27 October, 2021

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Covid-19 Pandemic & Non-implementation Of Disaster Management Act: Arrogance & Foolishness Of The Government   

By Upul Abeyrathne

Prof. Upul Abeyrathne

I thought of writing this piece of public intervention in a critical time because many are reluctant to come forward to raise issues in public by critically examining the public policy content at least with regard to Covid Pandemic not to speak of betrayal of patriotism that has been used by the present regime in capturing power. It seems that present governance arrangement is heading towards authoritarian type family rule putting our live at risk amid Covid-19 disaster. I am inspired by the criticism of  academics who blindly campaigned for the incumbent president and consequent general election with their wearing at birth in social media of the foolish decisions of the government, I thought of this letter highlighting the necessity of putting the provision of Disaster Management Act of 2005 of the Sri Lanka Parliament. I think, everyone in a democracy has got a due responsibility to make government correct raising fingers at the erroneous and arrogant conduct whenever seen in the operation of government. Particularly that burden rests in the academic and professional community which are product of public spending in Sri Lanka. However, it remains even at this critical juncture of Covid-19 pandemic, those with knowhow to handle this disaster seems not coming forward to criticize the government of its foolish decisions out of calculation of personal benefits and fear psychosis among them largely emerged out of subjective political culture.

I, on my part, largely compelled by self-conscience and based on belief of responsibility as a student of political science seeking last solace if happens at my last breathing due to mismanagement of this critical illness by the government, thought of writing over the necessity of putting disaster management act into operation in full to assure transparent management of Covid prevention operation and assuring the right to life of the people through a mechanism of consensus bound decision making.

Any rational observes can realize that the government has mismanaged the disaster so far by taking arrogant decisions, not identifying proper priorities of the political agenda and giving way for a kind of disaster capitalism. This context, highlight the necessity of putting a multiparty and concerted efforts on the part of political actors to overcome this disaster. We shall not think that we do not have provisions to handle such disaster in the above manner. A plausible mechanism to face this kind of disaster has been provided through the Disaster Management Act, No. 13 of 2005. The government led by President seems to be either ignorance of the act or adamant not to put the act into operation. As student of public policy management, I want to say, if put into operation, this act could provide for efficient and effective management of the disaster by avoiding corruption, bribery and profit-making motives of the disaster capitalists that support this government wholeheartedly.  To understand the usefulness of Disaster Management act passed by our parliament in 2005 to handle this disaster, it is needed to briefly explain some aspects of foolishness and arrogance of this government.

The Danger of Covid-19 and the Arrogance and Foolishness of the Government

No doubt, the Covid-19 epidemic is the most serious humanitarian disaster that the Sri Lankans have to witness in her recent history. Covid-19 is a kind of Sannipathika Abadha according to the  teaching of the Lord Buddha, the great human beings that spread the message of Compassion across all the flora and Fauna. The Sannipathika Abadha implies disease which promptly get spread among human beings. This type of disease is spreading abruptly and jumping on to human societies due to various reasons such as weather, climate and human contact etc. and a kind of alien aspect. It is also communicable disease occurs in clusters. However, Lord Buddha did not hold to the point that these are not preventable like the illness that emerge out of Karmic Doctrine. It is preventable and curable if properly handled by the authorities of the government. It is my point of view, that the present government in Sri Lanka has been failed to prevent the disease largely due to arrogance and foolishness. Government has shown it to be foolish because It have thought that it could handle single handedly through medico military approach. The government, through  militaristic medico discourse has thought that it could prevent human interaction one another through sheer force and fear created through medical discourse disease quickly through showing the military prowess to its own creator meant for protecting their lives. Further, it seems that the government is thinking the pandemic as an opportunity to exploit the political spoils for power thirst of the ruling regime furthering its power ambition, disgraceful looked at whatever angle of normative political theory. The situation has further aggravated by the fact, the situation has opened opportunities for lumpen capitalists to gain undue profits through the disaster as exemplified by the fiasco of giving contract to import rapid antigen tool kits and importing of tourists from Ukraine, purported attempt to get involved henchmen of private sector to do vaccination and many more to name a few though such foolish notions of bio bubble which has received full backing from the officials and degenerated associations such as medical professionals. It is a conversion of capitalism to disaster capitalism wrapped in nationalist credo. These moves involve giving undue edge of profits for the entrepreneurs of who helped this regime capture power. In short, government has been failed to accrue benefits of Sri Lanka being an island nation due to profit calculation and attempts to convert disaster a venture to make profits. 

On the other hand, the government has been unable to cure the disease rapidly threatening the very lives of the innocent citizens of the country. The government at initial stages believed in the superstitious and chanting Mantra and offering locally produced medicine pots to the river goddesses, popularizing pseudo medicine of the hypocrites with the full blessing of politically significant personalities such as minister of health, Ms. Pavithradevi, Speaker of the house, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, to name a few. In other words, government has lulled the public into false complacency amidst unimaginable danger by not conducting test to diagnose patients, hiding no. of deaths and giving inaccurate statistics. The Pattramentuva of Independent Television Network revealed today that 18 out of hundred covid contacted patients are not curable though presented as satisfactory by the mediocre presenter of the new items of the daily news paper as of 03 June 2021. The government has shown its arrogance by not putting human lives as the top most item in the political agenda as exemplified by speeches powerful personalities of the government.      

The arrogance of the government, a characteristic feature leads this government not to put human life as the top most development priority. We have witnessed destroying usable roads for another 20 years and reconstructing them amidst this disaster showcasing that government is disinterest of general public and interested in some other priorities. What it indicates that government is not serious of it political agenda during a disaster. If not properly handle, this would cost human lives, public properties than the three decades long ethnic war has cost as calculated by medical and humanitarian experts. This is a point in time that the Sri Lankans have been compelled to think beyond such parochial attitudes such as ethnicity, class, caste, religion and gender etc. During my life time starting from 1970s to date, I can imagine one such incidence where in Sri Lankans were asked to cooperate besides many and varied differences. That is the Tzunami Disaster of 2004. Fortunately, at least compelled by the magnitude of the disaster, all most all of all political creeds and ideologies have united to fight against the disaster on nonpartisan and consensus bound and passed the Disaster Management act of 2005 under the necessity of working beyond partisan politics in times of disasters as experienced under the disaster caused Tsunami Tidal waves of 2004. 

The act has provided for mechanism to formulate policies and implement them wherein everyone is allowed to air his/her concern and points of view and arrive at united  decision to overcome the disaster. The act can be read as plausible future imagination of disasters. The vision and mechanism envision at that critical movement is contained in the Sri Lanka Disaster Management Act, No. 13 of 2005. It is an act that must have put into practice by the government at this critical juncture of disaster.

Why We need to Rally to Put the Disaster Management Act into Force

It is my considered point of view that the present government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been failed to grasp the public policy problem at its entirety and appropriately. I am saying that government has been failed to grasped the public policy problem in its entirety because the president has shown a kind of ignorance of development priorities. This is equally applicable to his economic and social pundits who encircled him. Collectively, they have been dismally failed to realized very simple truth of development. That is development is for the people and their survival must be the top priority and development is nothing but democracy if I am to draw insights from renowned economic and social philosopher Amarthya Sen. If government is serious of the magnitude of the covid pandemic, it shall have stop wasteful building and rebuilding roads and other less significant priorities of political agenda such as building gymnasiums etc. The government has been unable to understand the common men wandering of what are the use of those mega development plan if there is no man to make use of them and unable afford the enjoyment of such development project. They have perceived of them not as development but as enveloping their lives and life worlds. Government has failed to act appropriately because politicking of public funds and resources for electoral political gains. It should have acted apolitically. It should have treated all citizens equally rather than discriminating against citizens and using epidemic to create enemy other as done in the first and second phase of the pandemic through portrayal of minorities as spreaders of disease and consequently adversary of the majority ethnic group.

It seems that arrogance and ignorance of the top ruling echelon are being copied by the lower level of the government bureaucracy. This is very much important, not only politicians but also professionals attached to permanent bureaucracy has started to behave arrogantly and foolishly. Let me cite but one such example. There was a vaccination programme at the Bope -Poddala Pradeshiya Sabha of Galle District on 29 May 2021. The medical professional in charge of the duty, it is reported decided to give vaccine to the elected members of the council and minor servant that discharge garbage disposal. It is reported that field workers and supervisors of them including the secretary of the council have put the risky situation they have to face and pointed out that they have to interact with wider array of the public and their duties are compulsory and cannot be avoided. It is said the officer had been adamant in his decision to give vaccine to the above two categories only. What a rationale of a fool medical Professional!

It indicates the arrogance and foolishness of the top echelon of the government has made its spill over impact over the grass root. This needs to be prevented at first if we ever think of overcoming this disaster. It requires a mechanism that can look at various aspect of the public problem simultaneously and come at policy decision without partisan calculation. As I have stated earlier such a mechanism is in place and properly enacted but not put into operation by the president who is responsible for efficient and effective leadership to overcome the disaster. The President seems to be reluctant to put the provisions of the act into operation due to reasons known to him alone. The opposition parties have already indicated their willingness to cooperate with the government overcome the situation. But government seems to show deaf ears to the offer. To get their cooperation, I think, the president shall initiate to implement the act by declaring a situation of emergency rather than sticking into out dated laws to control the lives of the people. 

The Beauty of Act

The act has provided praiseworthy mechanism to deal with any kind of unexpected situation emerged out of disasters. The preamble to the act states as follow: “WHEREAS human life, property and the environment of Sri Lanka is being threatened and endangered due to certain disasters taking place within the territory of Sri Lanka: AND WHEREAS it has become necessary to protect human life and property of the people and the environment of Sri Lanka from the consequence of these disasters, by effectively dealing with them from a national perspective by the preparation of a national policy and a plan and by the appointment of centrally coordinated committees and institutions to give effect to such policy and plan.

Any Sensible human being can understand what is the beauty of this act. It proposes a way forward for the polity to act beyond the shallow partisan calculation of the groups in power struggle and pay attention to and act for the greater good of the each and every one without partisan calculation. It must be noted that the act has been passed during the Tsunami Disaster caused by Tidal wave with futuristic expectation to act collectively whenever a disaster of big  scale and magnitude take place.

Disaster for All or Not?

The irony of the situation is the present Prime Minister and many other powerful ministers and talkative members of the government have instrumental in passing the act by the time of then Tsunami. We must also thankful to then political leaders of various party affiliation for envisioning such a piece of law enabling them to work without partisan considerations and in the broader public interests. Such an approach is a must in modern democracies because, there are instances which require going beyond the established set of rules of the power game which requires cooperation and sometimes new consensus on how to suspend rule of the power struggle in the name of all. It is because, if not acted in the interests of the all, it would bring disaster to all irrespective of their class, caste, gender or political party etc. The Covid Pandemic is being a disease communicable and rapidly spreading, it is a disaster that has the ability of continuing to damage indefinitely, the prevention and cure requires concerted efforts from every party to the polity.

It is my considered position that the act has provided for a socio-political mechanism that allows all political actors and parties to cast aside their differences and work collectively and enable political leadership to prevent fingering at one another but works collectively to overcome the disaster that besiege everyone on consensus. 

Basic Features of the Act

The act has provided for the establishment of disaster management council.  It is a legal personal according to the article 2 of the said act. The composition of the council as follows: The president (Chairman), Prime Minister (Deputy Chairman), Leader of the Opposition, Chief Ministers (to be represented by the Governors in case of where there is no elected council, secretary appointed by the council and also a member of the council, Ministers in Charge of 20 important subject of the government and five other opposition members nominated by the speaker of the house in consultation with the leader of the opposition. 

The council is tasked with the following functions to formulate a national policy and program on the management of disasters which shall provide for — (i) the protection of life of the community and environment from disaster and the maintenance and development of disaster affected areas; (ii) the effective use of resources for preparedness, prevention, response, relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation; (iii) the enhancement of public awareness and training to help people to protect themselves from disasters; (iv) capacity building, among persons living in areas vulnerable to disaster, in relation to risk management and the application of disaster management and mitigation practices; and (v) pre-disaster planning, preparedness and mitigation while sustaining and further improving post-disaster relief, recovery and rehabilitation capabilities; (b) to prepare and formulate the National Disaster Management Plan and the National Emergency Operation Plan based on the national policy and program formulated.

Why shall the Act to be put into Operation?

First of all, the so called presidential task forces and other mechanism are working on ad hoc basis. There is no designated persons, official to take the responsibility of the operation to prevent the disaster. There are allegations that present arrangement is not transparent, not open and has been unable to grasp the policy issue at its entirety. To put it simply, the various task forces appointed by President to man the epidemic have been unable to deliver what is expected while there are allegations that they have programme to make money and other benefits for selected groups of people while making burdens on others and the majority of the people. The presidential task force headed by Army Chief and its approach has been dismally failed to prevent spreading the disease. It is been blame with substantial evidence that it has been failed to act on time and appropriately and is responsible for allowing the disease to be spread throughout the country and letting it out of control largely due to its militaristic approach. Handling of disease is not like handling a military operation and it requires cooperation of many and hearing to different perspectives and expertise of different professions. It also has been unable to cultivate trust among the public and seems that the public has started to resist governmental measures of policy and  ultimately to joking of them.

Besides, there is allegation of mishandling of Covid fund and misappropriation. This is a movement in which a single paise shall not be wasted. It has to prevent misappropriation of public resources by disaster capitalists much common in the context of epidemics. The best way for the public at this movement is to demand President Gotabaya to implement fully the provisions of disaster management act and assure transparency and create public trust and look at policy issues from different angle. Such an public demand is worthy and due because, multiparty advisory council would prevent calculus officials, ministers and other persons succulent desire to accrue benefits through various misdeeds even amidst a humanitarian disaster of large scale. It is because very composition would prevent government hiding information from the public, enable the government to take into account unheard and politically dismissed points of view in designing and implementing policies to overcome the disaster.   

If President is not fulling the provisions of the act into operation by way of declaration of disaster and emergency, it will amount to a violation of public trust vested in his office. Further, the presidential task force and other measures adopted to handle the situation are extra-judicial and has no legal footing and without proper mechanism to assure democratic accountability. If the mechanism envisioned in the disaster management act is put into operation, the confidence and trust of the public would increase while letting the government to act efficiently and effectively and in an accountable manner. It is the duty of the educated to educate public of this necessity to demand president to put the disaster management act into operation. I beg all the stakeholders of Sri Lankan Government to rally together and demand president to put provisions of the above act into operation to assure healthy lives of the Sri Lankan.

*Writer is the Professor of Political Science, University of Peradeniya.

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