By Kumar David –
Nothing in what follows is intended to demean the achievements of thousands of frontline health workers striving to arrest the pandemic nor denigrate policemen and foot-soldiers coping with a tough job. Furthermore, it would be inaccurate and unfair to overlook the successes in controlling the spread of the virus and churlish to overlook the cooperation that the public has so far readily extended. However, the authorities have and are making one big blunder and the purpose of today’s column is to draw attention to this and pressurise government to end it. The blunder: The lockdown is far heavier than necessary and far too disruptive of the lives of poor families. And as for the curfew, it is being used like a jackhammer to solve problems that are better addressed with a surgical scalpel.
Hong Kong, Taiwan and S Korea have blazed the way with smart techniques in crowd control, restrictions on gatherings, airport monitoring and cordoning of pockets when necessary, while at the same time keeping the economy on the roll and ensuring that there is unrestricted of access to shops and markets including super-markets. Public transport is running smoothly and people are not being dragged off and locked up for infringing this or that minor or purposeless regulation. Briefly said, there are intelligent ways to do things and there are less intelligent ways.
Ours is a lockdown and curfew with little nuance; it is doing more damage to people’s lives than its well calibrated dismantling keeping intelligent controls in place. The aforenamed places never indulged in blanket curfew because the authorities were wise. China despite early blunders licked the virus by taking strategic control. Singapore neglected its sardine-packed camps for cheap foreign labourer and is now paying the price. But who is running the curfew-show here; Gota and his Cabinet or a cabal (Health Services’ Jayasinghe, Army’s Silva and IGP Wickremaratna)? The initial draconian overreaction was forgivable, but now when a calibrated approach is needed our decision-makers are out of their depth on the lockdown and curfew issues.
Harm to people’s daily lives and damage to the economy is colossal. Pain is considerable in less well-off classes; hardest hit, the daily-paid – labourers, masons-carpenters-plumbers-electricians, street vendors, 3-wheeler wallas, workers in SMEs, and small contractors. An angry groundswell is building. In the US mass street protests, mostly by right-wing groups, have erupted against ‘stay-home’ orders which are far, far less draconian than our lockdown. There is no curfew anywhere in the US only public education about social-diatancing. Regarding damage to the Sri Lanka economy one number says it all, the exchange rate; the US dollar spiked at Rs 194 a few days ago from Rs 175 in July 2019. The longer factories and businesses stay closed the harder to get up to steam again”. Big shots don’t care; they don’t even discuss issues and trade-offs in the public domain.
The authorities say they intend to impose only a dusk to dawn curfew on 19 Districts starting tomorrow (27). Why in pluperfect heaven do you need a half-baked and half-crazy or any type of curfew in Mannar, Uva or Embilipitiya? Did curfew assist in detecting the Lankapura, Polonnaruwa case, subsequently requiring the lockdown of twelve villages? Of course not!
The 24 cases detected on Monday (20) were already in quarantine, Health Services Director Jasinghe said. Extending the national curfew up to the 27-th because of this detection is asinine. How many administrative districts of SL’s 26 have not confirmed a single case outside detention in the last 10 days? The majority. How many have not had a single non-quarantined case in the last five days? Data is as rare as turmeric, but maybe twenty-two. Why then are they in partial lockdown? How can daily-paid labourers, street vendors, masons and carpenters work 50% of the time from home? Three-wheeler wallas perhaps can drive round and round their gardens for half the day! What sense does it make to lift curfew in Wellewatte, Havelock Town and Colpetty but not in Bambalapitiya? Curfew in Kohuwala but not Pilyandala and Nugegoda. The schedule for complementary SLAF helicopter rides over-hopping Bambalabitiya and Kohuwala has still to be released by our highflying authorities!
About ten days ago curfew was lifted for half a day. The queue outside supermarkets and retail shops was half to two km long and curfew had to be extended to 2pm to cope with the crush and the rush. What lesson did our jokers learn from this? Do you think they realised that there is a huge pent up demand and far more frequent and far longer opening hours were an absolute necessity? Did they show intelligence like the authorities in Hong Kong etc? By Jove NO! They drew exactly the opposite dunderhead conclusions. Believe it or not they clamped down with a harsher and longer clampdown! Please god, I implore you “Give our Authorities a Brain”.
Here’s another ridiculous turn of events. Liquor stores have been closed for months; then they were briefly opened. There was a rush for booze. Did our authorities expect everyone to take a vow of abstinence and refrain? Maybe they did expect some such dumb response, but people live in the real world. As expected, next day’s newspaper said of the melee: “The police intervened and with great difficulty, cleared the crowd and closed the liquor shops”. What lesson did our jokers learn? Did they promptly open wine-shops 24 hours-a-day, seven days a week as they would do have America? Nope our brilliant planners shut and sealed everything. What do they expect when next they open? Yellow-robed monks and penguin-like nuns lining up with jasmine and holy water?
Let me close this part of today’s column repeating the first two items of my opening plea: End the Lockdown; Let the People Work and Eat. Instead the President’s Media division decreed in Royal Tones: “Travelling to and from the Colombo, Gampaha, Kalutara and Puttalam Districts is completely prohibited for every citizen”. The shape of dictatorship to come?
I now make a few comments on the third item of my heading; not a plea but a swear: Damn Electioneering Politicos of All Stripes. All-stripes refers to both the GR-MR-SLPP cluster and Sajith-Ranil bunches. The pretentiousness of these people is obvious. All are agog about news from the Election Commission. Coronavirus and people’s hardships hardly get a mention from these sods. Elections and their own prospects are all they care about. This wide-ranging curfew and blanket lockdown must go whether it suits Gota or it doesn’t suit Gota, whether it suits or does not suit Sajith. It must go because it yields little additional benefit in limiting virus spread but harms people’s lives.
The government wants quick elections for certain reasons and the opposition, for the same reasons, or rather the obverse of the same reasons, wants delay. The regime calculates the feelgood effect of Gota’s victory is still alive. Secondly this country like many others is soaked in racial-religious enmity and GR is the beneficiary of a gush of mass Sinhala-Buddhist (SB) feeling. Third, some folks say GR handled corona well and there is electoral benefit to be gained.
Racial and religious prejudice are here to stay. GR etc are assured of a majority of the SB vote for the foreseeable future and will do what it takes to consolidate it including pardoning anyone who slit the throats of children provided they are Tamils. The outpouring of SB cheer for the pardon was overwhelming. Whether elections are held now or in three months the results will be much the same. If Gota revokes the March 22 Gazette and holds elections in August the results will not be very different but it would let the country return to a degree of normality. Right now, people want to go to work, food and free movement; who wants elections!
The feelgood factor will last as long as the economy does not go into tailspin and the same goes for the brownie points scored in handling corona. People have so far put up with loss of income and the mess created by the curfew because they accepted the pandemic as an ‘Act of God’. But the worst is still to come. The economy will do badly in the next 18 months. The World Bank forecast says the SL economy will contract by 0.5% to 3% in 2020 – yes shrink! But the worst is 12 to 18 months away and I will return to this some other time, but I need to the global recession-depression next week before I come back to the domestic economy.
At the appropriate juncture I will also address a bbig concern; the danger of Gota attempting to rule without Parliament up to September 2020 and beyond.