By Rajan Philips –
The two most vulnerable groups to the coronavirus are the elderly and people of all age groups with pre-existing medical conditions, i.e. the so-called life-cycle illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems, liver complications, lung disease etc. In both instances, the virus exploits the compromised immune systems of its hosts. That has been the general story in countries with large numbers of Covid-19 cases and fatalities. Italy has high life expectancy among its people and a high proportion of the elderly, traditionally attributed to additive free cooking using garlic and olive oil, and of course the local wine. Italy paid a high price to the pandemic in the richer northern parts of the country. In America, the Trump acolytes are racially blaming American diversity and obesity as vulnerable pre-existing conditions for the country’s virus curve (racing to two million cases) and mounting death toll (now past 100k), to divert attention from the Administration’s ‘chaotically disastrous’ (as Obama called it) handling of the crisis.
Sri Lanka, despite its economic woes, and with or without the now healthily cold-pressed coconut oil – like the always cold-pressed and healthy gingelly oil, has a remarkably high life expectancy and a high proportion of the elderly. And, touch wood, it is also having a low number of Covid-19 cases and an even lower death statistic, practically compared to every other country. If this overall pattern (even after taking into account the IPA’s alternative statistics which are not at all significantly higher) were to prevail over the global life of the current pandemic, the island’s pandemic experience may become the subject for future studies as a healthy deviant, quite in contrast to the way the malaria epidemic of the 1930s earned academic notoriety for the island in epidemiological studies as the ‘Ceylon epidemic.’ Let us not get ahead of ourselves, however, the way the government did self-congratulating itself almost three months ago.
What is common though, between then and now, are the country’s pre-existing non-medical conditions, which have become part of the Sri Lankan genome and are now blistering to the surface with the coronavirus acting as the default trigger. The economic condition is worse than Type 2 Diabetes; months long lockdown has further weakened the overall immune system and whole limbs of the economy are risking old school amputations. Add to that the chronic heart condition of the constitution, now under direct hydroxychloroquine attack by forensic quacks. Much of the respiratory media are hopelessly clogged up in pro-government apologetics, while the social media inhalers provide less oxygen and more laughing gas. Ethnic preoccupations have morphed from the violent epileptic seizures of old, to scabby skin eruptions in the body politic now. Lastly, and to safely land my unapologetic metaphorical flight, the government’s standard prescriptive options range between familial Task Force oil treatment for all symptoms and increasingly frequent application of military ventilators. You get the picture. The reality is worse. Even though the coronavirus is seemingly under control, thanks mostly to the island’s medical and public health genius.
Everyday there is a new blueprint for the economy produced by well-meaning and thoughtful professional economists, academics and/or concerned business leaders. But Sri Lanka’s core problem is that the government has no cash and made it worse by slashing its tax revenues. Its redress allocations are less than a percentage point of the GDP, and nowhere near the redress measures in the neighbouring South Asian countries. The Rs. 5,000.00 Samurdhi disbursement, the only government handout so far, has reportedly not reached 44% of the have-not sections of the population. Traditional social cohesion and reciprocity might be at work in preventing widespread destitution. There is informal subsistence even though the informal economy is formally shut down. At the macrolevel, the government is looking for handouts from China and currency swaps with India. But how much will even the maximum help from the two Asian economies measure up to the country’s domestic needs and external shortfalls? There is no assessment. There is no plan. There is no more sign of the miracle that many thought they saw on November 16. It is not the virus that is to blame. The virus has only exposed the cluelessness to which hopes were unsuspectingly attached in November last year.
The government must first identify what it can realistically do in tough circumstances that the country is in. Not in the next two to five years, but the next two to five months, even two to five weeks. Nivard Cabraal is calling for 10% of the GDP (Rs. 1.5 trillion out of Rs. 15 trillion GDP) as stimulus to be garnered through “collective interventions,” over the next three to five years. Not the timeframe for the current urgency, nor the correct concept for the current situation. There is no collective intervention in any country. In wealthy countries, where interest rates are rock bottom and debt to GDP ratios are a Keynesian dream, the governments are bankrolling the stimulus. Huge private corporations are not ‘collectively intervening’, only collectively baying for government bailouts. The developing countries are hoping for collective global intervention, not collective domestic interventions. China is on its own, only the state will intervene, but it will need global trade even to assert its (relatively!) absolute advantage.
India seems to be eclectic in its approach, and there is a spirited national debate in the country about the Modi government’s economic policy involving, among others, two pan Indian national leaders from Tamil Nadu, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, and former (Congress) Finance Minister P. Chidambaram. And out of nowhere last Wednesday, the Tamil Nadu State government signed 17 MOUs with companies from eleven countries (Australia, China, England Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States) for investments with local partners in the manufacturing of heavy vehicles, electronics, footwear, energy, medical equipment etc. The MOUs involve IR 150 billion ($2 billion) capital and will generate 47,000 new jobs. What efforts are being made by any of Sri Lanka’s Task Forces to pull off anything like this?
Mr. Cabraal’s ‘collective intervention’ terminology is his newest euphemism for pilfering 2.6 million EPF members of as much as Rs. 500 million, or a third of his stimulus target. Ostensibly, the scheme will create for the members a “life-line” of their own making by prematurely withdrawing from their life savings to pay current debts. This at a time when their government is asking for debt moratorium from all its creditors. Where is the moral equivalence here? Leave alone the long-term loss to the employees and their becoming a burden to future governments with depleted savings. He has other fanciful ideas such as facilitating 100-day stays in Sri Lanka for elderly American, Chinese, and European tourists, for the 2020/21 winter season. There is one hitch. Who is going to fly them so early, even if they are willing to venture out after escaping the virus at home? Mr. Cabraal is also highlighting the importance of global help, which should mean more than China and India, as well as reinforcements by the IMF and the World Bank. The question is what impacts will Sri Lanka’s political conditions and ethnic differences have on the prospects of Sri Lanka getting the global economic support it needs?
A missed opportunity
Long before the Supreme Court was petitioned over election timing and the status of parliament, former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya suggested a conference among Party leaders, the Prime Minister, and the President to pre-emptively address the emerging constitutional impasse. While correctly refusing to go along with the roguish idea for the Speaker to summon the dissolved parliament, Mr. Jayasuriya even more correctly warned that failure to consultatively address the constitutional issue will have huge implications for Sri Lanka obtaining global support to the extent it is needed.
In all the economic proposals that are being spawned now, it is taken for granted that maximum global support is a given – no matter happens to parliament, whether or not elections are held, regardless of minority complaints, and regardless as well of the increasing normalization of military secondments to civilian positions in the state apparatus. That external support should not be taken as a given is the lesson the new Rajapaksa Administration should learn from the last Rajapaksa Administration. That is the difference between the external experience of the last year of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Administration and that of the first year of Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Administration. Sri Lanka lost its external goodwill in 2014 and regained some of it in 2015. It is likely to happen again, and the loss of goodwill will also last a lot longer with adverse implications for the economy and public health.
Whichever way the Supreme Court rules, everyone is already a loser. If the Court were to conclude that parliament should be recalled, government supporters will whip up a backlash against the opposition parties and will do everything possible to make life miserable for the opposition. The opposition is in such a disarray that it can neither create nor benefit from another pro-democracy wave as in October 2018. Given Sajith Premadasa’s role during that tumult, one cannot expect him to show either initiative or backbone in the current situation. Ranil Wickremesinghe was an unworthy and inconsequential beneficiary of the 2018 wave, and he will again be unworthy of his status and inconsequential in his actions.
On the other hand, if the Court were to agree with the government’s position that parliament can remain dissolved while the Election Commission expedites the holding of the postponed election, the government supporters will be jubilant but there will be sulking across a wide swathe of the rest of the population including the Sinhalese. Constitutional governance would have been delivered an insufferable blow, but there will be no public accounting for it. The creeping militarization of civil administration will be given an additional push. Much of the media outlets will applaud and welcome the verdict as the last word on the matter and urge the country to move on. It will be the last word, no doubt, but one that will raise more questions than it would answer. And it will not be the last word externally, among Sri Lanka’s trading partners and international agencies.
All of this could have been easily avoided if the government had responsibly taken the simple constitutional steps that were subtly implied by Karu Jayasuriya and explicitly articulated by legal luminaries like Nihal Jayawickrama and Savitri Goonesekere. Parliament could have been recalled, attended to the limited business that it was recalled for, and gone into dissolution again. And the Election Commission, with all the puerile externalization of internal matters and the equally puerile internalization of external politics, would have been able to go ahead with setting an appropriate date and organizing the election with advice from public health officials. The country would have won, and no one would have lost. At least one of the pre-existing conditions would have been treated and the government would have been one degree freer to turn its energies towards the other conditions. That would have been too easy and too good to be true.