from dengue. He went on to say, “Now a pharmacist receives orders in advance for this juice so when they get stocks they immediately distribute it to the people who have already ordered it, and those who come thereafter are told that the juice is not available.” Then he said that pengiri thel, which is used as an ointment to prevent mosquito bites, has also gone up in price. In almost all households people are using these kinds of ointments as a precautionary measure.
A friend of mine who has two young children said that the people who suffer the greatest anxiety on this issue are the parents of young children. They are always worried about their children being bitten by this dangerous mosquito. The fear is so much that even if a child catches a normal cold or gets a fever, blood tests are done immediately to ensure that they have not caught dengue. The price of the particular blood test has also gone up, and the government itself has intervened to introduce a controlled price, which is Rs. 1200 for a test.
One of the accompanying worries among the people are the heavy fines that are imposed if any mosquito breeding places are found in their premises. This is, of course, a precautionary measure that is being introduced by the government in order to impress upon the people the need to take care of their premises more carefully. While no one is opposed to such fines, they are at the same time very worried about any kind of situations in which the mosquitos may breed somewhere before they notice it.
While the overall efforts of the people to deal with the problem in the best way they can seem to have improved a lot, many people have found the efforts by the state to eradicate the illness inadequate. The workers who used to come to spray mosquito repellent – anti-dengue sprays – are not coming regularly and even when they come money they have to be paid bribes to get some work done. This is another common complaint. One lady said that she pays 300 rupees every month for these municipal workers to spray her premises, but she found out that the neighbouring premises, which is a home for the elderly, is not sprayed because there is no one there to pay the bribe. She has volunteered to pay that price so that these elderly people may also have a little protection.
The purpose of these little narratives is just to indicate the ways in which people think and express their personal perceptions. It is both interesting and useful to know how people perceive things and what people talk about, irrespective of whether their perceptions are absolutely accurate or not. My purpose here is not to analyse what they say but to record some of the things that I have heard.