By Ravi Perera –
Across the world these are dismal times, a highly contagious pandemic runs amok, curtailing movement, bringing in its wake an economic slow-down, adversely impacting the lives of millions. Some countries are better equipped than others to face this unusually difficult challenge. Countries with strong financial reserves can withstand prolonged emergencies, their economies are less vulnerable to work stoppages and even if economies slow, can financially support their people. Countries with high quality administrations can also rise to the occasion better, able and motivated public officials are an advantage when in crisis. Having followed sound policies for decades, the Developed countries are also blessed with other advantages when facing a pandemic. Several of them have the necessary knowledge as well as the capabilities to develop and produce effective antidotes, as events show, a tremendous bonus in an unexpected health crisis such as the Covid-19 threat. Every Developed country may not produce the vaccine, but have the wherewithal to procure them without difficulty.
Even a casual examination will tell us that the Sri Lankan situation is perilous. The country is hugely in debt to foreign lending agencies, our currency is in a near free fall, a double jeopardy for a small country crucially dependent on imports. Two of our major income sources, tourism and foreign employment, are grievously hit by the pandemic. Many a breadwinner is unemployed today.
In the preceding decades, several Asian countries transformed their economies, becoming successful export hubs, raising their industries to global competitiveness. We have however continued as a net agricultural exporter, with a sprinkling of relatively low-tech industries such as garments and basic accessories. Here too, newcomers like Bangladesh and Vietnam have now stolen a march over us.
When confronted with harsh realities it is the nature of many to wish them away, glossing over their obvious inadequacies by denial, even resorting to fantasy. A make-believe world is far preferable to the hurtful truth of unsuccessful ambitions and botched ventures. Only a few have the courage to face the truth of their failings. While our unhopeful record may bring to question the competence of the nation to achieve its goals, grandiose talk becomes an irresistible drug, a useful escapism. Every bad news is dismissed as propaganda of hostile sources, attributing one’s own lack of truthfulness, to all.
Further we fall behind, deeper the country’s economic ills, more intractable its social dilemmas, louder it seems, our claims of success. Hardly a day passes, without someone claiming a high achievement of a global magnitude. This can be illustrated with a hypothetical example. Our team to the Olympic games will be tiny (much smaller nations, have bigger contingents), many of our athletes will fail to achieve even the qualifying standard to participate, there will be no medals to show, but we may claim an achievement- the largest contingent of officials per athlete!
To say that everything is relative, is trite, but nevertheless true. One’s perception of people and events is conditioned by many factors, the observer seeing them through a culturally conditioned mind-set. A leader we consider above average, may well be just about average, or even below average in different eyes. An organization/institution that looks formidable from the local point of view, may be considered wanting, or even pitiful to another way of seeing. With every national disappointment, with every lost day, we realize that our “truths” are not necessarily, every bodies “truths”.
Our daily life is made up of hundreds of everyday scenes. What we personally make of them is subjective, however, collectively, what everyone sees, make up a day, in a story of a nation.
The other day, I saw on the local media some photographs of a Covid-19 related inoculation exercise. A few elderly women who had come for their Covid-19 vaccine were being helped by medical assistants prior to the injection being administered. Having stood in a long line for a considerable period, the women were visibly tired. The assistants, in the globally recognized uniforms of medical staff, were helping them to walk the last few steps.
Explaining the pictures, the reporter described the medical assistants as “Gods walking on Earth”
This is an everyday sight in nearly every medical facility in the world. These are professionals, trained and paid to help those needing medical assistance. A reassuring atmosphere plays a pivotal role in the healing process, reputed health providers around the world pride themselves on their empathetic approach to patients. Besides, assisting a weak or sick person is basic human benevolence, requiring no hosannas. On the contrary, it is the opposite that ought to concern a society, when a simple bread and butter act of assistance becomes unusual, a matter to be highlighted in hyperbole.
In this country, there are very regular references to the concept of “god”, generally in the plural. Although none can claim personal contact, the gods are endowed with supernatural powers and are also attributed with superior human virtues. Just like us puny humans, “gods” have strong emotions, and, can also be angered or appeased. To the reporter, those female health assistants guiding the old females who had stood long hours in the sun, represented “gods” on earth.
The other scene that left an impression on my mind recently was a random military check point near Narahenpita. In that dilapidated urban sprawl, a few armed soldiers were stopping vehicles on a main road for what looked like a routine questioning of the driver. As I was driving in the opposite direction I only caught a brief view of the exercise. That image struck me for several reasons.
In their neat uniforms, with their military posture, the soldiers contrasted sharply with the surrounding shoddiness; the noisy traffic, small shabby shops, grotesque billboards, blackened overhanging cables, zig-zagging tuk-tuks, overloaded lorries belching black smoke and the endlessly hurrying crowd; poorly and harried. The young soldiers had an air of men apart, those who had escaped their accustomed condition; impressive outfit, shinning boots, sleek automatic rifles on the ready, crackling radios conveying constant messages, the powerful four-wheel drive vehicle that could take them out of the run-down surroundings in minutes. There was nothing sub-standard about their equipment or dress, down to the cap and epaulettes, undoubtedly everything was of foreign origin.
We do not know if these check points have borne results, thwarted potential terrorists or drivers without their license. Generally, in other countries, the military is there to counter foreign threats, the alien is the enemy. When your own army is on the road, it is either a huge crisis (like the Covid-19 inoculations) or a sign of deep going social instability. In this country there is no right to bear arms, very few people have firearms, fewer still can shoot straight. Since 2009, we haven’t seen a single situation where guns were immediately needed to bring under control.
Since those far away days of 1948, we have been grappling with endless social issues, confounded by a very mediocre economic performance. Presently, all our hopes are placed on creating a financial hub in Colombo, promoting ourselves as a centre of peace, stability as well as ability and advanced skills.
The road to the promised land, two images; gods and soldiers, a nation in desperate crisis. Seventy years of waiting in hope has exhausted us. In our enervated state, even recent images are blurred, clarity is lost, the two images interweave, gods are soldiers or soldiers are gods?