By Sarath de Alwis –
In Lockdown land our present is blurred. Our future is shapeless. The purposes of today’s essay is intended for those poised to inherit this land. Naturally it includes my six grandchildren. They must be reminded that what we take for granted today as a basic human right – ‘universal health care’ was an ideal that was passionately resisted by market economics and all so called parliamentary democrats and professional physicians. Until the advent of universal health care, disease was an economic opportunity. Medicine was a service to be paid for by the afflicted.
This essay acquires an added urgency. Last evening, I had a remarkable conversation with a great Civil Society activist. He never ceases to extol the virtues of freedom and liberty. In our exchange yesterday, he reminded me of the corrosive side of human nature – that refuses to concede the inherent evil of creating wealth in the hands of a few driven by the motive of profit as the end game.
The poor learned man totally missed the point so effectively made by the virus COVID-19. Proliferation of the damned infection is not profit driven!
The very word virus has a masculinity of its own. It only needs a good advertising triad to market a hero who could rescue the damsel in viral distress.
I return to the subject of the essay. The British Prime Minster Boris Johnson has been cured of the viral infection. On leaving hospital he made a statement.
“I am leaving hospital after the NHS saved my life”, he told the British People. He described his recent encounter with Covid-19 as “an experience which could have gone either way.”
I posted this videoclip together with the BBC report on my Facebook page with the comment: Boris the Tory must remember Nye Bevan the Welsh Miner who created the NHS.
To my utter total shock, two young friends responded ‘never heard of Nye Bevan looked up google, very interesting.‘
I thought everybody knew Nye Bevan. We live and learn.
Aneurin Bevan the Minster of Health of the post war labor government is the man who framed, formulated, and founded the ‘National Health Service’ of Britain.
In the course of time, it became the gold standard for state funded universal health care in all parts of the British Empire then quietly on the path to self-rule.
Aneurin Bevin is one of those rare politicians who did not die. He lives, even today in Britain’s national health service.
I can think of two Sri Lankan parallels. C.W. W Kannangara who lives in our system of free education and T.B. Illangaratne who lives in our largest pension fund the EPF.
Just as our Kanangara and Illangratne, Aneurin Bevan too is not to be found among the remembered gods of hired historians. They continue to inhabit the breathing breasts of the toiling masses.
The phrase ‘toiling masses’ is important. The state considers Corvid 19 to be the one great existential hazard. To the toiling masses, it is only one of many hazards – a point that seems to escape the profound minds of our ruling elite.
Aneurin Bevan was the Minister for Health in the post-war government of Clement Atlee. It was this government that granted independence to India and Sri Lanka.
The son of a coal miner, Bevan was a ferocious defender of social justice and the rights of the working class. A phrase now so out of fashion with the residual remnants of our left.
As a coal miner and the son of a coal miner he knew the price of breathing dust and dirt.
“Illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay, nor an offence for which they should be penalised, but a misfortune the cost of which should be shared by the community.”
“How can wealth persuade poverty to use its political power to keep wealth in power? Here lies the whole art of Conservative politics in the twentieth century.”
Aneurin Bevan was born on 15 November 1897 in the coal mining town of Tredegar in Wales. His working-class family had first-hand experience of the problems of poverty and disease. Unlike those of a Vasudeva or a DEW Gunasekara his socialist credentials were part of his genome.
Bevan left school at 13. That was what was expected of him in pre-world war Britain then presiding over a vast empire. He began working in a local colliery. He became a trades union activist. He was fortunate to win a scholarship to study in London. It was during this period that he was drawn to the idea and the promise of socialism.
During the post-depression General Strike of 1926, eight years after the 1918 pandemic, Bevan emerged as one of the leaders of the South Wales miners. In 1929, Bevan was elected as the Labour member of parliament for Ebbw Vale. In 1934 he married another Labour MP, Jennie Lee who is remembered for abolishing theatre censor ship and the founding of the open university. She authored the book ‘My life with Nye.’
The idea of a free National Health Service was born when Nye Bevan held his dying father in his arms.
The man who later became Britain’s greatest ever socialist politicians quietly whispered, ‘Got to do something about this, can’t go on like this.’
Aneurin Bevan was the most remarkable socialist leader in the English speaking world in the 20th century. In my student days Michael Foot’s biography of Aneurin Bevan was a must read to understand what socialism held for the future.
Now in lockdown melancholia, I recall the day, the month , the year I read which book any by whom. This is time threatened by the virus to look back at things done and also things that were left undone. I don’t remember who said it. But it is worth reembarking it. “We cling to the present out of wariness of the past”.
These are confusing times. I watch the 7 o’clock news on TV channel ‘Derana.’ It is not because I want to be informed of the truth. I watch ‘Derana’ Channel because I want to know the truth I have to live with.
Nowadays, I rarely leave the reassuring comfort of my desk top computer.
But trapped in this satisfying solitude I recall Aneurin Bevan who made it possible for Boris Johnson to survive the virus. Then I remember our own Dr. N.M. Perera who distributed ‘parippu’ to the starving malarial peasantry in the ‘Hathara Korale’.
The lockdown has provoked a deeper need within me to enter that silent space where dead heroes of a long-forgotten past of my youth come alive. Maybe it happens to you as well.
I doubt if it happens to Dinesh Gunawardena whose father refused to beat the drum for a ‘Flat Footed Kandyan Dancer” who tried to thwart his ‘Paddy Lands Act’.
If it happens, to you, dear reader, you will know that it is incumbent upon all of us to remember the lives we have lived.
That brings me to the subject of President’s counsel Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe. He is a very fortunate constitutional scholar. He is fortunate because he is also a politician. He does not have to remember the lives he has led. I doubt if the poor man, has kept a count of his many lives or should we call them avatars!