By Kumar David –
Last week in this column I wrote how much greater damage prolonging the lockdown does to people’s lives than the calculated risk of dismantling it while, of course, keeping intelligent controls in place. Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan managed the epidemic excellently but never indulged in blanket curfew because wise leaders, not a cabal made decisions. Singapore neglected its sardine-packed camps of cheap foreign labourers and is now paying the price. China despite early blunders licked the virus by taking political control. But who is running the curfew-show here; Gota and his Cabinet or a cabal (Health Services’ Jayasinghe, Army’s Silva and IGP Wickremaratna)? The initial draconian overreaction was forgivable, but now when a nuanced and calibrated approach is needed Lanka’s decision-makers are out of their depth.
The 24 new cases detected on Monday (20) were all people already in quarantine*, hence curfew makes no difference. Extending the curfew up to April 27 because of this detection is asinine. Some 5000 buses and 400 trains are to start running and 50% of people to work from home. Where will they run to and from? Will people be arrested if they alight in ‘curfewed’ zones? How can daily-paid labourers, street vendors, masons, carpenters and 3-wheeler guys work 50% from home? (*Daily Mirror 20 April: “Health Services Director Jasinghe said all were reported from those in quarantine in Bandaranayakpura”).
What sense does it make to lift curfew in Wellewatte, Havelock Town and Colpetty but not in Bambalapitiya? Curfew in Kohuwala but not Pilyandala and Nugegoda. The schedule for complementary SLAF helicopter rides hopping over Bambalabitiya and Kohuwala has still to be released by our highflying authorities! (For curfew zones click here)
How many administrative districts (of SL’s 26) have not confirmed a single case outside detention centres (non ‘quarantinees’) in the last 10 days? The majority. How many have not had a single non-‘quanantinee’ case in the last five days? Data is as rare as turmeric, but say twenty-two. Why then in pluperfect heaven are these districts under curfew or partial curfew for weeks and the lives of day-wage earners and families made hell? Why the devil did we need to lockup the whole nation if only the cases within quarantined facilities increased? It seems the authorities have an even lower IQ than god gave me. Hong Kong, Taiwan and S Korea have blazed the way in which crowd control, restrictions on gatherings, airport monitoring and cordoning of pockets were effectively used. Ours is a donkey’s curfew with no nuance.
Harm to people’s daily lives and damage to the economy is colossal. Pain is considerable in less well-off classes; hardest hit, the daily-paid – labourers, masons-carpenters-plumbers-electricians, street vendors, 3-wheeler wallas, workers in SMEs, and small contractors. An angry groundswell is building. In the US mass street protests, mostly right-wing groups, have erupted against ‘stay-home’ orders which are far less draconian than our curfew. Regarding damage to the economy 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. The longer factories and businesses stay closed the harder to get up to steam again”. Big shots don’t care; they don’t even discuss issues and trade-offs in the public domain.
The pretentiousness of Lanka’s political parties is obvious. None care about the people. All are agog with elections and their own prospects. President, Cabinet and Sajith are all election focused. This curfew must go whether it suits Gota or it doesn’t suit Gota, whether it suits or does not suit Sajith. It must go because it yields little additional benefit in limiting virus spread but does harm to people’s lives. The President’s Media division decreed in dictatorial tones: “Travelling to and from the Colombo, Gampaha, Kalutara and Puttalam Districts is completely prohibited for every citizen”.
The government wants quick elections for certain reasons and the opposition, for the same reasons, or rather the obverse of the same reasons, wants delay. The regime calculates the feelgood effect of Gota’s victory is still alive. Secondly this country like many others is soaked in racial-religious enmity and GR is the beneficiary of a gush of mass Sinhala-Buddhist (SB) feeling. Third, some folks say GR handled corona well and there is electoral benefit to be gained.
Racial and religious prejudice are here to stay. GR-MR-SLPP are assured of a majority of the SB vote for the foreseeable future and will do what it takes to consolidate it including pardoning anyone who slit the throats of children provided they are Tamils. The outpouring of SB cheer for the pardon was overwhelming. Whether elections are held now or in three months the results will be much the same. If Gota revokes the March 22 Gazette and holds elections in August the results will not be much different but it would let the country return to a degree of normality. Right now people want free movement and food; who wants elections!
The feelgood factor will last as long as the economy does not go into tailspin and the same goes for the brownie points scored in handling corona. People put up with loss of income and the mess created by the curfew because they accepted the pandemic as an ‘Act of God’. But the worst is still to come. The economy will do badly in the next 18 months. The World Bank forecast says the SL economy will contract by 0.5% to 3% in 2020 – yes shrink. But the worst is 12 to 18 months away.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Nothing in this piece is intended to denigrate the achievements of thousands of frontline health workers tirelessly striving to arrest the pandemic or the efforts of foot-soldiers and policemen on the ground coping with the tough job assigned to them.
End the Lockdown!
Let the People Work and Eat!
Damn Political Opportunists of all stripes!