By Mass L. Usuf –
Condemned to poverty by birth and condemned to death by destiny. This is the long and short tale of the three women who fell victim to a human stampede. They were part of the sudden surge of people who rushed to receive the give-away by a charity minded person. Their quest was not for self-aggrandisement or extravagance but to seek temporary relief from damned poverty. Several others also had been injured in this incident which was reported to have taken place on 21st May 2020, in Maligawatte, a locality with a high population density, in the District of Colombo.
The timing and the manner in which this charity hand out had been organized is a matter for the law enforcement authorities to pursue. This column is aimed only at examining the causal background for this disaster. The stampede being the proximate cause.
In political philosophy, there is this hypothesis called, the social contract. Historically, a compact between the ruled and their ruler, defining the rights and duties of each – in today’s terms the government and the citizens. The latter voluntarily trading obedience and, to some extent their freedom, in return for being taken care by the State.
The social contract idea has jurisprudential implications wherein the concept of rights and the limitations that may be legitimately placed on them assume relevance. An interesting analysis can be made in this context vis a vis the continuing state of lockdown. The confinement of a people against their wishes and the consequential fallout socially, economically, mentally and the general wellbeing. Of course, no one discounts the fact that it is of utmost importance to take appropriate measures to wipe out the pandemic.
Successive Government Failure
Apparently, an evaluation of the micro-economic resilience of the people when under lockdown has not taken place especially, of those who are self-employed, daily wage earners etc. The action plan of the Authorities should have considered the economic vulnerability of such people and, those bordering on destitution? Proper planning would have addressed the issue of how they were going to cope, self-organise and adapt to this new situation?
As is seen in many other countries, we too have a State system which is welfare based. Therefore, as a responsible government it should ensure proper health, education, employment and most importantly, the social security of its citizens. Special focus has to be given to the citizenry who are unable to avail themselves of the minimal provision for a decent life. Again, an opportunity for a critical analysis of the impact of the lockdown on the meaningful functioning of a welfare state.
What is Social security? One description is “any government system that provides monetary assistance to people with an inadequate or no income”. If adequate monetary assistance had been provided during the lockdown, people would not have suffered financial constraints. Moreover, they would not have gone to receive the tuppence that was given as charity?
Sri Lanka embraced the welfare state concept way before independence providing food subsidies, free rice, free education, and free healthcare to all. Due to inefficiency and persistent corrupt practices an effective system failed to take root. This systemic failure is not the responsibility of this government alone but of all previous governments too.
Truth About Maligawatte
To properly understand the Maligawatte incident it has to be seen in this background. It will be an understatement of the truth and an undermining of intelligence to superficially examine this event from an ethnic angle or only as violation of curfew laws or as irresponsible behaviour at a time of pandemic.
The problem of not providing the citizens their basic necessities for a reasonable living knocks hard on the door of this failure. Let’s defer for the moment the other areas of health, education, transport, infrastructure etc. for which it is responsible. The public is reasonable in asking, to what extent has the responsibility of the State been discharged?
Which reigns supreme, necessity or the law? Consider the priority of a person whose stomach is burning in hunger or the grief-stricken mother who gives the teat instead of food to satisfy hunger of her crying baby because there is no baby food. Would not they say, “damn the exalted law?” Where does one strike the equilibrium in this moral conflict? Consider the humanitarian issues faced by the people who are deprived of their living under locked down. Unable to venture out for work to earn their daily bread to feed themselves and their families. This condition has been continuing for nearly two months.
They ask, “what do you expect us to do? Are we to die at home along with the family or look for whatever possibilities that will satisfy our hunger?” How will the mother whose breasts are dried of milk because of lack of food, breastfeed the crying infant? What does one expect from that mother other than finding some means to feed herself and the infant? If Covid 19 may kill, hunger certainly kills. Of what concern is the law for those in this predicament. How reasonable is it to stringently enforce the laws on such people without adequately providing for them? To hell with social contract and welfare state, the sufferers would say.
The local grocer has ceased giving groceries because the outstanding had not been settled for over a month. The loan shark is demanding his interest for the loan taken for consumption. The landlord is abusing the tenant for non-payment of the house rent. The sick is struggling to buy his compulsory medications. The fear of the accumulated water and electricity bills. What does one expect these people to do?
Studies have found that financial-related stress can increase anxiety, depression and physical issues such as headaches, backaches, ulcers, increased blood pressure and more.
Is it not reasonable for a person who is shackled by poverty, burdened by responsibilities and deprived of livelihood because of the lockdown to rush at anything that will relieve him? It would be like seeing a flicker of light when in absolute darkness. The public questions if the responsibility of this calamity falls squarely on the government for its failure to holistically address the issues attendant to a lockdown.
In the United States, the Washington Post screams with the headline, “Coronavirus is harming the mental health of tens of millions of people in U.S.,” (02.04.2020). In May, the tracking poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, reported that more than 56% of Americans say the pandemic has affected their mental health. The report states of negative mental health effect including trouble with eating or sleeping, drinking alcohol, headaches or stomach aches, shorter tempers, etc.
We have no such institutions to conduct tracking polls on the mental state of our citizens. The Americans live a decent life compared to the quality of life of the Maligawatte residents. The latter live in heavily congested surroundings, large families in confined spaces, with no proper access to water, sanitation, etc. Add to this the impact of the lockdown and consider what their mental state must be.
This issue relates not only to Muslims of Maligawatte but, also, to all others who have been deprived of livelihood. If someone wants to see co-existence and tolerance in practise, here is the place. There is a mixture of Sinhalese, Muslims, Tamils, Malays etc. in this locality. There are the inevitable occasional neighbourhood quarrels but, in general, they live in harmony. Maligawatte is a cosmopolitan area.
It is necessary to create the proper environment for people to live in, before expecting them to be civic minded citizens.