By Upul Wickramasinghe –
The Covid-19 pandemic has shocked the entire world with its enormous health impact on humans, leading to unprecedented social and economic consequences. It is clear the virus does not discriminate on nationality, colour or wealth, as it has already affected a wide swathe of humanity, from the heir apparent to the British throne, and the Prime Minister of the UK, to Palestinian refugees in Israeli-occupied territories in the West Bank. However, it does not take rocket science to understand that people who are socially oppressed and discriminated against are more likely to be vulnerable to and affected by the pandemic, whether they are in a developed or a developing country. For instance, it was reported that the first ten doctors who died from coronavirus all belonged to BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) communities despite representing only 44% of the medical staff in England and Wales1. In the US, it was reported that African Americans are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and the disparity is stark in cities like New Orleans, Chicago, and Detroit, where high concentrations of African Americans live.2 There are numerous examples from all over the world for such disproportionate effects of the virus.
The plantation communities of the central hill country are one of Sri Lanka’s most oppressed and marginalised, who have lived through dire social conditions and often been exploited for almost 200 years. Due to the direct and indirect consequences of the pandemic, they have fallen from the frying pan into the fire. As Yasmin Gunaratnam wrote in the Guardian3, despite the severe restrictions imposed in the country to curtail the pandemic, tea plantation workers were ‘allowed’ – realistically forced by their employers – to continue their work as before. Through firsthand sources from Haputale, a plantation area in the hill country, this author can confirm the dire living conditions in plantation communities reported by Gunaratnam, which have made pandemic controlling measures such as social distancing and maintaining proper sanitation practices simply impractical in those areas.
As Thangamma, a 45-year tea-plucking woman, shared with this author during a corona-relief dry rations distribution program:
“estate management gave us masks, but only for three days, after that we prepared our own masks. There are not any other sanitation facilities…they also gave us 2000 rupees in advance which is to be deducted from our next salary, that’s it…”.
So many studies including a World Bank survey have shown that plantation communities are among the worst affected by chronic under nutrition in Sri Lanka. It is reported that the stunting rate in plantation communities is 36%, whilst the rate of stunted children and underweight adult women in estates was respectively 2.9 and 3.4 times higher than cities. Moreover, low birth weight rates were 2.4 times higher in the plantation sector compared to the other areas of the country.4
Selva, Thangamma’s son, organised the food-relief program on behalf of the community. What he told this author was disconcerting, but very well explained the reality behind those discouraging figures.
“can’t we include several more kilos of wheat flour to the list instead of sprats? So, people can survive several more days and that is what the urgent need rather than getting food with more nutrients”
Selva’s tone was optimistic, but in a bitter way. Although he is still 18-year old, through his experiential knowledge, Selva understood very well that a nutritious diet is not a priority in their day-to-day life yet. Rather, even today, Selva’s parents are caught up with the struggle for a life with basic needs, hence including a portion of sprats in their meal is still a dream for them. This looks like unbelievable from most of ours point of view, but it is the lived reality in majority plantation communities.
What is to be done?
Although Karl Marx’s famous statement that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” was expressed more than 150 years ago in Theses on Feuerbach, this sentiment is very much relevant in today’s context of plantation communities in Sri Lanka. Over time, many economists, sociologists, and policy makers have theorized and explained historical and structural factors which would be fundamentally responsible for sustaining oppressive life conditions in plantation communities. Very little attention, however, has focused on changing those conditions for the betterment of those people.
It was in this context, following mainly the ideas of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator who was a leading figure in critical pedagogy, and Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist thinker, that this author and a group of youth initiated a pedagogical intervention in a Haputale plantation community four years ago. As Freire writes in his famous book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, one of the main obstacles in transforming oppressed communities is that they, people in those oppressed communities, do not have role models to look up to and follow. Therefore, a child growing in those communities is unable to look beyond their limited world view and eventually falls into the same vicious cycle that his or her previous generations are trapped within.
Through the functioning of a multi-purpose learning center, our goal was to create a conducive social environment for building role models or organic intellectuals, in a Gramscian sense, from their own communities rather than importing such models from the outside. Under heavy resistance from the estate management and their henchmen, who maintain oppressive conditions to exploit these people for accumulating of profits, we were forced to withdraw the learning center after four years, indicating the difficulty of changing the ingrained structures and lifestyles that reinforce the exploitation of these marginalized communities.
Nevertheless, the only way forward, at least as we can see, is working not for, but with these communities in such a way that they develop their power to critically comprehend the social structures that are binding the current exploitative system, and contemplate how to change it. As such, they would become the agents of their own change. This would be applicable not only to plantation communities in Sri Lanka, but to any oppressed community in the world.
*Upul Wickramasinghe is a PhD candidate (Anthropology) at Durham University, UK
Note: Special thanks to Ben Hildred for his support in developing the article.