By Rajan Philips –
“Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!” ― Omar Khayyam
Covid-19 is getting too close to home for too many. Mangala Samaraweera, the veteran politician, passed away this week after contracting Covid-19. He was a political stalwart behind the victories of Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena in presidential elections. He was also a faithful lieutenant to former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. A frontline cabinet minister in multiple portfolios since 1994, Mangala surpassed his father and political figure Mahanama Samaraweera in profile and in popularity.
Mangala Samaraweera will be remembered as a sincere and outspoken champion of pluralism, tolerance and national reconciliation even though his public pronouncements often created more controversy than consensus among his compatriots. As Foreign Minister, he tried to forge a new relationship with western countries predicated on respect for and observance of human rights. Shortly before his illness, he successfully interceded to obtain Covid-19 vaccine supplies for Sri Lanka from the US. Mangala Samaraweera’s death is widely mourned even as Covid-19 victims are getting more numerous and increasingly personal.
The 10-day lockdown imposed on Friday August 20 has not been able to reduce the daily totals of infections and deaths. Without a lockdown the totals would have been way higher. The government has now decided to extend the “COVID curfew” by a week till Monday, September 6. If the current trend (over 4,000 daily infections and 200 deaths) continues, Sri Lanka’s total infections will pass the half a million landmark and the number of deaths will exceed 10,000 before the extended lockdown period is over. For the longest time after the onset of Covid-19, Sri Lanka’s totals were few hundreds of infections and hardly two dozen deaths. A political victory was declared prematurely, and public health was ignored almost permanently. Now there is no obvious end in sight, to plan for victory celebrations, even with the optimistic expectation of a fully vaccinated nation. Before looking for the end of the tunnel, look at what next steps are in sight.
Friday last week, after months of resisting medical opinion, the President used the plea from the country’s highest prelates as reason for relenting and agreeing to a lockdown. No special pleading would seem to have been needed to persuade the President a second time. Planetary signals too may have turned propitious in Gnanakka’s radar. The announcement last week was shrouded in confusion.
Unclaimed Bodies and Overclaimed Profits
People have been confused as to whether they are in a lockdown, or a quarantine curfew; what is open and what is closed; and what activities are allowed and what are not. This Friday’s announcement would suggest that the President’s word smiths have coined a uniform term for the government’s different mouthpieces: “COVID curfew.” How long will the new COVID curfew last? Will it survive the political infighting in the government that has been triggered by the announcement last week? Funnily enough the infighting arose not because anyone in the government was opposed to the President’s decision to impose the lockdown, but because the SLPP leadership did not like the temerity of the SLPP’s miniscule alliance partners to ask the President in writing to declare a lockdown.
The infighting got curiouser and curiouser when SLPP attack dogs started accusing Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila and Vasudeva Nanayakkara that they are of part of an international plot to bring about a regime change in Sri Lanka. The three of them are not known for any foreign extensions of their tentacles. So, who would they be plotting with for a regime change in Sri Lanka? North Korea? LOL, really!
Seriously, what the infighting shows is the obsession of the SLPP MPs with protecting the President from criticisms, and their indifference to fighting Covid-19 to save the country. It has also been reported that at the SLPP’s behest senior government officials have been releasing communications and statements opposing the current lockdown and/or curfew measures. And this at a time when the police are arresting people on the street in record daily numbers for alleged curfew violations. Will the same infighting and sabotaging continue over the new COVID curfew as well?
Besides the confusion at large in the country and paranoia within the government there is the tragic experience of dying under Covid-19. People in increasingly large numbers are dying and going to their graves or turning into ashes – unseen and unwept and even unclaimed by their bereaving families. Lynn Ockersz has versified the insensitive crassness with which the (Covid-19) dead are being officially treated. His poem “The Unclaimed Body” (The Island, August 18) also calls out the Republic’s preference and religiosity: “Such treatment of the dead is no surprise,” the poem hits the nail on the coffin, “In a republic that’s preferred to be in chains … and in a land where religiosity pompously parades …”
Even elephants are protesting at parades, perhaps unlocking what the Poet DH Lawrence insightfully saw while on a visit to the island during the 1922 “Pera-hera, at midnight, under the tropical stars,” as “the mystery of the dark mountain of blood, reeking in homage, in lust, in rage, and passive with everlasting patience.” Prudent rulers, whether kings or presidents, would never take patience to be everlasting either among elephants or among citizens.
While it is too much to expect poetic sensitivity to be observed in government operations, it is fair and reasonable to expect that a government that is boastful of its vistas and splendour, would show some respect for the nation’s dead and compassion for those that are left to mourn. Just as healthcare workers are expected to have good bedside manners, it is not too much to ask the government to direct its deathcare workers to show proper mortuary manners, graveside manners and pyre-side manners.
From deaths to profits is a tortuous leap, but not with the pandemic around and with this government at the helm. There are plausible allegations that profits and commissions are being garnered from selling vaccines, performing tests, disposing dead bodies and designating quarantine hotels. A retired Chief Epidemiologist has publicly stated that the President’s directive to conduct weekly Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) among people over 60 years of age with pre-existing medical conditions, will not contribute to saving lives but only to generating profits for companies importing RAT test kits.
It is reported that test kits are imported at USD 4 (Rs. 800) per kit with 10 testing samples, or a cost of Rs. 80 per sample. Private hospitals apparently charge patients Rs. 2,500 per sample, for a profit of Rs. 2,420 on each sample with the bulk of it going to the importer. The cost of a RAT test kit in India is INR 150, and in many countries the kits are distributed free. It is bad enough to have a government that is ill-equipped and incompetent, but do people deserve a government that presides over such a rip off in the middle of a pandemic? Ah, take the cash, and let the virus spread. That seems to have become the unwritten motto.
As for the virus spread, Sri Lanka has all the experts needed in Epidemiology and Public Health to advise the government and lead a programmatic path to containing the spread of the virus. But the government has failed to assemble them to perform this task. The government’s failure to give medical experts an organizational forum to provide leadership has led them to literally freelance in the media instead of directly advising the government and overseeing implementation.
In most countries governments are following the advice of medical experts. In some western countries governments conveniently abdicate their public health responsibilities to scientists and experts. India and Sri Lanka are notable exceptions. The results on the Covid-19 front are unmistakable. The Indian situation is different from Sri Lanka’s. In India, the BJP and Prime Minister Modi do not trust any Indian expert, professional, or academic who is not a BJPer. Modi and the BJP suspect non-BJPers in public positions to be secularists or Nehru loyalists and exclude them as far as possible from decision making. All important decisions have to be made by the Prime Minister himself. Similar to the Trump presidency. This approach blew up in the face for Modi and the BJP, just as it did for Trump.
In Sri Lanka, until recently, almost everyone with connection and consequence wanted to be associated with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the SLPP and their intoxicating electoral victories. There are no Senanayake or Bandaranaike loyalists lurking in state institutions and agencies to undermine the Rajapaksas. President Rajapaksa did not have to suspect anyone or exclude anyone especially in the matter of Covid-19. He could have summoned and consistently obtained the best possible expert advice and recommendations, and presided over their implementation through the state machinery including the army. When things go right, the President could take political credit for them, and if they go wrong he could damn the experts. Why was this approach not taken? That has already become the defining question for the prematurely tottering GR presidency.
As explanatory factors go – there is inexperience and incompetence. But one year of Covid-19 experience is worth a lifetime of normal experience, and you can always compensate for incompetence by picking and relying on people who are competent. Sinhala nationalism, as an explanation, is not holding much water. If at all, Sinhala nationalism is more a convenient ruse than a defining political cause for the Rajapaksas. Of course, for those who want to manipulate Rajapaksas as nationalist weapons of history, they can be a pretty authentic bunch. In any event, nationalism is neither a vaccine nor therapy against Covid-19. Even ‘vaccine nationalism’ never found much traction, and for Sri Lanka it has no meaning.
What seems to have pushed the GR presidency off track on Covid-19 is the administration’s, and the family’s, hunger for project distractions. They would rather allocate national resources and incur debt for finically profiteering but economically dead end development projects than spend time and resources in purposefully fighting Covid-19. The government and the family have never shied away from their distractive priorities: the Port City in Colombo, a millionaire Yacht Club in Hambantota, 500 gyms throughout the country, transport and highway projects based on Ponzi funding sources – the list will keep going on. Once again – it is: Ah, take the cash, let the virus spread!
A qualitatively different distraction is the project of the constitution. Covid-19 may have put on hold the work of the Expert Committee set up to guide the writing of a new constitution – the fourth in 74 years. The Committee’s report was expected in July, but there has not been any new news on its current status. This is hardly the time for preparing a new constitution. More importantly, the present government and parliament are by far the least constitutionally literate government or parliament in ninety years of constitutional government. The two are not qualified to be entrusted with changing the constitution.
Without Covid-19 the government may have ploughed through to producing a new constitution. In the current situation and alternating between lockdowns, the government will be pilloried by the public if it takes up constitutional overhaul as a national priority. The project should ideally be allowed to stay quiet and wither away. However, the government would likely welcome any opportunity to restart the project if the suggestion were to come from outside the government.
It would, therefore, be unfortunate and politically ill-advised if a request were to be extended to the government at this time, to write a new constitution to address the problems of the Tamils. It is incorrect and irresponsible to suggest that “Covid-19 is a temporary situation and a new constitution is more important.” No one wants a permanent Covid-19 situation, but until Covid-19 is significantly controlled, nothing else can be a priority. More importantly, Covid-19 has turned upside down the credibility of the current Rajapaksa government. The government must be pushed and persuaded to focus on Covid-19, even if it leads to repairing its mangled credibility. It should not be given the excuse to be distracted from Covid-19 to write a new constitution.