By Ravi Perera –
“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like an incubus upon the brain of the living”- Karl Marx
“I have not found a single good man in government; I have found good only in the people” – Saint-Just
An old friend of mine, having served the State faithfully all his working life, upon retirement decided on a reunion with his children now domiciled in the United Kingdom. He looked forward to a long holiday, away from the intrusions, trespasses and stresses that beset those living in an unsettled society, a society said to be in transition. An avid reader, the libraries, bookshops, magazines and the newspapers of London beckoned irresistibly. He especially loved their newspapers, “intelligent, elegant writing on nearly every subject, amazing for the writers to have such a sure grip of their subject” is how he described the coverage in print.
A few weeks into his holiday, the Corona epidemic broke out, the lockdown rules confined him to the house, no longer free to roam the streets of London. The rules were strict, but imposed reasonable. Basic economic activities were sustained, those industries that were adversely affected received generous concessions. My friend, although confined to the house, could walk to the neighbourhood supermarkets for the provisions, and even do a stroll at the nearby park, which struck him as particularly beautiful in spring time.
The early weeks were traumatic, UK experienced an alarming spike in casualties, even Prime Minister Boris Johnson falling victim to the pandemic. Before long however, the famous British good sense and rationality came to the fore, the system worked out effective methods of containing the spread of the virus, bringing down the infected numbers drastically. My friend, despite the status of a visiting foreigner, had the advantage of a routine PCR test, followed by the inoculation injection, twice, as a booster was prescribed. He was periodically monitored and kept informed of the necessary steps to be taken. There were volunteers visiting them, offering assistance if needed.
He is all praise for the doctors and other medical staff he encountered. “The operative word for the health workers is kindness; the way they speak, the way they administer the medicine, the after care, were so comforting. You don’t come across that off-handed, superior attitude very common in our professionals.”
“My PCR test was done with such skill that I did not feel anything. Sometimes, they even let you self-administer the test. My friends in Sri Lanka say that many patients had complained that the test there is very rough, many end up bleeding from the nose. Our frontline health workers are paranoid; they do not come anywhere near unless they are in that space suit like gear. Here in the UK, the medical teams wear only their face masks.”
“I realized that Western medicine in the Western setting is quite a different thing, there is harmony between the culture and the profession; it is a calling after all; the medical profession has no meaning without personal courage, dedication and selflessness”
There is no country that has escaped the choking grip of the Covid-19 virus, some more painfully than others. No person on this planet is completely free of the dread it brings. We have faced other contagions before; Small Pox, Ebola, Spanish Flu, Malaria, some of them even more virulent. Generally, these were confined to specific areas of the world, invariably the poorer countries, with weak systems and meagre resources.
In its surge the Covid-19 has shown no respect for wealth or power; the virus has crossed the oceans and climbed mountain ranges with ease, borders provide no barrier, it has infected both the weak as well as the strong, taking anyone and everyone within sneezing distance.
As nations scramble to overcome this unforeseen menace, the inherent strengths and weaknesses of each nation become apparent. A virus is not fought only with curfews, hospital beds, ventilators, inoculations and face masks, the culture and the ethos of the particular country also go to battle, determining the beat of the response.
We had the examples of many countries to learn from; face masks, social distance, lockdowns, isolating the clusters, working from home are not ideas that originated with us. Other countries did them, we followed suit. Initially, at the early stages, we apparently had good results. One has to be tentative here because our record was hypothetical, the numbers clinically tested were small. Before long, that early declaration of victory proved fallacious, even foolish. Now the pandemic has become a terrifying spectre, haunting the entire country.
Our national psyche possesses other weapons in its armoury. We could always fall back on the occult, a formative force in the native makeup, an important behavioural factor here. We thrill to the use of the dark forces, witchcraft and evil eye terrify the inhabitants. Unremarkable the country may be in economic achievements, but when armed with satanic powers, we stand so mighty! Pots of blessed water are being released to the rivers, garish talismans are carried on persons, endless chanting is heard, concoctions with magical powers are gulped down, good omens declared; alas, the virus is not deterred.
Today, the reality is dire; compounding the demands on an already floundering health sector, the pandemic has created an unprecedented need for more ICU beds, ventilators, oxygen and even hospital space. There is no need to reiterate that the country is poor, an economy extremely sensitive to any downturn. However, there is no tightening of belts, no foregoing of luxuries, no refusal to enjoy privileges on the part of the political establishment.
Despite the suddenness of the epidemic, a few advanced countries have been able to develop an effective vaccine for the Covid-19 virus. Acting quickly, some governments obtained even an excessive stock of the vaccine for their people. They reasoned that the cost of overspending on the health of their people will be rewarded by their ability to keep the economies going. Advanced economies are also better suited for the concept of working from home.
We too benefited from the development of the vaccine, obtaining a limited amount of the antidote. Whether that number was sufficient to inoculate a critical mass is not known, but it appears that the campaign was concentrated in the Western Province and particularly in Colombo. A very limited stock of vaccines, far less than what is required, is an invitation to favouritism, if not corruption.
Now comes the play of culture and the ethos of the land. In this country, there is no question of the captain being the last to leave the ship, even at a buffet table the strongest eat first. Although every citizen is deemed equal and every citizen is a voter, when it is a life threatening situation, pretences are discarded, some are obviously more equal and more valuable.
It does not take a lot of imagination to come up with a criterion, sufficiently flexible to indulge the favoured; the frontline fighters in the battle against Covid-19! This list is long, including friends and relatives, as there is always the danger of catching the virus from your associates. Then, how about the legislators and administrators, surely they are also frontline, as important as the doctors and the nurses? There are the retirees, who had worked untiringly to develop the country. We have the various operatives and facilitators whose contribution must also not be ignored. Soon the frontline concept becomes very large, in a culture in which a persons’ eminence is measured from his ability to do favours for friends and relatives, we expect this to have reached comical levels by now. For the sake of enlightening the nation, the list of those who have thus far received the second vaccine should be produced in parliament, the institution to which we send our representatives, as guardians of good governance and fair play.
This second vaccine, more precisely, the non-appearance of it, has laid bare once again, the emptiness of our governments. It was always known that even for the few who received the first injection, a second was needed to reach a level of acceptable immunity, without the second, the first becomes meaningless. To our horror, we now learn that the government has not obtained the second. A ham-handed government and their languorous administration had hoped that the second dose would appear, when prayed for! Their solution – administer the very limited second dose available, among a favoured few!
There are only a few who would object; leading members of the opposition, media personnel, famous artists, religious dignitaries, prominent social activists have been enlisted to the frontline!