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