By Kumar David –
There was unreserved public support for stringent measures including a 24-hour curfew, at times all Island at times in four Districts. In large measure these initiatives have succeeded; and trains ran on time in Mussolini’s Italy. In the last seven days new cases average about four a day (presumably ‘quarantinees’) and deaths have stalled at eight. If new cases are ‘quarantinees’ use of the term Community Transmission is misleading. If the stringent curfew in four and meaningless part-time curfew in other districts is relaxed a spike is unlikely. Public education and restriction of public gatherings of more than five and prohibitions like Vesak celebrations will have to be enforced. Phased curfew relaxation in Colombo, Puttalam, Kalutara and Gampaha should begin at once and curfew in other districts eliminated altogether. Is there a guarantee of no more outbreaks? What a stupid question, of course not. That’s why a phased and controlled approach is needed.
The government has an obligation to weigh harm to people’s daily lives and damage to the economy versus the risk of renewed outbreaks if the curfew is rolled back. There is no official public discourse – I suppose that’s not the way they do things in the army. Pain is considerable in less well-off classes; hardest hit are the daily-paid – labourers, masons-carpenters-plumbers-electricians, street vendors, 3-wheeler wallas, workers in SMEs, and small contractors who flit from place to place on one-of jobs. I know many in these categories and their refrain is the same: “If we don’t work, our families don’t eat!” Another wept “I have six mouths to feed and have had zero income for weeks.” An angry groundswell is building up; big-shots, in between sips of scotch, have not weighed up the odds.
Damage to the economy from the freeze on production and exports is colossal. 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. It’s a little better now. The longer factories and businesses stay closed the harder to get up to steam again. The bootlegging-market that de-facto prohibition set off is growing. You thought Aapa Sira was the last of the imbeciles? Think again. Half-bottle of good arrack was on offer in the Nadimala and Kawdana areas for Rs 5000 for Aurudu. When prohibition is relaxed, the queue will stretch from Grandpass to Gallebuck. Once it started, bootlegging in the US took years to bring under control. Actually, it was never eliminated, the cartels switched to drugs.
Verite Research’s Media Analysis (20 March to 5 April) provides a thorough English summary of Sinhala and Tamil press reports of pro and anti-government views on the COVID issue; it’s well worth a good read.
The middle-classes are not having it easy either. Vegetable, grocery, fish and fowl vending vans are expected to circulate but they are too few. Why are the authorities not encouraging competition and issuing a larger number of mobile vending licences? Are corrupt persons with decision making power making a buck out of licencing? In some closed-block communities, private security or Resident Committees limit vendor access without appreciating that competition brings better quality and lower prices.
Some political parties parade as expert opinion makers. One is the GMOA which is contesting elections on the Rajapaksa-alliance ticket. Its office-holders parade on TV as experts but it’s a political outfit intent on maximising its own electoral odds like any other. Don’t be fooled!
The most important reason for phasing out the curfew are threats to civil liberties and democracy. The current president has a history and preference for a military approach to all things. Absurdly, the Army Chief, not a top civilian, has been appointed boss of curfew decisions. Worryingly, Parliament stands dissolved. This is not an encouraging time for civilian and constitutional supremacy. Lal Wijenayake says in the e-magazine Malima of 5 March that the government has surreptitiously activated Clause 12 of the Public Security Act and been able to avoid bringing it to Parliament within 10 days as required by law. The President also declared that “judiciary, parliament and officers should not hinder the activities of the president”. This makes his autocratic intentions clear. Could this be a dress-rehearsal for worse to come?
Phase-out the curfew!
Cooperate to defeat COVID-19
Restore supremacy of civilian power