27 September, 2020

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Dissent In The Time Of A Pandemic

By Mahendran Thiruvarangan

Mahendran Thiruvarangan

The world is in the middle of a pandemic. We see young and old die without proper medical care. We see people losing their jobs all over the world. There is already a food crisis in many countries. What we are witnessing is as much a socio-economic crisis as a medical crisis. The virus cannot attack us indiscriminately, for the world it has entered into is a world where some enjoy stronger economic and political immunity than the others. This immunity generated by nation-states, neoliberal globalization and societal exclusions shields from the wrath of the virus the powerful, the haves and the ones who worship the right god/s, speak the right languages and live in the right territories. Therefore, our medical responses to this crisis cannot be isolated from the social alternatives that this crisis has made us search for.

Dissenting against structural inequalities that worsen this pandemic for marginalized populations is an important exercise in this regard. A virus should not deter us from asking vital questions about democracy, coexistence and social justice because it is our failure to uphold these values in earnest ways in the past that has aggravated this crisis for the marginalized in all our countries. I frame dissent in this piece as a form of political inquiry that can help us understand and explain the ways in which structural exclusions organize the trajectories of the pandemic in specific geographies and the kinds of alternatives that communities need to envisage. This is reason enough why dissent should be brought to the center stage, even as we should follow the reasonable instructions issued by states to control the pandemic. 

I try to characterize in this piece the kind of dissent that is necessary during these grueling times by explicating some of the socio-political developments I have seen in Sri Lanka since the onset of the pandemic. Although each country or each region is affected differently by this crisis depending on its socio-political makeup, and therefore the dissent in each context may take a specific character, I write this piece in the hope that bringing the experiences of people from different parts of the world to common platforms will allow us to learn from one another’s situation and explore the kinds of alliances that we need to build in order to address the current crisis and the deep structural fissures amidst which it is unfolding. 

Firstly, our dissent should study the impact of the medical and legal regulations that those who claim to manage the pandemic, the state in particular, have issued. These regulations do not operate in a vacuum; instead, their impact is felt unevenly by the citizens correlating to their socio-economic location. In the case of Sri Lanka, there are pre-virus factors like lack of investment by the state in public health, disempowerment of local, small-scale businesses, negligence of rural economy, and precarities surrounding the lives of the workers that make any medical or legal regulation implemented by the state in a putatively uniform manner all over its territories uneven and lop-sided. 

From a medical point of view, recent writings on the pandemic emphasize that more testing centers be set up to halt the virus in its tracks. Sri Lanka should increase testing centers so that more people could be protected from this disease and prevented from transmitting the virus to others. There is also a need to run more testing centers in rural areas so that people from rural areas do not have to travel long distances to get themselves tested for the virus. The economic fall-out of the pandemic has hit the poor and the working classes in Sri Lanka disproportionately. Due to the closure of factories, workers from the free trade zones are returning to their homes in the hinterland with little or no money to support their families. Many of them are women. Plantation workers have been left without any solid economic support. Domestic workers and those who act as the driving engines of the rural economy also find it difficult to meet their daily expenses either due to short-term unemployment, social-distancing or lack of opportunities resulting from lock-downs, as in the case of farmers, to sell their produce at reasonable prices. The state cannot be allowed to fail these groups during this acute crisis. Our dissent should first and foremost be a clarion call for the state’s robust interventions in these areas.  

The pandemic landed in Sri Lanka nearly four months into the presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. His image as leader of the Sinhala-Buddhists and unwavering defender of the country’s armed forces contributed significantly to his victory last November in the Sinhala-majority districts of the country in a context of growing disillusionment among the people at the economic policies of the previous regime. Since the inauguration of his presidency, the new regime has been taking strident steps to further militarize Sri Lanka. Taking advantage of the pandemic, the regimes tries expand the military’s role into sectors that do not generally come under its purview. The military today plays a key role in monitoring the movement and interactions of those who recently returned to Sri Lanka from overseas, providing relief to the people and administering law and order. Exploiting the ongoing crisis, the President granted a special pardon to a former army Sergeant convicted by the country’s judicial system for the murder of eight Tamil civilians. The mechanisms of surveillance newly introduced or expanded following the outbreak of the pandemic may well outlast the pandemic itself and be used by the state to crush any opposition to it in the future. A dissident critique of these developments is necessary to sustain democracy (or at least the idea of democracy) during this pandemic. Even as some of these emergency mechanisms may be necessary to control the spread of the pandemic, the state must be held accountable as to the immediate and future roles of these apparatuses. 

Sinhala nationalist forces in Southern Sri Lanka and Hindu reactionary elements in the North have set in motion vitriolic campaigns against Muslims and Christians, portraying these minority communities as complicit in the spread of the coronavirus. In violation of the guidelines issued by the World Health Organization, a Muslim man who died of COVID-19 was denied burial rights by the state. The state has issued a circular which requires the remains of all those who die of this disease be cremated regardless of their religious beliefs. There have been complaints from areas where the minority communities live in large numbers that the relief provided by the state has not reached them at all or is woefully insufficient. In the multi-ethnic North, one strand of response to the failures of the state is presented in Tamil nationalist terms, prioritizing the needs of the Tamils while alienating the numerically smaller non-Tamil populations in the region that have also been affected by the crisis. These majoritarian trends produce the pandemic as a communally inflected crisis in Sri Lanka. Dissent in such a context should target the state and non-state actors who manipulate the pandemic to achieve their sectarian goals. 

Dissent is also important to imagine alternative futures that will better prepare us to face crises like the one caused by the pandemic. Neoliberal globalization and xenophobic citizenship laws have made economically marginalized populations, workers, and undocumented immigrants in countries like the USA susceptible to the virus. In Sri Lanka and in many other countries, anything that is seen as global is treated with skepticism and fear today and there is a growing eagerness among many towards going local. Economic self-sufficiency has emerged as a key frame to envision futures that contrast globalized economies responsible for the dispossession faced by downtrodden populations. While there is much to gain from prioritizing local production and reviving agriculture-based economies, self-sufficiency may easily degenerate into an exclusionary frame, unless we imagine selfhood as non-sovereign, culturally pluralistic and irreducible to ahistorical purities. If the self in self-sufficiency generates anti-immigrant, anti-minority and anti-labour sentiments, as it does in many parts of the world during this pandemic, then it is already a failed narrative. 

A dissident alternative must rupture both existent transnational capitalist systems and xenophobic, narrowly nativist alternatives floated in the garb of self-sufficiency. What the virus has taught us is that despite the inequalities that characterize our world, we are in many ways dependent on one another as individuals and communities for our survival. The inter-state solidarities that we have witnessed during this crisis as, for instance, in the case of Cuban doctors reaching out to support Italy’s health care system are examples that we need to cherish. A rallying cry that has emerged from many countries during this pandemic is that we need free, universal health care systems. It is noteworthy that Sri Lanka’s free health care system has helped its people and medical professionals face the early stages of the pandemic with confidence and hope. But the speculation that the country’s medical system will be confronted with grave challenges if there is a spike in the number of patients tells us that there is much more that the state needs to do in terms of improving its health sector. 

For the health and happiness of the planet, we have to act in the direction of re-distributing our resources and wealth in ways that benefit those on the margins. That is in essence building a new world order that celebrates collective acts of caring, sharing and re-distributing. We need healthy dissent to craft this alternative even as we face a pandemic raging across our planet. 

*Mahendran Thiruvarangan teaches English at the University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka. A slightly different version of the article appeared in The Wire on the 10th of April 2020

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Latest comments

  • 7
    0

    The writer addresses important issues that deserve a greater response than is evident so far. One is that the present crisis calls for a universal response from a common platform. Those of us better off, saw how in a few wild weeks, even in the absence of war; our certainties, pensions and savings could be rendered void. A worsening of the crisis would reduce us all to the same level of want, where only a rigid socialism animated by democracy could maintain peace.

    The other tendency is militarisation, consolidation of narrow power bases, breaking the world asunder into dull and arid sovereign states, where free expression is a crime.

    If the world has not gone to pieces under the pandemic, it is partly because the elite are tied to globalised financial markets where war would be catastrophic for all. But this system founded on selfishness is also wasteful, destructive and polluting. Pondering this dilemma may be a road to unselfishness.

  • 1
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    How can technology be used as a toll for good? I am glad that despite all its abuses, platforms such as FaceBook, WahtsaPP, Viber etc., and websites such as youtube have become a critical avenue for spreading newly discovered knowledge very quickly around the world – despite the inherent inequality of access to digital resources.

    It is incumbent upon those of us who are lucky to be computer literate to help share that new knowledge with those that do not have digital competence.

    I can just imagine, how this pandemic would have easily lead to worse outcomes such as race riots and lynch mobs – had there not been an avenue such as television for the health experts to directly reach out to the populace. During the economic downturn in the 90s for example, thee were reports of killing of women labeled “witches” in Indonesia who had been accused of sorcery to bring about the crises that were decimating their economy leading to mass starvation.

    While I am grateful that we seem to have a competent and science-based response to the crisis in Sri Lanka – mainly due to to president’s leaning on experts -I know that empowerment of the armed forces might lead to abuse of power, unless there is a clear and transparent mechanism to prevent such abuse.

    Let’s hope that we learn lessons of cooperation, and mutual-reliance as a survival strategy in surviving this crisis – this might be a new beginning for Sri Lanka. A chance to identify as Sri Lankans and not narrow ethno-centrists.

  • 4
    0

    Good read, many thanks.
    In times like this many in hierarchical settings — Post Masters, Professors and Presidents — will grab for themselves unreasonable decision making powers which they will refuse to give up when the crisis is over. Dissent is crucial. On small and big scales.

    • 0
      0

      Thankfully, we have only one President. How many professors have grabbed decision making powers, reasonable or otherwise? Postmasters?
      The names alliterate well though. Good Job.
      *
      It may help to understand the reality of Sri Lanka to recognize the categories that do exercise decision making powers and will do so for long.
      The names of some categories will also alliterate well.

    • 0
      0

      “The inter-state solidarities that we have witnessed during this crisis as, for instance, in the case of Cuban doctors reaching out to support Italy’s health care system are examples that we need to cherish.”
      Good that you reminded people about Cuba.
      It is not really doctors reaching out on their own, but the socialist state reaching out. (The Cubans have excellent educational and medical systems, which train people to care for the community, and humanity as a whole.)
      There are a few other countries that people like to forget except when they want to hurl abuse.
      *
      Whatever happened to European fellowship?
      *
      The crisis is in the system of medical care which war wrecked by conservative regimes in country after country.

    • 1
      0

      “The inter-state solidarities that we have witnessed during this crisis as, for instance, in the case of Cuban doctors reaching out to support Italy’s health care system are examples that we need to cherish.”
      Good that you reminded people about Cuba.
      It is not really doctors reaching out on their own, but the socialist state reaching out. (The Cubans have excellent educational and medical systems, which train people to care for the community, and humanity as a whole.)
      There are a few other countries that people like to forget except when they want to hurl abuse.
      *
      Whatever happened to European fellowship?
      *
      The crisis is in the system of medical care which was wrecked by conservative regimes in country after country.

  • 0
    2

    “Sinhala nationalist forces in Southern Sri Lanka and Hindu reactionary elements in the North have set in motion vitriolic campaigns against Muslims and Christians, portraying these minority communities as complicit in the spread of the coronavirus. In violation of the guidelines issued by the World Health Organization, a Muslim man who died of COVID-19 was denied burial rights by the state. The state has issued a circular which requires the remains of all those who die of this disease be cremated regardless of their religious beliefs..”
    Rajan Hoole, Thiruvarangan, SJ and other UOJ PhD are so anger with Hindus, but not with Satchi- the Lankawe Siva Sena. Thiruvarangan has no anger with Satchithanantham; I yet to read him writing about Satchi; all his anger is on CV, the Northern Ex CM. 5:5, balanced journalism Thiruvarangan writing this to make everybody to feels it was Hindu Reactionary elements taking 50% responsibility of cremating Muslims bodies by Sinhala-Muslims government. Ulama Party Mubarak has said it is reasonable Old King showing angry on Muslims because Muslims are not voting enough to Slap Party. Ali sabre, who is going be the Justice Minister, just like Hakeem was in Old Royal government, is saying he talked with the President and it is ok to cremate Muslims’ body. In that circumstance where is Thiruvarangan finding fault on cremating Muslims body on reactionary Hindus? It is Northern governor, a Slap Party candidate, a Christian, first blamed Aanduwa sending a fake pastor with police protection without testing for Corona. Where the Hindus are coming here? Aanduwa is the spreading the Corona in Jaffna, Puttalam, Akkurana, Batticaloa and other Tamil – Muslims’ areas. In Colombo many thousands are stranded from outsides, especially Up country people. In the North Deva assigned to take care of outsiders.

  • 0
    1

    There have been complaints from areas where the minority communities live in large numbers that the relief provided by the state has not reached them at all or is woefully insufficient. In the multi-ethnic North, one strand of response to the failures of the state is presented in Tamil nationalist terms, prioritizing the needs of the Tamils while alienating the numerically smaller non-Tamil populations in the region that have also been affected by the crisis. These majoritarian trends produce the pandemic as a communally inflected crisis in Sri Lanka. Dissent in such a context should target the state and non-state actors who manipulate the pandemic to achieve their sectarian goals. “ Can Thiruvarangan bring out to light who are using the pandemic for their political purpose other than, Thiruvarangan, Theva, Ankajan…… ? Jaffna is not considered multi-ethnic town. Further it is resented if Deva, Angajan click distribute the aides, needy would not not get it.
    “ Neoliberal globalization and xenophobic citizenship laws have made economically marginalized populations, workers, and undocumented immigrants in countries like the USA susceptible to the virus. “ Thiruvarangan, an English graduate, has no knowledge in Economics, would be better off not mixing “Neoliberal, globalization, and xenophobic citizenship “in the same line. . If he doesn’t have the capacity to know what is apple and what is orange then he will be better off with a lime or lemon. He should stop speaking Kathirgamar Socialism, same way like Thero De Silva has to quit Cuban Communism. In 1948 Lankawe disenfranchised 1M Tamils and later sent them to India. Kathirgamar or Thiruvarangan never talked about it

  • 0
    2

    For what the heck government is using Rapist Army Jack boots in Jaffna; For some time there were no Covid-19 patients identified. Government sent the pastor to spread virus, but he failed. Why there is curfew in Jaffna?
    Why these UOJ guys are blabbering a lot but not talking about it?

  • 0
    0

    I read, in the indirect form, Usual uncooperativeness, In -subordination, Superiority complex which says, they say, what ever we do or say, they should reach to us and should give prominence to our welfare. How unfair it is.
    If you lived in a well developed country, you are responsible for your pwn ends. Here, you can complain. But for the last forty years what is your contribution, not to the country, but to your own society. You only ask from the country and you talk about your superiority because you are from the minorities.
    Never appreciate what you get.
    Military was scaring when you were brutal, deadly and were scaring others. Since then they worked hard to change that mentality. Why do you can not change that mentality. What causes you to retain that mentality ?

    • 0
      2

      You got scared when Ramanathan went through the First World War cannon balls to England on ship and had Racial Riots criminal Don Stephen out of prison so you disenfranchised the Tamils? went on rampage and pogroms annually?
      Softy, congratulations, not for you have beaten the Son Prince in arguing your first court case, but this time managed the CT’s sword.

  • 0
    1

    This article shows any lack of emotions, ignorance about the world around you, instead of every thing talk about only the me and my every thing which is around; should live without anything missing. Completely superiority complex, eternal minority victimization and me…me..and me… only . complex.
    Please read, very hard to do that, in a different mind set and in a different perspective.

  • 0
    0

    Aanduwa planning to capture all Tamil cultivational lands in North & East. It is having problem of feeding 150,000 estimated Rapist Army soldiers in those area. Army is holding large swath of private farming lands and selling the vegetable produced in those lands for the owners of those lands.

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