By Jehan Perera –
The battle against the COVID virus is becoming more protracted and requiring of greater sacrifice than originally envisaged. This is leading to correspondingly increasing tensions in society, especially in the hotspot districts including Colombo, as the curfew gets extended and daily wage earners find it more and more difficult to sustain their families. So far there has been little or no manifestation of dissent against the serial extension of the curfew. Due to intense media coverage the gravity of the crisis has become embedded within the public consciousness. People appreciate the government’s concerns about limiting the spread of the virus, which their concern as well.
However, the challenge of physical survival is coming to the fore. Those who had hardly any savings to begin with, and were daily income earners, are facing a crisis. In order to sustain themselves at the present time they are being forced to rely on either their relatives living nearby or patrons to give them support in this time of crisis which is through no fault of their own. Many persons of goodwill and means are generously stepping forward to help. But reliance on personal relations, goodwill and charity is not a substitute to the state’s commitment to meet the needs of the people. There is a lacuna in this regard as the government is cash strapped.
At the outset of the lockdown, the government allocated Rs 5000 to all those who have been on the official poor relief scheme of Samurdhi. But with the curfew entering its third week, there are larger numbers of other people who are falling into the category of needing assistance. The government needs to find ways and means to put money into the hands of these people. The Prime Minister’s office has directed that local level government officials should identify those needing such assistance. But so far those vested with the responsibility of providing them with resources have been approaching local level businesspersons to obtain their charitable assistance rather than utilizing government money to do so.
The government has allocated Rs 10 million per district to assist those deemed to be in need but who are not Samurdhi recipients. However, if this is divided amongst the needy population, with estimates ranging up to about 100,000 per district it will be found to be a relatively small amount. The government could also do a mapping and publish lists of institutions and localities where assistance is urgently needed. Until such time as the government is able to mobilise more resources for distribution, it would be constructive if political leaders led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa could make public appeals over the media, and also directly, to businesses and to individuals with means to make a special effort to financially support those identified institutions and localities during this crisis period.
The increasing difficulties experienced by people are also reflected in the rise of often vicious criticisms on social media that are targeting those who are COVID victims and those who are believed to be from communities more likely to be infected, whether they be returnees from Italy, airline staff or Muslim pilgrims. This is a continuation of a phenomenon that has been gathering strength over the past several years, especially with the rise of social media, and which peaked with the Easter bombing last year. However, as seen by the spread of the COVID virus globally it affects members of all races, religions and economic classes equally so that cooperation both internationally and nationally becomes of utmost importance to control the epidemic.
Such cooperation at all levels will diminish to the extent that there is mistrust and spread of hatred which is to everyone’s detriment. Another problem to overcome is to remove the stigma attached to the COVID virus that prompts affected persons to seek to hide their illness from others. The fear of being stigmatized has induced some infected persons to seek to mask the true nature of their illness from others. These non-disclosures have led to the shutting down of hospital units that got exposed to the virus as a result and to the spread of the virus within communities. There have been several such instances reported in the media over the past weeks.
In a salutary act of social responsibility, which is often risky for a politician seeking election, former JVP parliamentarian Bimal Ratnayake publicly called upon the government health authorities to issue guidelines to all media institutions to avoid racist, xenophobic and prejudiced reporting on patients, people under quarantine and health professionals. This has been followed up in an exemplary manner by the Director General of Health Services Dr Anil Jasinghe who issued a set of guidelines that requested all media not to mention the ethnicity or religion of the people being subjected to quarantine or those who are patients or who succumb to the virus.
The Health Ministry guidelines specifically request the media not to report in a manner that will instill hatred in any community about those who are infected. It further states that by doing so the potential infected persons may not present themselves to the health services out of fear of public anger and social stigma. The Ministry further said in order to get those infected to the hospitals early, an environment had to be created that they were not criminals and this virus was not a crime. In addition, the Health Promotion Burea which is also in the forefront in fighting the pandemic in Sri Lanka has also urged people who have developed symptoms to seek medical attention immediately so that lives can be saved and a spread can be prevented.
The government and its agencies, in particular the health services and military, need to be given credit for the professional manner in which they have been approaching the task of COVID control. They have to keep the forces of racism and hatred at bay, when these are now becoming worldwide challenges and not just in Sri Lanka. A message circulating on social media and said to be from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa states, “It is of utmost importance first to ask ourselves what we could offer our nation and the government at this time rather than complaining about the responsibility of the government towards us…” It follows through with ten can-do things, with the last one being to “Leave aside caste, religious and ethnic differences and come together as Sri Lankans…” Whether the president said this or not, this universal spirit will be needed to rebuild Sri Lanka after the COVID crisis is contained.