By Dayan Jayatilleka –
What would Secretary to the Ministry of Defense – and now, President—Gotabaya Rajapaksa done in wartime if he were confronted with the idea that the war effort should be led by a civilian and the Defense Ministry should have a civilian doctor who had served in the volunteers? He would have reacted to that absurd and dangerous suggestion with more than his usual good humor. Well, that’s exactly what he has done in the case of the war against COVID-19. Why? Because the model is more important than the result.
Why are the most credentialed medical and scientific minds in Sri Lanka not brought together in the presidential task force which fights the pandemic?
While it was reassuring to notice Prof Neelika Malavige attending the President’s conference a week back, why isn’t this Executive Committee member of the International Society for Infectious Diseases (ISID), award-winning expert on dengue, and holder of six medical degrees (five from the UK) including a DPhil from Oxford, heading the national anti-COVID-19 Task Force?
To my mind, no one has been more consistently accurate about the Corona crisis than (Harvard and Oxford educated) Dr. Ravindra Ranan-Eliya. Why isn’t he on the Task Force either?
Because the pandemic is being used to install a certain model and to get the citizenry accustomed to a certain way of behavior; a certain way of being.
In his article entitled ‘Reaching the Limits of Managing the Crisis’, Dr Ranan-Eliya goes to ‘code red’ and tells us what is at stake.
“As a country, we’re in a moment of great peril. More than at any time during this pandemic.
Unless we shift course, single-mindedly focus on the critical issues, and make the correct decisions and implement them decisively, we face not only an out-of-control epidemic, but economic disaster…”
He compares us unfavorably with the other places that have experienced a second wave. “…We should have understood that we were…in a much more dangerous epidemiological position than that faced to date by the successful countries…none of these other nations– China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Vietnam – have seen such a large outbreak since crushing their first waves.” (Ibid)
Dr. Ranan-Eliya tells us this second outbreak was entirely predictable, and why it happened.
It was not primarily the fault of the public, as President Gotabaya charged, blaming the victim citizenry, at his conference on Sunday Nov 1st 2020. Dr Ranan-Eliya gives a more reasoned explanation: “In Minuwangoda, we were dealing with cases in people living in numerous different locations, living with other people, and with all the normal types of interaction with friends and family that we have taken for granted since we were told that COVID-19 was defeated in our blessed island. The subsequent rapid spread of the outbreak to numerous locations across the island, several becoming new clusters of their own, was entirely predictable.”
To me, what is most crucial is the huge hole he points out in the approach and thinking of those in charge:
“…as I wrote months ago in this newspaper, we were not in the top category of countries tackling COVID-19, whatever international agencies told us. We need to look at how the really successful countries have managed this and learn from their strategies…”
Back in mid-May 2020 Dr Ranan-Eliya and his team had processed the data coming from Johns Hopkins and produced colored graphs that showed the true state of things. (‘“Eliminating” … “crushing” COVID is possible and these countries are the Superstars’, Daily Mirror, 15 May 2020) We weren’t among the ‘superstars’, but regarded ourselves as right on top.
For this regime, it is more important to believe in its model of governance, its system, than to “seek truth from facts” as was Deng Xiaoping’s motto. The regime does not see the need to “look at how the really successful countries have managed this and learn from their strategies…” because it is an article of faith that Sri Lanka under the present leadership is the “really successful country”, and it is felt to be more important than anything else to keep the faith in this postulate, whatever the empirical evidence to the contrary. Nobody dares to contradict the new model, still less “learn from the strategies” of “the really successful countries”. In consequence, we may be running the risk of a Corona Chernobyl.
The current Sri Lankan model is one which is derived a priori from a sense of superiority stemming from a mix of having won the war (again, falsely listed as the only or the first victory over terrorism, at least in the 21st century) and the innate superiority of the Sinhala-Buddhist culture, civilization and way of being. To question the results on the basis of evidence, i.e. the successes of the model, acknowledge defeats and failures, and “shift course” as Dr. Ranan-Eliya urges, is to question the sacrosanct model itself and verges on heresy and treason.
This is evidenced by a recent controversy. There was was a joint statement by a group of women’s organizations and labor organizations (including one I recall, founded in 1984, the Dabindu collective) about the insensitive and arbitrary character of the military evacuation of women workers for quarantine. It was unexceptionable that the military contradicted the story, though it would have been far better practice in winning hearts-and-minds in civic action, to have had a friendly sit-down with the signatories.
What is most distressing and potentially dangerous is that the military statement proceeded to venture the hypothesis that the critical statement could be the precursor of a conspiracy to come: “…apparently to suit different agendas of interested parties or those who act as forerunners of hidden plans of action”.
The danger here is that if any legitimate criticism is deemed illegitimate because it is critical of the guardian deity, the military, and implicitly critical of the model, and the Establishment’s assumption—hardly hidden, but rather, publicly stated—is that such ‘disinformation’ could only spring from subversive intent, then the response will inevitably be repression, which will not only polarize the social and political situation but will impact negatively on Sri Lanka’s international image, thus damaging our export markets.
The upshot of the rough and clumsy handling of the whole matter is that it has since made the international labor publications such as Ecotextile magazine.
As a former Chairperson of the ILO who worked with the iconic Director-General Juan Somavia (comrade of the late Salvador Allende) when the ILO launched the famous ‘Decent Work’ campaign, I know how perceptions of the treatment of labor, which simply cannot be kept hidden, impact on public opinion and legislators in those parts of the world in which labor standards and the treatment of labor matters.
The model will persist because it will be persisted in, both an article of faith and a monument to the infallibility of the ruler and the ruling stratum, the new power-elite.
Why is this irrational attitude being persisted in, not only on the Corona front, but also in foreign relations, the economy etc.? To answer this, we must identify the mentality and outlook, the way of thinking, of the regime. Evidence is forthcoming in a long post from the Facebook of one of the most influential figures in the Gotabaya camp, a GR confidante and an architect of the successful project of GR as President.
I refer to someone with whom I have enjoyed a most cordial acquaintance, the youthful media magnate and charming corporate personality, Dilith Jayaweera. He addressed an audience at the University of Moratuwa on Nov 5th, criticized Mathematics, and urged that we return to the wisdom of our grandparents. (Keynote Speech at The International Conference on Business Research organized by Business Research Unit, Faculty of Business at the University of Moratuwa.}
In October he delivered a speech and posted a long tribute on the 75th birthday of Prof. Nalin de Silva, currently (and most appropriately) Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Myanmar and one of the two founders of Jathika Chinthana (‘National Thinking’) which shapes the ‘Gestalt’ of the GR camp’s psychology.
Dilith’s long post has a key sentence referring to his first encounter with Prof Nalin de Silva’s ideas at a lecture the latter delivered: “It was titled Vidyaavey Kalaava (විද්යාවේ කලාව) and you so convincingly imparted the idea that modern western science cannot inspire new thinking. It just encouraged one to by-heart subjects to pass exams.”
This illustrates why the universalist outlook and methodology of science is not the guiding light of the Gotabaya camp and regime. Their guiding doctrine is that there exists such a thing as “modern western science” which “cannot inspire new thinking”. Jathika Chinthana is an intellectual version of QAnon.
By contrast, the truth is that while there is such a thing as ‘modern science’ and there are Western, Eastern, Northern and Southern contributions to science, some of which, quite unfairly, are ignored or downplayed sometimes, there is no such thing as “Western science”. There is Science. Which is universal. If anything is universal –and universalist, as well as universalizing– it is science.
What is so-called Western science counterposed to? Eastern science? And what is the superior alternative to “modern western science”? “Ancient Eastern science”? Though justly proud of their own contributions to science, China, Japan, India and Vietnam certainly do not use the category ‘western science’ to distinguish it from any other brand of science, and they do not regard “ modern western science” as one in which you are “just encouraged one to by-heart (sic) subjects to pass exams”—which is why top Asian, and especially Chinese, scientists have been educated at elite western universities, institutes and centers.
Russia which has produced a vaccine against Covid-19, has done so through “modern western science”. Cuba, which has made contributions to advanced medical science has not done so with a notion which rejects or is critical of ‘modern western science’ which is why, in the midst of the US embargo, US medical institutions are in Cuba, working on joint projects. There is no country on earth which has rapidly modernized and developed while holding such absurdly negative notions of a construct they call “modern western science”.
As for its inability to inspire new thinking”, the three most respected thinkers in the world today (widely differing in their perspectives), Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson, are products precisely of “modern western science” in the broadest sense and in their respective fields.
Inspired by Jathika Chinthana —a perfect example of what Nietzsche extensively described and denounced as expressions of “ressentiment” (resentment)—no wonder the regime does not do the rational, logical, scientific thing of figuring out the success stories in the Corona-busting campaign worldwide and studying the lessons of those ‘superstars’, so as to apply these ‘best practices’ in Sri Lanka.
This unscientific or pseudo-scientific metaphysical ideology is the prism through which the regime sees everything. No wonder the fight against Covid-19 isn’t going well.