By Uditha Devapriya –
A whole flood of fake news, factoids, predictions, and doomsday prophecies is coming out on the spread of the virus in Sri Lanka, and it’s not coming from racists and nationalists. On the contrary, what was once the opposition – at least the more populist sections of it – is busy spinning news and trying to dampen the government. At one level though, it’s a sign of the changing times that while the more right wing faction of the opposition – led by the irrepressible Ranil Wickremesinghe – has opted to support the government, the populist section – led by Sajith Premadasa – is desperately attempting to outdo the government on its efforts at containing the virus. Farcical slipups by the ruling party are thus followed by farcical slipups by Premadasa: Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s “salmon and dhal” fiasco, for instance, by Premadasa’s mixing up of Plaquenil and hydroxychloroquine.
The Premadasa faction seems to have lost steam, while the Wickremesinghe faction is as of now staying put, sleekly pledging allegiance to the ruling administration while distancing itself from any rumour that the two have decided to get together. On the other hand, almost every initiative taken by the government – the distribution of essential food and medical supplies, the taking back of 33 Sri Lankans stranded at airports all over the world, and relief measures and debt moratoriums implemented to prevent a total collapse of the economy – are being turned into a rumour-mongering exercise by sections of the former opposition. For instance, images of Sathosa spice packets bearing a floral insignia were shared on social media by those accusing the government (the ruling party of which has the lotus bud as its logo) of violating election rules, when it was just a brand logo, and the UNP and the TNA are demanding for parliament to be reconvened.
Such party driven criticisms do not, as they should not, preclude legitimate criticisms that can be made of the government’s program, like the slackening pace at which essential items are being distributed; the at times huge differences in the prices of those items from region to region (here in my hometown in Madapatha, for instance, carrot was selling for Rs. 120 a kilo, whereas in one suburb along the Piliyandala Maharagama road not too far away it was selling for Rs. 540 a kilo), as yet unlooked into by authorities; and the justifiably worrying concerns of daily wage earners. Debates over whether parliament should or should not be reconvened aside – the government’s rejection of it reeks of political gain as much as the Premadasa faction’s calls for it – there is no doubt that the virus is bringing up questions which, in the context of any other crisis, would have been resolved quickly, like the question of dispersing the military into and among public life.
On the other hand, while supporters of both the Wickremesinghe and Premadasa factions of the UNP are busy ramping up their defiance of the government on social media, and while some of them are no doubt spreading rumours of government pilferage which are as of yet unconfirmed – putting them on par with the Islamophobes spreading vicious factoids about how race has become an issue in the fight against the outbreak – the populist tendencies of both factions have come out. Premadasa’s earnest demand that the government recommend and distribute Plaquenil no doubts looks sincere (it recalls similar onstage stunts pulled by him in the run up to last November’s election), but more sincere, and less stunt-like, was Palitha Thewarapperuma helping out with distribution of food. In a context where both the government and the former opposition are vying to return to the good books of the people, Thewarapperuma has become a likely hero: likely, because this is just the latest in a series of populist stuns he has been pulling off since 2015.
Moreover, while they have been busy trying to make the government answer for its lapses, Premadasa and his cohorts have been careful not to tread into too many controversial areas. The Sunil Ratnayake episode indicated this quite well. In ordinary circumstances, a soldier accused of murdering eight IDPs, including four children – an action which by itself should put to rest any attempt at exonerating him – being released in the midst of a crisis ought to have been called out for what it was. But it was left to the TNA to censure the man at the centre of the controversy, as well as the fact of his release; the UNP’s populist faction, on the other hand, has been content in condemning the timing of, and the procedure used for, his release. No doubt this illustrates the strategy of the Premadasa-ists, as seen with their response to the US State Department’s travel ban on Shavendra Silva. So confused has the Premadasa faction’s critique of Ratnayake’s acquittal been that a leading Premadasa-ist MP, predicting in January that the army staff sergeant would be pardoned, had to publicly clarify his take on the matter to a leading TNA MP on Twitter.
COVID-19 is the first major crisis of the 21st century and the new millennium, on par with the series of pandemics that began with the Black Death in 14th century Europe and ended, for the time being, with the flu of 1918. The latter affected Sri Lanka considerably, wiping off (according to one study) 6.7% of the population: roughly 307,000 people. The numbers of the dead and the infected from COVID-19 are nowhere even remotely near such figures, but what we’ve been able to contain can be upended by unregistered cases; many of the deaths reported so far have been from outside quarantine centres.
Because it’s too early to tell, it’s difficult to conclude as to what effects the virus will have on regional and global geopolitics. Conflicting accounts are emerging: liberal publications in the US are predicting that life might never return to normal, while those on the extreme right, and the radical left, are predicting the same for different reasons: the extreme right because it believes the US administration should regain its lost horizons, and the radical left because it sees in the unfolding of the health crisis the unfolding of the contradictions of global capitalism. Then there’s the hard neoconservative interpretation: that since the virus originated there, the world must sue China. One US lawyer, a “pettifogger” from the Reagan administration as the Chinese Embassy here describes him, candidly states in an interview with a local English daily that Sri Lanka must hold China to account.
Quite apart from the fact that no one considered suing regions from which similar outbreaks emerged in the past – like the Middle East in 2012 – this smacks of Sinophobia. China has as of now mobilised industry in an unprecedented way to donate medical supplies to nations that have been estranged from regional blocs: like Italy, which has tried futilely to get those supplies from EU countries that have persistently refused to give them. The irony of the EU not being able to step up its efforts at asserting its unity in this crucial moment was not lost on Brexit supporters, who were, while oblivious to the state of neglect the NHS has fallen to since the Thatcher years, grinning and cheering on social media over news of the EU falling apart: news that no doubt confirmed and justified their bias against being part of the Union. Thus even at the height of an NHS crisis, Boris Johnson, like Scott Morrison of Australia, seems to have regained a lost halo: cyclists bearing get-well-soon messages for Johnson in London, if nothing else, points that out pretty well.
It’s at one level a triumph of nativist over internationalist politics. It’s also a triumph for both China allies and China haters: the Italian government has stopped tentatively short of thanking China for its support while critiquing the response from the rest of Europe, while mainstream publications like Foreign Affairs are excoriating it for exploiting the pandemic for geopolitical gain. That obviously begs the question: what country, in the history of the world, has not stepped into offering an exit route out of a crisis without, yes, exploiting it for geopolitical gain? Certainly not the US, and certainly not Britain, where a think tank has argued that China should be sued for $ 6.5 trillion.
Shrill cries for damages from the Chinese government aside, all these are symptomatic of another trend: in a world where the West is fighting a battle with a virus that it lost a long time ago, it’s engaged with a secondary battle to regain the pre-eminence it lost to the virus a long time ago. Thus it accepts medical supplies and ventilators from China while accusing that country of accidentally releasing the pandemic from a laboratory. Trump’s short-lived decision to call it the Chinese virus was an attempt at appeasing xenophobic voters, most of whom were out of harm’s way – in rural parts of the US – but who are now coming to terms with the outbreak and the president’s mishandling of it.
While it’s still too early to predict the world that’ll come out once the contagion is over – for many countries, even the worst affected, the curve has begun to flatten – it’s reasonable to suppose that China will gain an upper hand early on. I mentioned earlier that we are seeing a triumph of nativist politics. With China, and Russia, winning the game, we might see another transformation: from idealisations of the liberal, secular state to a Hobbesian, sovereignty-takes-precedence political paradigm. I leave an assessment of that for my next essay. In the meantime, it would do well to ponder a while on it.