By Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka –
Nobody denies the need for a rigorous ‘lockdown’ to prevent transmission of the Coronavirus from person to person and so arrest the spread of the disease. However it is necessary to make a sharp distinction between a carefully calculated ‘lockdown’ with a human face that constrains people to stay at home, and a callous draconian ‘lockdown’ which reflecting a foolish tunnel vision by the authorities is cruelly insensitive to other basic needs essential for human survival. The extended curfews running into several days in Sri Lanka if not weeks ( as in India) are an example of the latter, where people might well wonder (allowing for a bit of hyperbole) whether they are expected to slowly die in their homes sans food and drugs rather than quickly die of Coronavirus in a hospital ! Indeed if it came to such a macabre Hobson’s choice I suppose a good case can be made for arguing that the latter would be preferable to the former. But that is beside the point.
Anyone who watched the recent speech by the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing a series of tough measures to ‘lockdown’ the UK could not fail to observe the contrast between a sensitive head of state respectful of the painful implications of the ‘lockdown’ for his people, and the clumsy ham-fisted approach of the Rajapaksa government which thought nothing of slapping down an indefinite curfew oblivious to the desperate need of families to purchase essential food items and medicines.
Sadly it has been reported that Boris Johnson himself has just tested positive for Covid-19. Johnson is a good man and sadly in this world bad things happen to good people and vice versa. It is possible that millions of beleaguered citizens across some of the 195 sovereign states in the world might now and again entertain the guilty wish that their own evil rulers had contacted Corona virus in place of a good man like Boris Johnson ! In the event Johnson exhorted his countrymen to stay at home with people being allowed to leave home only for four extremely limited purposes which included “shopping for basic necessities as infrequently as possible”. Otherwise the severe restrictions put in place on community life were of an order that would make it useless to leave home anyway.
By contrast the government in Sri Lanka recently took the crude option of declaring a continuous curfew for 3 days leading to an explosive build up of public need to replenish domestic stocks of food and medicines. Needless to say the dam burst when the curfew was lifted for a few hours, leading to thousands spilling on to the street and languishing in long queues outside shops in a manner that was entirely counterproductive to the original intention that the curfew should limit human contact. Furthermore the stress, frustration and sheer physical exhaustion of standing for hours struggling to buy much needed supplies of groceries and drugs in the hot sun could lower resistance and put people at risk of other health problems, quite apart from the enforced risk of catching Corona virus by standing in a crowd.
And needless to say there is not a ghost of a chance that ordinary citizens caught up in the furious struggle for basic necessities will enjoy the consolation of seeing their high and mighty rulers and cabinet ministers sharing their travails in queues and crowds. Neither would they see the faces of those who having recently handed in their nominations for the 2020 election would in due course be begging for their vote. Nor are such queues ever adorned here and there by a splash of colour representing the vociferous saffron robed elite ! No, in our culture these are the privileged classes who will always be well fed and medicated whatever the curfews and ‘lockdowns’.
That was last week. But worse was to come. We now have the horror of an ‘indefinite curfew’ where people are permanently imprisoned in their homes with no freedom to go out and purchase basic food and medicines. This is totally unacceptable as a population strategy whatever the imperatives in Corona virus control. The call for people to use ‘whatsapp’ on their smart phones and order their food and medicines is laughable. It may be good enough for the sophisticated rich and the affluent middle classes, but as a population strategy it is cruel and impractical. It reflects the trashing around of an incompetent government that is out of touch with reality, with faint echoes of “if they have no bread, let them eat cake” attributed to Marie Antoinette !
Even so in the early days the unsustainability of Indefinite curfews that imprison people in their homes without food was shown in the police turning a pragmatic blind eye to those few citizens who had the temerity to venture out and drive around during the curfew looking to garner a few provisions from the odd trader here and there who may have something to sell. But it would seem that now the government has ruthlessly clamped down on that aberration as well.
So what is the solution ? The right way is to follow the British example and shut down everything with the solitary exception of supermarkets pharmacies and small shops selling groceries fruits and vegetables. These should be open from early morning until late evening as usual or even longer. There being no curfew, shoppers for basic food items and medicines will spread themselves out throughout the day eliminating queues, and with no crowding social distancing will occur naturally. With everything else shut down there would be nothing whatsoever to be gained by hanging around in public places which in any case can be discouraged with effective policing. People will naturally go back home and stay at home with adequate food and medicines without the fear of starving to death ! The result will be an effective ‘lockdown’ with a human face that can continue for many weeks if necessary. It will be conducive to civil peace without the build up of public discontent, depression, frustration and fear that could in the worst case scenario spill over into food riots as people begin to defy curfews and storm food outlets in desperation.
The imposition of a draconian rather than a humane ‘lockdown’ reflects the ‘over kill’ of a gung-ho surgeon who confronted with gangrene of the toe amputates the whole leg just to be on the safe side. Such over-reaction is not surprising coming as it does from bumptious rulers with a militaristic mindset and scant regard for justice and human rights, who can never quite get over the arrogant self regarding paranoia of having played a part in winning the war on terror by killing off a human enemy. The problem is that the Corona virus is a biological enemy they can’t kill in the same way since scientists have not yet discovered the required magic bullet. Nor is the government justified in riding rough shod over the sensibilities of this new lethal enemy’s potential victims ostensibly in order to protect them, as it might have done in the war on terror when those at risk were driven into ‘no fire zones’ with the assurance that they were to be safe havens.
Nevertheless when all is said and done the draconian curfews might yet be tolerable notwithstanding the cost in suffering and inconvenience to ordinary people, provided the public could rest assured that the policy was based purely on the considered advice of the best medical experts in the country, rather than being the gut reaction of a government with a military mindset that listens to its own henchmen in the health sector. Sri Lanka is fortunate to have many outstanding highly qualified and experienced Board Certified Consultants in Public Health. They include specialists in Epidemiology some of whom have served in the World Health Organisation, as well as many distinguished Professors of Community Medicine. In addition there are medical scientists and researchers who are highly specialised in other relevant disciplines like Virology, Immunology, and Molecular Biology.
Was this magnificent resource harnessed, their voices heard, and their recommendations heeded by the government in its draconian response to the Corona virus threat ? The public have a right to know. Or are decisions taken and policies formulated by powerful men with one eye on their political future who lean on the military for guidance and dominate an insipid intellectually mediocre cabinet ? Have such men been working closely on a day to day basis with the prestigious ‘Advisory Committee on Communicable Diseases’, or have they been adviced by fawning sycophants with a feudal mindset who are afraid to speak up and instead tell their masters what they like to hear ? Have they been unduly influenced by the strident voices of medical trade unionists who in better times never cared a damn that patients might suffer and die when doctors go on strike ? And have they paid too much attention to the opinions of stray ENT surgeons who have little understanding of communicable disease, public health strategy and epidemiology ? The public have a right to know who exactly calls the shots in this national emergency, maestros or mediocrities ?
The world has entered a dark and frightening phase. There is a fate worse than death caused by Coronavirus. Amidst the crashing economy, collapse of institutions,widespread social disintegration, complete disruption of the way of life of populations, and the consequent spread of fear, distrust, disillusionment, and confusion in human communities – the stage is set for a breakdown of law and order and the proliferation of a spirit of cynicism leading to anarchy in society. That could be a fertile milieu in which ruthless opportunists and heartless politicians can seize the waiting opportunity to reach for absolute power promising to bring order out of chaos. One hopes and prays that Sri Lanka will be spared such a fate.
No doubt governments need to take tough unpopular measures. But these must be humane rather than draconian. They must be firmly based on sound science and represent the considered judgment of the best brains in the country. They must be socially sensitive, practical, equitable, and reflect a true understanding of and caring concern for the real needs of a suffering public. Consideration of the suggestion made in this article replacing the rigors of an indefinite curfew that regards people like criminals under house arrest – may be a good place to begin. These are the worst of times for the nations of the world. Let it not be said of any nation that it was also saddled with the worst of governance.