By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
A sizable percentage, if not the majority of the country’s intelligentsia, opposed Gotabaya Rajapaksa‘s candidacy for the Presidency. The former Secretary Defense and, subsequently, also for Urban Development, acquired a reputation between 2005 and 2015. ‘Strongman’ and ‘Dictator’ were some of his uncomplimentary nicknames. Some tried to prevent him from contesting the Presidential election on the basis; he had yet to surrender his American citizenship.
Nevertheless, he overcame all obstacles. The verdict of 6.9 million voters was emphatic. Minor and minority parties accustomed to considering themselves kingmakers were proven wrong.
Since assuming office, President Rajapaksa’s modus operandi has been anything but that of a ‘strong man’ or ‘dictator.’ The country’s first non-political President, known as an efficient administrator, has conducted himself more like a politician. He vacillated when decisive action would have been preferable. That said, he could not have won the Presidential election without the support of his brother and his cohorts of the lotus bud party. Thus, the need to appease them with populist decisions.
Nevertheless, few in this country will disagree with sentiments expressed recently by political commentator Prof. Kumar David. He opined, “Had cockless Ranil been in charge, the nation would be at sixes and sevens. Clueless Sira would not know the difference between a virus, a viper, and a windscreen wiper.” It was in the context of COVID-19 (C-19).
Most other countries mobilized their military only when the situation went from bad to worse. Sri Lanka commenced battling C-19 by tasking the military with the handling of logistics and quarantine enforcement. In the lead was the Acting Chief of Defense Staff and Army Commander Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva. Among other things, it is an indication; the military is the only institution in the country capable of handling a crisis. Given the country’s broken-down administration, it is not a misplaced assumption. Even those who make unsubstantiated allegations of Gen. Silva being a ‘war criminal’ have accepted his lead role.
Sri Lanka is currently in Stage 3, sub-category 3A, known as Home Cluster, probably in the threshold of entering Stage 3B, known as Village Cluster. Stage 4 is where community transmission occurs and can ultimately lead to the creation of a pandemic situation within a country. Countries such as Italy and Spain are in Stage 4.
Unlike western countries (even they are reeling under the virus), our country’s health system is not geared to cope with the virus in the communal stage. What we would do with 2 ICU beds per 100,000 persons when Italy could not manage despite having 12.5 ICU beds per 100,000 is mind-boggling.
The worst affected countries have not introduced curfew but have opted for strict lockdown mechanisms. Citizens are permitted to visit supermarkets and pharmacies in the vicinity.
Sri Lanka, with its relatively low infected rate, has clamped an island-wide curfew, lifted periodically for eight hours in some areas, and indefinitely imposed in other areas including in the capital Colombo. It is an indication, what suits other countries, especially Western democracies, is not necessarily suitable for Sri Lanka. Different methods are necessary if we are to come out of this pandemic without reaching the ‘communal stage.’
It has much to do with the lawlessness of our people.
Given the country’s poor infrastructure in the health and many other sectors, measures introduced were halfhearted, too little and too late. Nothing much was done when the virus was sweeping across the Hubei province in China. The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where the virus originated, was closed on January 1, 2020. Wuhan announced the first virus death on January 11 and the second on January 17. South Korea, along with several other countries, confirmed cases over the following days. The first two deaths occurred in South Korea on February 20 and 21, while Italy reported the first confirmed C-19 case on January 31. It reached Cluster Stage in Lombardy on February 21, and the first deaths occurred on February 22.
Despite these early signs, Sri Lanka geared itself for parliamentary elections and made merry without introducing necessary preventive measures. Mandatory screening of incoming Chinese, South Korean, and Italian passengers did not commence till March. Chairman Civil Aviation Authority announced strict screening for all incoming passengers without exemption only on March 12.
That was one day after the first Sri Lankan, a tourist guide, was diagnosed with the virus on March 11. He had contracted the disease from a group of Italian tourists he had accompanied earlier on.
A ban on Italian tourists from entering the country was not implemented until March 13 despite Lombardy being in Stage 3A (Cluster stage) by February 21.
Meanwhile, we were busy playing ‘big matches.’ One is unable to fathom why the President did not issue a directive to cancel all cricketing encounters scheduled in March.
The Head of State himself visited the annual Ananda-Nalanda encounter played on 7/8 March.
With a calamity such as the C-19 at our doorstep, a strong man does not make requests. He issues directives. The President claims organizers ignored his request to cancel the Royal-Thomian cricket match. Perhaps, the numerous ‘prominente’ attending the cricket match, including former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Presidential sister-in-law and former first lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa, may have been part of the reason for a ‘request’ rather than a directive.
Some groups of Sri Lankan expatriates returning from South Korea and Italy and some pilgrims returning from India are known to have avoided the quarantine process. Some of these returnees, especially from Italy, are known to be die-hard supporters of the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the GMOA worthies demanded a ‘Risk Allowance’ to carry out screening work at the airport. Armed Forces doctors were handed over the job.
The President’s indecisiveness was visible in the implementation of the initial public holidays from March 16 to 19 and curfew since March 20. A ridiculous situation arose when Sri Lanka Railways staff refused to sell tickets due to the need to handle cash and possible infection. The knee jerk reaction of the government was to permit ticketless travel. It failed to declare railways an essential service and dismiss any staff not performing their duty. Not for a moment did the government think of Conductors in Private Coaches collecting passenger fares handling cash. They would starve if they did not. This stupid decision resulted in hordes of persons embarking on pleasure trips enjoying free travel to the beach etc. It negated the public holidays declared to make people stay at home to avoid social interaction to minimize the spread of the virus.
Another blunder of Himalayan proportion was the handling of the gathering of people in places of religious worship. The Chief Incumbent of Sri Pada Bengamuwe Dhammadinna Thera openly defied a Presidential request to halt the pilgrim season. His lack of understanding of C-19 is evident due to his comparison of C-19 with pilgrims braving wild animals and local diseases in the past. Once again, it was a ‘request’ rather than a directive. We have since heard of religious congregations in mosques and at least one church in Jaffna. A Swiss Pastor of Sri Lankan origin attending a mass in Jaffna on March 15 has proven positive since his return to Switzerland. He has mingled with several hundred persons during his visit to Jaffna. Having received a ‘fit to fly’ certificate at the BIA on March 16, he tested positive for C-19 three days later in Switzerland.
President Rajapaksa could have issued a directive to the Chief Incumbent of Sri Pada. Refusal to comply would have been enough grounds for his immediate arrest. It would have also given the government the necessary legitimacy to jail any other Priest, Pastor, or Maulvi violating regulations on public gatherings without being accused of bias to Buddhism.
Some politicians are demanding the reconvening of parliament after the annulment of the dissolution. It will only result in parliamentarians, their aids, drivers, and security officers assembling with total disregard for social distancing. All they would do is to get in the way of the Presidential Task Force, Armed Forces and Police besides wasting precious time.
Now is not the time to do things the democratic way after debate and consensus. Tasking the military rather than a civilian outfit to manage logistics and the Police to enforce the quarantine from day one is a reflection of this reality.
It is pointless to summon parliament to resolve the government’s funding problems, which will kick in on April 30 due to the absence of an approved budget.
In case the President does not have the necessary constitutional powers to enforce all the required measures, he must have them for the duration of the crisis. That includes the declaration of Emergency and even Martial Law if required.
It must be understood; such measures will be applied strictly for the management of the C-19 crisis and not for other politically motivated purposes. The Tajudeen, Lasantha Wickrematunge, Udyanga Weeratunga court cases, and similar investigations must not be tampered with and should continue once the crisis has passed.
Those who pine for democracy in current times should take note of the visual of the tragedy in Italy published herein and ponder – is this what they want? We could either keep debating and gradually move to Stage 4 and beyond or do what it takes to overcome C-19 and debate on democratic governance another day.
President Rajapaksa must be his own man and not anybody else’s shadow.
A grateful nation would give him his cherished two-thirds majority, should he bring Sri Lanka out of C-19 with a minimal number of deaths. On the other hand, what would be good for the nation in such an event is to give him a decent working majority in parliament but not two thirds.
Often, democracy works like a dredger, bringing up a lot of dirt and sludge from the depths and depositing them in high places. Our political structure is one such example. In a society of uneven education and social structures, the price we must pay for democracy is enormous.
Lee Kuan Yew’s concept of a ‘guided democracy’ was a happy compromise.