29 September, 2020

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Pandemic Politics Or Politicised Pandemic? 

By Chamindra Weerawardhana

Dr. Chamindra Weerawardhana

The management of the Corona crisis in Sri Lanka has no shortage of critics. Some are purely cynical. Others opt to take a critical posture because it helps with their political, financial and careerist agendas. Certain news websites run by Sri Lankan journalists in exile, for example, have been consistently critical of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government’s management of the Covid-19 crisis. Just as the majority of these critics would do themselves a favour by adopting a more nuanced and reasonable approach, the same would unquestionably apply to the blind supporters of the Rajapaksa administration’s Covid-19 management work. The core Rajapaksa support base is one that does not budge. As some commentators have rightly noted, in Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa is not only a politician, but a faith, with many thousands of devout followers, who would categorically condemn every single critique of Mahinda Rajapaksa or any of his family members. 

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, the armed forces have been actively involved in handling the resulting crisis situation. Indeed, the work done by military personnel, especially those on the frontline, starting from the Sri Lanka Air Force [SLAF] personnel on duty at Bandaranaike Airport, merits unreserved commendation. Given the social and cultural context of Sri Lanka, one could argue that strong self-quarantine and obligatory quarantine measures could not have been implemented without the active participation of the tri-forces and the police. After all, a majority of Sri Lankans voted for a man with a military background who had never held political office to the country’s top political job back in November 2019, expecting an iron-fist with military might to govern them. That such a people would be more inclined to listen to men in military uniform than to medical professionals or the Health Minister is, whether one likes it or not, is a given. 

As Comrade Bimal Ratnayake MP noted at a recent press conference, it is public health officials who take the lead in Covid-19 management initiatives in most countries. In Canada, the Chief Public Health Officer, Dr Theresa Tam, is very much the public face of Covid-19 management efforts. Prime Minister Trudeau provides daily updates by addressing the nation from the front of his Rideau Cottage residence, speaking francophone and anglophone Canada, identifying the ‘policy measures’ the Federal Government has taken and is taking to tackle this unprecedented situation. Despite the obvious challenges involved, Parliament was recalled in order to make crucial policy decisions. In the UK, where things have been challenging, with the Prime Minister and Health Secretary testing positive for Covid-19, it is senior cabinet ministers who make statements on policy issues, with responsible media houses prioritising views expressed by expert medical professionals, such as immunologist Professor Sarah Gilbert at Oxford, who is leading a team that works to develop a vaccine. In Sri Lanka, senior military and police officials have been on the frontline of providing government information to the public, and in reassuring the public. This writer narrows this down to political culture, and maintains that blaming the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government, the armed forces, or any other party for the repartition of hierarchy in the Covid-19 containment drive is absolutely futile. 

Desperate for a general election? 

However, one conspicuous development as of late calls for caution. It has for been quite clear over the past few weeks that the Rajapaksa family, the SLPP and President Rajapaksa in particular were all keen to get the 2020 parliamentary general election done away with, Covid-19 or not. Strategically speaking, this election means everything to the President, as it would strengthen his power base, especially if a two-thirds majority is ensured. If an election is held soon, there is indeed a chance that the current political-cum-military-led Covid-19 management drive will enable the SLPP to reach its two-thirds majority goal. However, the President and his allies may well benefit from paying close attention to present-day political realities. We live in post-19th amendment Sri Lanka. This means that a two-thirds majority will primarily strengthen the hands of the winning prime minister. Although the executive presidency is now well implanted in the Sri Lankan political psyche as the all-powerful top job, the truth is that this is no longer the case, and that a two-thirds majority will be a field day not for Gotabaya, but for Mahinda Rajapaksa. In these circumstances, it is only natural that the sitting Prime Minister would want to strengthen his power base by having an election and securing a two-thirds majority. Most importantly, there seems to be a concern that if the  election is postponed, the adverse economic impact of Covid-19 would result in rising unpopularity of the current SLPP government. 

The SLPP’s rationale for going for a general election at the earliest possibility, is therefore very clear, and from a perspective of power-politics, understandable. However, this reasoning needs to be contextualised in the very uncertain times we currently live in. 

Problematic and Unethical? 

What is problematic is the inclination to deploy the current crisis situation to push for a general election at the earliest possibility. Covid-19 is a global pandemic, and it does not spare anyone or any land. Most governments and political parties worldwide have understood this reality, and are orienting their political strategies accordingly. However, Sri Lanka’s Covid-19 management effort does appear to have a ‘them and us’ dimension. Does the political class and assume that they are somehow ‘beyond’ the reach of Covid-19? 

Most countries that were supposed to hold national and local elections have postponed them. The only exception that comes to mind is that of Mali, where the first round of the legislative election was held on 29 March and the second round on Sunday 19 April 2020. Mali so far has recorded 216 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 13 deaths. The Malian case, however, cannot be used as a precedent. The election has been fraught with controversies, including the kidnapping of the main opposition personality, Soumaïla Cissé, and jihadist violence as well as election violence, even on election day. Unsurprisingly, the voter turnout on 19 April was a meagre 23.22%.  

In Sri Lanka, political and media machinations to support the drive for a general election at the earliest possibility have been documented, especially in the Colombo Telegraph. One of the three commissioners at the Elections Commission has publicly voiced his bemusement and concern at some of the latest developments. 

Election ASAP: a very bad idea? 

Let’s spell it out clearly. In a small South Asian country with a population of 22 million people, it is extremely unadvisable to go for a parliamentary general election anytime soon. The Covid-19 pandemic needs to be contained, and as countries such as Germany and Denmark have shown, recovery efforts will be parsimonious and incremental, if not very slow. This slowness, and cautious decision-making are absolutely essential for public safety. Such decisions must in no way be based on purely political calculations. Instead, they must imperatively be based on sound advice from expert medical professionals in the field of managing pandemics and viral outbreaks. 

Task at hand: Hold it Together! 

Right now, the Government of Sri Lanka ought to listen to the WHO and to international and local subject specialists [meaning, immunologists, epidemiologists, public health experts and virologists], and prioritise the health of the population. This imperatively involves giving up the idea of an election anytime soon. Instead, the sensible thing, as well as the politically most advantageous step, is to use existing constitutional provisions to recall  the dissolved parliament [respecting social distancing guidelines, of course], making important policy decisions, and ‘holding it together’. This might involve the revocation of the 2 March 2020 Gazette dissolving parliament. If not, the Elections Commission’s earlier proposal is also advisable – that the President consults the Supreme Court on postponing the election to a later date.  Focusing on Covid-19 containment as the primary policy goal in all aspects of policymaking, prioritising the advice of medical professionals who are subject experts, and deploying all resources, including the armed forces, fighting fake news by credible media outreach to the public, are all key elements of an advisable ‘action plan’. 

The deed is done!

However, the decision has now been made to have the general election on 20 June 2020 and this decision is now gazetted. This may be too soon for such a mammoth islandwide operation, where a great deal of human contact takes place. It is nigh impossible to deny that this is a very unadvisable decision. 

The would-haves and the should-haves? 

It is a pity that those in power fell short of reaching the realisation that a cautious, slow-paced approach was the most promising way forward. This would have invariably involved maintaining the lockdown in reasonable measure while simultaneously taking all possible steps to ensure the continuity of the supply chain, especially for food and other essential supplies. A key element of such an approach ought to have been that of reassuring the general public on the pandemic and its social and economic costs. Being frank about the impending economic challenges, and highlighting the importance of strong leadership and collective action under such circumstances, would have been crucial. This is how Covid-19 could have been deployed to the ruling party’s distinctive and long-term political advantage. Indeed, it is a longer and more painstaking process than any un-strategic, ill-thought-out and quick-fix efforts at politicising the Covid-19 crisis.  

Inadequately addressing issues with the supply chain, delays in providing essential personal protective equipment [PPE] support to frontline medical staff, using the current situation to control any form of dissent or critique of the establishment, not providing adequate attention to subject-specialist medical professionals, using Covid-19 to incite ethno-racial discrimination, are all very unadvisable and dangerous drifts that should be avoided at all costs. This applies not only to the Government of Sri Lanka, but to all other governments everywhere in the world. 

The question, then, is “does the current administration possess the strategic and political foresight, insight and tact to pursue such a slow, cautious and incremental approach?  Readers are welcome to reach their own conclusions based on the developments of the past few weeks and of the weeks to come. 

To recapitulate, what is required is an enlightened political response to the pandemic, not cantankerous efforts to politicise the pandemic.  We need sound ‘pandemic politics’, not a politicised pandemic.

*Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana is a political analyst. 

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Latest comments

  • 29
    2

    The learned writer is from Canada and even its root country UK, there is an understanding between the Government and the Opposition over questions of National Concern. National Crisis means governing together weather as a National Government or otherwise. Here the greed to govern is the opportunity to squander the National Wealth. Whoever thought that a Government elected on a platform of Good Governance or the brand name “Yahapalanaya”, which even had my vote, was indeed its opposite, squandering the Central Bank and influencing judgements, luring judges for promotions. In Sri Lanka, unlike the aforesaid countries politicians both across the divide are a set of humbugs waiting for the opportunity to earn for seven generations. Basic motto of the country is “Cash is King”. Someone told me in Sinhala that in this country there is “Pagathanthrawadaya” and not “Prajathanthrawadaya”. Under such circumstances this outlook is predictable. What is sad here is there is no person, say like Christ, to say that “He who had not sinned shall cast the first stone”. To put a long story short, all three organs of the state are corrupt and mother Lanka has to be classified as a failed state.

    • 17
      1

      Very Good morning to you. my friends I guess it is more politicised pandemic. :

      They still feel to have managed it, – their self glorifications, self aggrandizing styles are very unique to them AND on a rise day by day.. leaving us in vomting mode.
      .
      – there is a saying in sinhala vernacular – lindee inna gembo waage (they dont know care much about a world outside of their bounderies- if yes only few countries whose nature goes to the MAHINDA BP DOCTRINE.

      Once upon a time only we had an audience, country wide that would respect law and order. Anyone with some sanity, would feel – the world is developing from day by day, then any poor nations should also have learnt good and civilized valueus in a speedy manner. But none of these seem to be seen in SPECIALLY MY race – SINHALAYA..People simply dont care dignified life style. They are like made fools, so that RAJAPAKSHES let harvest their votes.
      .
      I also believe not just people, buddagama-monk(not necessarily they are to be named after buddhist monks going by lord buddha s teachings). ) too have changed a lot than then, so that they feel they can do anything and everything being HIDDEN behind the SIVURU (sanga constume).

    • 10
      1

      As Dr. Chamindra says, the 19th amendment is in place, and a 2/3 majority will strengthen the hand of the PM. But the PM and the President are from the same party. What’s to stop MR using his 2/3 to pass a 20th amendment restoring Presidential power?

      • 8
        0

        OC
        Will MR will be happy to restore presidential power without assurance that he or his son will be President next?
        The wish is to keep it in the family, but political families are cutthroat.

        • 3
          0

          SJ,
          Yes, this political family has refined cut-throatism into a fine art. Let’s wait and watch.

          • 2
            0

            OC: Like auto-immune diseases, cut-throatism could bite back also. That, one could hope for,.

          • 1
            0

            old codger

            Are you familiar with the following song:
            Giri Goris – Freddie Silva
            https://jayasrilanka.net/mp3dl/5199/giri-goris-freddie-silva-mp3.php

            I think this was released in late 1970s, it aptly catches the present day culture of this island. A brilliant parody of political culture.


            What do you think that Bandula Gunawardana who wants to make 3 months payments to those who were newly recruited 45555 (yet to start work) employees of the state?

            The unemployed voters are being bribed twice.

            In one of his recent video clips, Mervyn Silva PhD was scathing jumping mad. He dared the government to promote Shevendra to the rank of Field Marshall, stop Hindians profiting from Trinco Oil Tanks (given the slumb in oil prices,) , …..
            Why Dr Mervyn is mad at Basil (his step brother)?

        • 0
          0

          Almost everyhting can be the case in today s context. I think we need to strengthen the power of the opposition and get rid of Mahinda Rajapakshe from active politics. That would be what I see it the need of the hour.
          Might be not Gota himself, but Mahinda s rotten strategies are place on the top of ruling mechanism of the current govt. See, how they move forward. Almost everyone with some sanity would see, if the allocated funds have to be approved from a parliament, it shouldb e reconnvened with th eend of the current information, that say, after 30th Apr current president (Executive) has no unanimous power to govern not resepcting the other two pillors (Parliament and Judiciary). N everthelese following the path of stupid Sirisena, Gota aka Nandasena is doing the same mistake.
          So, would not that be a constitutional breach ?
          Two years ago, the fool of the nation, Sirisena, loudly made public statements that he would not re-appoint Mr Wickramasinghe as the PM, but SC ‘s decision did not leave them any room but to go fo rthat. Likewise, current STUPID men have to hide their tail behind the legs sooner than later, once SC would come with their decision on the current RAJAPAKSHE made constitutional breach.
          :
          Why do these BUGGER duo behave so, knowing the facts black and white ?

  • 6
    21

    Hmm, most of the CT readership is senile. How do you expect them to be able to do these Captchas?

    As for the article itself, it s a lot of blah blah

  • 10
    2

    Sri Lankan Political culture is a unique culture in the world. It is based on communalism, family dynasty. and corruption Canada is a multicultural country that receives people affected by HR violations in the country’s like Sri Lanka, Afgan Syria, and many other countries. Unlike Sri Lanka, it recognizes talented people many refugees are doing economically and socially well. Now people migrating from US to Canad because of Trump’s policies

    • 8
      10

      The immigrant communities are happy with the token recognition of their cultural identity, so much so that they are blind to the plight of the indigenous Nations that are now more strongly demanding their rights.
      The attitude of Asians in Australia towards the aboriginal population is no different.
      Politically Canada and the UK are stooges of US imperialism that will do the bidding of the US to destroy anyone daring to defy the US.

      • 4
        4

        SJ

        “Politically Canada and the UK are stooges of US imperialism that will do the bidding of the US to destroy anyone daring to defy the US.”

        Are you also saying USA destroyed this tiny little island?
        As far as this little islanders are concerned they do not need outsiders to destroy themselves they have been doing it splendidly well in the past 72 years. The destruction was accelerated by the weeping widow’s husband, and their merry men.

  • 20
    1

    It is confirmed 30 Navy personal from the same camp are now turned positive for Covid. By appointing non medical people in front line in haste with no proper training or protective equipment , the Govt is pretty much putting them in harm,s way. There is not many countries using military for infection control other than for maintaining law and order. But under Rajapaksas there is no demarcation what so ever between civil and military, Today Shavendra says all these sailors were tracing a few contacts and that is how they became victims. . As simple as that. A infected person can unknowingly transmit to many, where as people who are in search of such too are getting infected in same numbers or more what is the logic behind Shavendra,s explanation.

    • 0
      1

      Chiv,
      You must remember that most members of the forces joined up due to their patriotism, apart from minor attractions such as good pay, fancy uniforms, a chance to lord it over the rest, etc.
      You see, patriotism is not a substitute for intelligence.

      • 0
        0

        OC
        The majority joined because of dire economic need.
        The things that you mention are bonuses.
        Discipline is rather limited to job related matters. It is not easy to train soldiers in dealing with an epidemic. The police are more suited for the job.
        Even intelligent people have got themselves infected, and less intelligent ones (like Trump for instance) have not.

        • 0
          0

          SJ,
          Surely you have heard of sarcasm? 😂😂

      • 2
        1

        old codger

        “You see, patriotism is not a substitute for intelligence.”

        True.
        Otherwise where would you recruit nearly 400,000 members of armed forces, numerous patriotic politicians, plethora “intellectuals”, media presenters, commendators, flag waving Sinha Les, nearly 40,000 strong saffron brigade, …….

  • 4
    0

    To hold a General Election with the Corona Virus is like dancing the Tango on one foot and dancing the Waltz with the other foot……

    Srilanka, you see good old Dr. Chamindri[ a ] is A Land like no other……

  • 2
    4

    Sri Lankan Political future is based purely on communal hatred and Human rights violation should have learned a lesson from COVID19 Ciiis Let the politicians open the eyes. Power is given by the people. You cant kill them and get more powers. Acquiring wealth using the crisis as happened in Tsunami criis will not pay on the long run

  • 4
    4

    CT
    New changes are most welcome.
    it will keep you balanced in a unbalanced world.
    /
    A free press can be good or bad, but, most certainly, without freedom a press will never be anything but bad.
    – Albert Camus

    • 3
      1

      That way we can cleanse Eagle Eyes or the like.
      :
      I only miss my good brother Amarasiri.
      :

      • 0
        0

        He is around….

      • 1
        0

        This program is somewhat reliable.
        :
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CcUd1phAZ5I

        So far the other channels have invited only GMOA on a repeated manner.
        :
        I think we should be thankful to SIRASA to holding the kind of sessions also giving the chance those uni experts to share their thoughts.


        GMOA is known as the TRADE UNION for the medicos. So why on earth, the media institution only rely on them in the control of COVID 19 crisis ? Why our people stay mum not reacting against ? why the govt failed to contact these experts at the inital stage. We know that MRI could play a main role, but no means GMOA.
        .
        Can you please discuss this item here ?
        Thank you.

  • 2
    2

    Dr.Chamindra,
    I don’t know you are referring CT as against to Gotabaya Rajapakse, the President Srilanka. There is a valid reason why some people are against Gotabaya Rajapakse because of his past behaviour and attitude which are against to humanity. He may be good for Buddhist Sinhala Fundamentalism (extremism) but not a good leader for the country as a whole. He is possibly a good dictator like Idi Amin or Hitler but the country needs a civilised leader who can run the government democratically, peacefully and lawfully. It looks like the military is doing well at this particular juncture. Just imagine at the end of Corona, the severe impact of Corona will last for many years and even a small protest from farmers or workers will be dealt militarily and thousands of poor masses may have to loose their lives without any justice to the victim. Even before the Corona, he militarised civilian institutions.
    You mentioned about two third majority will benefit MR to strengthen his government but Gota already said he will get rid of 19th amendment which give Gota full authority and Mahinda will end up with no powers. Is it Ok for Mahinda to work as a slave of Gota?

  • 4
    2

    I hear Army has been brought into Parliament house , (I guess Gotha is trying to protect the empty building from Virus) because the opposition is demanding to reconvene. In total 60 Navy personal are now Covid positive. People need to be aware who is testing them , because if anyone tested by an infected person can turn positive too. In short Rajapaksas greed for power has put not just service personal but the whole public in harm,s way

    • 1
      1

      Next days even Medamulana Cave will have to be filled with the numbers increasing.
      :
      All these were known to the bugger duo at the begining, but they prefered to total ignorance and go for holding elections. That someone called CHANNA JAYASUMANNAYA who is said to have self-proclaimed to be a Prof. thanks to the gimmicks of Rajapakshe goons ( please check the bugger has no what so ever record of PUBLICATONs to become a prof that earlier, … the truth about becoming a prof in world context is solely connected with proved number of publications of own post doctoral research) – go on saying that a far poor country of our nature to go and hold the elections separately. Bps may be not aware of the ground realities of the situation, the nation being totally squeezed by the loads of huge amouts of Rajapakshe loans (that to be settled thanks to his gigantic projects such Mattala, Habantala harbour, and all other white elephant projects, bps thoughts would bring lot more discounts filling their pockets but nothing to the country).

      There is a saying in sinhala vernacular -should be swollen going by the size of the finger- we should finally be able to see in a mirror who we are .. just comparing with powerful nations and the manner they are caught by the COVID 19 crisis for their various reasons, that APAWITHARA Bitch has been making -inhorent statments in public..

  • 6
    2

    It is well established over many decades that the political class in Sri Lanka only have their own self-interest foremost and the people who vote for them are considered last in any reckoning. There is no possibility that the status quo will change in favour of the people in future unless the there is a paradigm change in how the people elect their leaders. In a militarised environment, which is probably necessary in some extenuating circumstances the possibility of authoritarian rule as well as tyranny are very much potentially possible with a modicum of legality or justifiability.

    • 2
      1

      Lasantha,
      You are right that the political class since 1956 only had self interest and it was helped by the highest Buddhist establishment. This brought continuous riots, extremism, terrorism which took over 300000 innocent lives and destroyed the economy completely. Today, I read a news item Gota met Mahasangha about the current stalemate about forming a new parliament/election and came up with the support from Mahawamse for his actions against the constitution. He thinks Mahasange is more powerful than judiciary and constitution. This is the fate of the country. Can Mahasanghe control Corona?

  • 1
    2

    The stubborn stand of Gota would have differed had there been a couple medical officers among the low
    fatality???

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