Questions thrown up by the COVID-19 crisis in Sri Lanka
Posted on March 30th, 2020

By Shivanthi Ranasinghe Courtesy Ceylon Today

COVID-19 containment jostles with demand for food and democracy

Questions thrown up by the COVID-19 crisis in Sri Lanka

Colombo, March 30 (Ceylon Today): Today, the people of Sri Lanka are in the grip of two worries: One of them, of course, is COVID-19. The other is food sufficiency – whether the household has enough food until the currently indefinite” curfew is lifted. However, people appear to be more worried about food than COVID-19.

Most are trying really hard to adhere to government regulations and expert advise on keeping themselves from getting infected. But there is also an indication that they would rather risk infection than go without food.

Sri Lankans, especially the Sinhalese, have been derided for prioritizing the stomach before the country. Yet, it is silly to ridicule their fixation with food when food is a basic need, indeed, the essence of life. It is necessary for the survival of every living organism. Even at the point of electing a President or a government, everything boils down to the ease with which food can be accessed for the family.

The government is certainly making Herculean efforts to ensure that no one starves. And these efforts go beyond the recently launched door-to-door delivery system.

When China first experienced a strange cluster of pneumonia cases in late 2019, the outside world could not care less. By early January, China warned the world that a new coronavirus has emerged. By mid-January, the number of infected cases was increasing and infection was spreading fast across China. Cases began to emerge in other countries as well. At first it was in China’s immediate neighborhood. But quickly enough it spread to the rest of the world. It was significant that the virus was being imported through travelers coming from China. And clearly, it was getting transmitted from person-to-person.

China quickly got genetic information about the virus and shared it with the world. China’s proactivity helped other countries quickly identify affected persons. China’s actions are especially noteworthy when WHO kept a tight lip on the matter. WHO’s procrastination however left most countries, including India, in a state of unpreparedness.

Though most countries began to take preliminary measures such as screening arrivals at airports for high temperature, not many took the necessary tangible steps to prevent the spread of the virus, not even when the virus proved to be a killer.

China locked down Wuhan – the seventh largest city in their country, with an estimated 11 million people. This was done just the day before the Chinese Lunar New Year. With this unprecedented decision, the debate in most governments was about bringing back their citizens in China, especially those in Wuhan.

Sri Lanka was one country that did not debate the issue. When WHO cagily noted in early January that a new illness was fast spreading across China, that day itself President Gotabaya Rajapaksa instructed the Health Ministry to be ready for the entry of the virus into Sri Lanka as well.

The very night that Wuhan got locked down, President Gotabaya instructed the Foreign Ministry to get the 700 or so students back to Sri Lanka. The Government offered the students a 60 percent discount on the airfare to return home. However, 34 students, some with families there, were trapped in locked down Wuhan. No one was allowed to get in or get out of the city. After much discussion with the Chinese Government, Sri Lanka flew in a special flight and got these students back home.

The night Wuhan was locked down, President Gotabaya formed a special National Task Force to ensure that Sri Lanka is affected only minimally. The President was not only concerned about the health aspects but also of food security. The government stocked enough food to last the entire year. If the situation is reined in soon, Sri Lanka may have enough even to export. Therefore, the Government is not bluffing when it assures that there are enough food stocks.

But the going will not be easy. To keep us indoors as much as possible, the government had initiated a door-to-door delivery system with the partnership of wholesale dealers and other service providers. However, there is a crucial missing link that either the government has not yet factored in or has not communicated to the public. Even if the groceries are brought to the doorstep, people would still need money to pay for them. Even if the government provides these at the cheapest rates, people would still need money to pay. With the ongoing curfew, people are unable to go to the banks to withdraw money sitting in their accounts.

In districts like Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara as well as five districts In the Northern Province, the situation is further aggravated by the imposition of an indefinite curfew. Even in other districts, because the break in the curfew is very short, there are long queues in front of banks and shops. The problem is far greater for daily wage earners. They do not have any cash reserves. They will eat only if they find work for that day.

The government has gone into minute details even into the question of feeding stray dogs. It is keeping a helpline open for those with mental disorders or addictions or for those with any other special need. However if people are to remain calm, the government must assure them very clearly that they will be looked after under all circumstances.

In the meantime, the humanitarian deeds of the military are circulating in the social media. It is obvious that no task is too small for them. When a household had run out of gas, the Army supplied it. When an infant’s feeding bottle broke, the Army replaced it. Obviously the soldiers are under clear instructions to look after civilians in every way possible.

Therefore, people should not worry too much. At the same time it is imperative that the government also communicates these assurances very clearly to the people. The current instruction to tell the Army or police of one’s needs is too vague. It is also unlikely that a poor man will pick up the phone and tell the government that he is without any purchasing power.

Notwithstanding these gaps, most people are appreciative of the government’s efforts to contain the situation. This is especially so with many horror stories pouring in on other countries’ experience with COVID-19.

However, even as people quietly comply with government directives, the opposition is trying to bring the people’s attention to another crucial matter. They are urgently calling the President to reconvene parliament.

However, when the minority Rajapaksa government on 20 February tried to move parliament for funds to pay debts accumulated by the predecessor Yahapalana government in order to ensure an uninterrupted supply chain, the opposition blocked it just to put the new government in difficulty. Therefore, the President rejected the call to reconvene parliament and instead reiterated the need for fresh general elections. He called upon the people to elect a strong government which can fulfill his election pledges.

Tamil National Alliance (TNA) spokesman MA Sumanthiran notes that Sri Lanka is without a parliament and warns that if this situation is allowed to continue the country is in danger of losing democracy. The TNA opposed the establishment of a quarantine center in Vavuniya but did not object to an infected Pastor from Switzerland conducting mass congregations in the North. This had led to five districts in the Northern Province being put at high risk.

This raises the question as to whether the opposition is really concerned about democracy. Given the situation at hand, with the deadly COVID-19 on the rampage, the question that Sri Lankans should ask is whether the urgent need is democracy or leaders with a nationalistic mindset.

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