When I heard the news of the opposition leader, Sajith Premadasa, and his wife Jalani Premadasa getting infected with the Covid-19, the first thought that came to my mind was that it was impulsive not to take the vaccine despite the prioritized opportunity available. Few (4-5%), including myself, already had the benefit of receiving the vaccine (say at least the first dose), but it will take a long time to vaccinate the target of 60% of the people in this country. During that long period to come, many more will become infected, and some will die tragically by losing immunity.
Today, the ratio of the Covid affected deaths in Sri Lanka may be higher than or is at a very similar rate like in India, in terms of the immense gap in the size of the two populations of the two countries. Thus, we will have to hugely regret the increase in Covid mortality due to the delay in importing the vaccine to Sri Lanka. However, the fact that there is at least a minority of political activists, who think that working for the common good instead of their health is a moral political activity, makes it imperative for us to rethink the relationship that should exist between politics and morality, which often seems to be in a state of ‘existent-non-existent’.
Priority for politicians
Nevertheless, the example of the Covid infection suffered by the leader of the opposition, Sajith Premadasa, one who was not vaccinated, proves that those who are vaccinated are more guaranteed a lower risk than those who are not. Most of the parliamentarians received the vaccine as another kind of privilege they enjoy when the leader of the opposition and some others refused to have it on ethical grounds, as the people were dying without vaccines. We can understand the need for vaccination, especially among politicians, public servants, medical and health workers, sanitation workers, and those in the police and education sectors who are in constant contact with the people.
Nonetheless, we think that that many in the opposition did not agree to give priority to politicians because they believed that it was inappropriate to protect themselves alone when the entire population was in danger. Here we need to appreciate those few politicians who have displayed some moral sense in this way when the entire state is in distress. Particularly, when the opposition can join the ruling party and form a ‘common class’ alliance to save the lives of its members, the practice of anti-vaccination politics until the vaccination reaches all the people is to be appreciated and promoted as an ethical-political act on a broader scale.
At the outset, leader of the opposition had stated that he would not accept the vaccination for him until the last citizen would be vaccinated in the country. This is an idealist stance for sure because to vaccinate the last man would take more than one year or so, depending on the efficiency and ability of the government to secure a sufficient amount of vaccines from the competitive global market amidst unthinkable demand and insufficient supply. Also, in an age where political hypocrisy and the use of rhetoric by politicians is almost the norm, realistically the public may not be so naïve to accept such statements by politicians as well.
However, a few days ago when the leader of the opposition stated via his Twitter account that he and his wife were tested Covid positive the public perception drastically turned the other side – the country was convinced that the leader of the opposition had never got the vaccination and not lied to them. Naturally, the people, disregard of their political allegiances and party-politics, began to openly show sympathetic and sensitive attitudes towards the leader of the opposition, widely on social media.
This is an interesting phenomenon because the same kind of response was never seen from the people when the Minister of Health had been tested Covid positive some time ago; there was no vaccine available at that time, but the so-called local medicine such as Dhammika Paniya, etc. Why stress this fact about the people’s too different reactions to two politicians who got infection here? One reason may be the ever-growing apathy among people towards the government for its dangerous mismanagement of the entire process of providing the Covid vaccine to the people of Sri Lanka. The protest of the leader of the opposition, then, was respected by everyone mainly as an ethical act by a practicing politician who willingly put his life in danger on behalf of the others.
However, it is debatable whether this sudden change in public perception can be used politically by the opposition to win elections or not. Yet, it provides an avenue for the opposition to rethink their political strategy and realize immediately that there are still a large majority of people in this country who respect ethical and moral praxis of politics, and, accordingly, the importance of substituting to such exemplary principles for the future political process.
Rejection of the Vaccine as Satyagraha (?)
What is the political significance of the message given by the Opposition [mainly the Samangi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and the Jathika Jana Balawegaya (JJB)] led by the leader of the opposition through the rejection of the vaccine? How should we interpret the politics of risking one’s own life instead of living for waging the battle of power politics in the future? Isn’t it in some way a form of Satyagraha inspired by Gandhi? Or is it an example that helps us understand the tragic fate of an individual imprisoned in a political milieu of emptiness and incompetence of the government and the state as a whole? Wouldn’t it also direct us to think that the power of the apathetic state is so huge that one is left only with the option of sacrificing its own life as the highest practice of politics, while the Covid has paralyzed the state even further, and thereby showcasing the depths of the crisis that the entire population is now in?
Many of the world’s political leaders have recovered from the Covid infection, but many fell to the Covid in the absence of a vaccine. Today, the leader of the opposition in this country has risked his life in a deadly situation where many of us think that he should not have done so. But still, I think such politics of self-sacrifice might not be understood in the postmodern moment as creating a fantasy about the potential of politics to still be influenced by highly humane political tactics such as ‘Satyagraha’.
On the other hand, the example of the leader of the opposition highlights an opportunity to make most of the limited space available to build political antagonisms during the epidemic. It is a life-sacrificing example of a profound projection of the government’s inaction, apathy, and hardheadedness during an epidemic fast destroying a nation.
In general, the epidemic has further shrunk the space for opposition’s political activism as never before. Instead, the Covid has thrived the militarization in this country. Although the opposition engages in activities such as distributing aid to hospitals, educating the public on health practices, and criticizing the government through the mass media, it can’t build broader mass activism during the epidemic. In such a moment, the only available option to fight against the failure of the government to prevent the increasing number of deaths by the Covid is a very high moral act to make the situation experienced by the Covid affected people into our pain. The leader of the opposition and some others have done it by letting them be infected or willingly exposing their life to the common fate as a mark of most humane protest.
At a time, the government [mis-]uses its power for not so urgent projects such as the Port City, instead of preventing the Covid, and also when the people fear death by the deadly Covid, the government should turn to a more compassionate practice. Finally, let us wish that politicians would never attempt to expand the current corrupt state through corruption and engaging in all other evil and selfish dealings even under the pandemic situation. Instead, they should opt for creating a broader humanitarian change in the system of politics.
[Note: a slightly different Sinhala version of this article has already appeared in the Sinhala edition of the Colombo Telegraph]