By Rajan Philips –
The global total of Covid-19 cases is past the two million mark and the death total is one and a half lakhs. The IMF is calling the economic fallout of the coronavirus, the Great Lockdown, after the Great Depression and the Great Recession, and a “crisis like no other.” South Asia has so far escaped the size and severity of the epidemic that have devastated countries east and west. It is too early to be optimistic because there is a lot more unknown than known about the virus spread in South Asia. What is certain for the South Asian countries is the severity of the economic fallout, the Great Lockdown of each country. The economic fallout may turn out to be far worse than the epidemic if the epidemic levels do not take off exponentially from where they are now. Sri Lanka has an added distraction with its homemade political crisis over what to do with its parliament, which now stands in abeyance between dissolution and disagreement over election timing.
The question everywhere is when to relax the lockdown and by how much. Even though President Trump is gung ho on ending the lockdown with a bang come May Day, State Governors and more than 60% of the American people are not prepared for that without more information about the level of immunity in their community based on extensive testing, and what the health experts are recommending. The people in the US and other advanced economies can afford to stay home longer, because their parliaments and Central Banks have made “swift and sizable” (as the IMF has called them) “fiscal, monetary, and financial market measures to support affected houses and businesses.” Not so in the “emerging market and developing economies,” with the exception of countries like China, Indonesia, and South Africa. Even India is below par.
The epidemic and the economy
In South Asian countries, where the outbreak has not been as severe as in China or in the West, the pressure is greater for the government to gradually open up the economy. The reason obviously is not right-wing ideology as among the Republicans in the US, but the exigencies of life on the margins of the economy for millions of people. Where governments lack the wherewithal to provide adequate redress to the people who are under lockdown, the easy way out is to let them loose. In Sri Lanka, the government has an added political urgency to lift the curfew in order to hold elections.
Needless to say, the economic argument for relaxing the curfew is far greater than the election argument. According to IMF reports, Sri Lanka is quite a distance behind Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India in what their governments have committed as redress to the people. Bangladesh and Pakistan have committed over 2% of the GDP for mitigation measures, while India has committed 1% of its GDP. For comparison, the ratio in western countries is around 10% GDP. The US has already committed 15% ($3t of $20t) as stimulus, and is prepared to go as high as $6t, or 30% of its GDP.
In Sri Lanka, the committed amounts so far barely add up to 0.2%, and half of it is committed for vulnerable people (SLR 900 per person, or SLR 9000 per person below the poverty line assumed to be at 10% of the population). Tax exemptions and price ceilings can go only so far as they can, and pre-existing programs like Samurdhi are targeted to benefit political supporters and not help the impacted and vulnerable people. This is not a criticism of the government but an honest assessment of how much the government can afford to provide as mitigation to both businesses and vulnerable individuals, let alone stimulate the economy.
As W.A Wijewardena has described it, Covid-19 has crippled an already ailing economy. As for looking after the vulnerable, Nimal Sanderatne hit the nail on the head when he wrote last week that “hopefully the more affluent in the community will lend a hand to ensure that everyone has their bare necessities of food to survive this period of hardship.” More than the government, it is “social cohesion and a sense of community (that) could alleviate the dire conditions of people.” Social cohesion and sense of community are the hallmarks of traditional societies unlike industrial and immigrant societies where the relationships are almost totally contractual and monetised.
But traditional social attributes cannot reboot Sri Lanka’s economy, and without overall international development the economic mainstays of remittances, tourism, and exports are not going to be revived. The IMF’s World Economic Outlook, released last Wednesday, expects a dramatic shrinking of the global economy this year and a partial recovery in 2021. Of all the different regions of the world, only Emerging Asia is projected to have a positive growth rate in 2020, because of the presence of China and India. Everything depends on whether the pandemic ebbs or surges until a vaccine is found.
In lifting curfews or relaxing lockdown measures in general, greater caution is required in Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries because the extent of the virus spread is largely unknown. Lockdowns and ‘flattening the curve’ will not eradicate the virus; they will only keep its surge (and the number of patients) below a country’s healthcare capacity (hospital beds and equipment). Obviously, the current curfews in Sri Lanka and the lockdown in India cannot continue indefinitely. But their relaxation has to be well planned and carefully implemented, and not based on political calculations.
A prerequisite for opening up is the level of testing for the virus. That is the main concern among medical professionals in India. Even though India has ratcheted up its testing, it is still not enough in areas where it is needed and in numbers that are needed. Sri Lanka is yet to reach its variously stated testing capacity from 1,500 to 12,000 tests a day depending on who is talking. There is scientific hairsplitting over testing everywhere, and more so in the US than anywhere else. Sri Lanka doesn’t need that.
The government should facilitate consensus among medical scientific professionals and experts, not just general practitioners, to develop and implement an effective testing program. And the government must at all cost avoid what is being reported from Bangladesh as the growing “trust deficiency between healthcare professionals and the (Sheikh Hasina) government.”
The epidemic and the election
It would also be irresponsible to prematurely and selectively relax curfew to speed up election timing with the possibility of conducting staggered and long drawn out voting district by district. The comparison to South Korea that successfully completed its parliamentary election on Wednesday (April 15) is untenable and even dangerous. South Korea is unique in the world in containing the pandemic by relying on a strategy of mass testing, loads of data and quick responses. Even though the Democratic Party government of President Moon Jae-in easily has the best record in the world in the fight against Covid-19, the government’s response to it dominated the campaign.
Public opinion went against the government initially during the campaign over President Moon’s reluctance to ban travel from China, but the voters eventually turned in favour of the government and have given President Moon Jae-in and his Democratic Party a landslide majority with180 out of 300 seats in parliament. The voter turnout was the largest in 28 years and the size of victory is the biggest in 60 years. The lesson from the South Korean election is that the people there are determined to preserve the victory for democracy and franchise they won after long and bitter struggles culminating in the famous June Struggle of 1987. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, began its marriage with universal franchise way back in 1931, but has seen it abused for partisan political ends by every government from 1977.
It will be a challenge for the Sri Lankan Election Commission and thousands of election officials, first to decide if an election could be held safely in the current circumstances, leaving aside the free and fair part, and second to make sure that they have the resources to appropriately replicate what South Korea has done in conducting an election while fighting an epidemic. More than South Korea, the example of Iran might be instructive about what not to do when it comes to election timing. Iran went ahead with its national election on February 21, two days after announcing the first coronavirus case. It is widely believed that the government kept the outbreak secret to ensure a large voter turnout, and before that to avoid the cancellation of the anniversary celebration of the 1979 revolution on February 11. After initial accusations of lowballing the extent of the virus spread and fatalities, more reliable official numbers are now beginning to surface.
The John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre tracking of Covid-19 indicates that Iran now has just under 80,000 cases and 5,000 deaths. In a recent and grim estimate, the Iranian parliament’s Research Centre is predicting that without aggressive social isolation measures as many as 75% of Iran’s population (i.e. 60 of 82 million) will be infected and 30,000 of them will die. These are scary numbers, but it is better to be scared than to be foolhardy and risk holding an election in the middle of a pandemic of which, in Sri Lanka, there is much more unknown than known.
Sri Lankan authorities should also bear in mind the unfairness of rushing an election on the people after keeping them out of bounds for the more familial and festive New Year and Vesak celebrations. Crowds and congregations have been the chief transmitters of the virus in most countries. The Iranian revolutionary celebration and election campaign, Madi Gras in New Orleans, a Dentists’ conference in Vancouver, the Tablighi Jamaat conference in New Delhi that included 250 foreign delegates, a conference returnee from Singapore to Brighton, England, and a busy New York lawyer who travelled to Europe and back – are all well known instances and instruments of rapid viral transmission.
Singapore provides the example of how things can go terribly awry with the unpredictable coronavirus even after doing everything right. Singapore was one of the early leaders among countries who succeeded in stemming the spread and staying ahead of the curve. On March 15, Singapore had 226 cases (about where Sri Lanka is now); one month later and after all the precautions it took, there are 5,050 cases, with as many as 447 reported in one day. Thankfully, the death rate is low with the total number of deaths at 11. Catching the new wave early, Singapore has already undertaken ‘stepping-up measures.’ The turn for the worse in Singapore is worrisome to Covid-19 watchers, for if it can happen in Singapore, which is as tropical, as warm and as clean as you can get, it can happen anywhere any time, and there is nothing any worldly power can do without a vaccine in place.
In sum, there is a lot not only for the Election Commission but also the President and the government to mull over before deciding the election date. The Election Commissioner has been publicly told that deciding the election date is entirely his business. But what happens if it is not possible to hold elections in time for the new parliament to meet before June 2? How long can government by Executive go on without a legislature?
The difficulty for the President is that he is not a ‘neutral’ head of state to rescind the earlier proclamation dissolving parliament and restart a new nomination process. That would be the cleanest way out. The reality is that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP have vested but understandable interest in conducting the election with the nominations that were closed on March 16. Can the President postpone the date for reconvening parliament (beyond June 2), and thereby extend the date for holding elections but with the nominations that were already received in March?
Former Speaker Karu Jayasuria has suggested on Friday “that the government and opposition must engage with the Election Commission and with each other urgently and in good faith” for exploring avenues “to safely hold elections in time,” and to avoid “a constitutional crisis” if elections cannot be so held. As Mr. Jayasuria correctly notes any constitutional crisis, or even the appearance of constitutional impropriety, will “gravely impact Sri Lanka’s prospects of obtaining economic relief.” Equally, rushing the election without regard for the risk of triggering local transmission of the virus will gravely impact the health and wellbeing of all Sri Lankans.