Has the COVID Pandemic exposed the lack of a social conscience within the Sri Lankan society?
Posted on May 13th, 2021

By Raj Gonsalkorale

The norms of society are the sum of our collective values and priorities – as society shapes us, we shape society. In addition to a sense of right and wrong for personal action, individuals possess a sense of right and wrong for collective action – what might be called social conscience. Individual conscience compels us to act morally in our daily lives, avoiding or helping to relieve the immediate suffering of others, whereas social conscience compels us to insist on moral action from the wider institutions of society and to seek the transformation of social structures that cause suffering. – Myshele Goldberg, University of Strathclyde and the Centre for Human Ecology

The wider society’s response and collective behaviour during the COVID pandemic in Sri Lanka, especially since the New Year period and in the last few weeks has cast doubts on the values of our society and its lack of a social conscience as a society.

The battle against COVID has been left almost entirely to the government and its many institutions, and hardly any civil society leaders, religious leaders, the media, and above all, political leaders outside of the government have appealed to what is left in us as a social conscience to behave responsibly and rationally to contain the spread of the COVID virus. It appears that the COVID containment issue has always been someone else’s responsibility and not that of the society itself.

Much of the publicity given and criticisms made, have been against the government and its entities charged with managing the spread. Where there have been lapses, it is within everyone’s rights to level such criticisms. However, no government, this government or any other could totally manage the behaviour of its citizens, and in a democracy this is more so than in authoritarian States. Societal behaviour is a value based phenomenon and misbehaviour is a reflection on the worth of its values and a clear sign of a question mark on the social conscience of a society.

What is social conscience, and why is it relevant asks Myshele Goldberg. She says conscience can be described as internalised values: a person’s intuitive ‘moral compass.’ While rational, philosophical, or religious arguments are often used as justifications, conscience itself is primarily emotional: we associate feelings of pleasure and pride with right action, and feelings of guilt and shame with wrong action. These emotions help to motivate choices and behaviour, playing an important role in the maintenance and transformation of social norms

While it is understandable for small traders to have made use of the opportunities they have to sell their wares and earn a living during Aluth Avurudu, it was an unconscionable phenomenon to have witnessed the crowds that thronged to Nuwara Eliya and places like Horton Plains and to have created a breeding ground for COVID. Conducting Horse races certainly demonstrated that people were living by the adage Newa Gilunath Band Chune”, (let’s dance even if the ship sinks), symbolic of the Titanic catastrophe, which has now become a reality in the country. Besides the Nuwara Eliya revelry, neither did most ordinary folk observe any health guidelines relating to wearing masks or observing social distancing in this breeding ground and everywhere else in the country.

When idiocy overtakes logic and common sense, it says a lot about the state of mind of the Sri Lankan society during a critical stage of the Pandemic in the country.

The Opposition political parties and the phoenix that has risen from the dead, unlike the Phoenix in mythology where a new phoenix rises from the ashes of its dead predecessor, symbolising rebirth, hope, renewal, progress, end of oppression, and eternity, the Sri Lankan phoenix in the form of the defeated UNP leader is attempting to make political capital out of the plight of the pandemic without offering any hope to the people in the country. It is ironic that this leader who led his party to the worst ever election defeat of any major political party in the post-independence history of the country, polling less than 300,000 votes in the entire country, and which failed to win enough votes to secure a seat in Parliament, is now set to enter Parliament from the back door. If it comes to pass, it would be a macabre reward for ruining his party and it is a reflection of his values, that of his party and the values of the society in tolerating it. Neither the government nor or other political parties, nor the media has thought it appropriate to highlight this moral and ethical degradation of values, assuming of course that there are any values left.

In regard to the responsibility of the society to safeguard themselves, their loved ones and others around them, neither has the Opposition leadership ever appealed to the people to behave in a more responsible manner and heed the advice of health authorities in the country. Instead, the focus has been solely on the government action and inaction, and not once any appeals to the people of the country to observe the health guidelines and to act with caution and restraint.

It is indeed depressing that a country that boasts of the influence of four great religions and boasts even more loudly of the influence of its Buddhist heritage, have not been able to develop a social conscience and a moral compass to chart and manage its behaviour

If we did have a worthwhile social conscience and then understood that social conscience, we could have made better choices to help shape society according to our values. This extends not just in respect of the COVID response but very broadly to the status of the society as a whole. In the Sri Lankan society today, one could question its value base and whether the real teachings of the age old religions are practiced as the teachers intended. Many would argue that superficial manifestations dominate society although few would be willing or are able to move away from such superficial manifestations.

The Sinhala Buddhist heritage is all but cultural and not true to the philosophy of the teachings. There would be Buddhists who chant the five precepts but hardly practice them. Ignorance and lip service surrounds the Metta, Karuna, Muditha and Upeksha tenants. They are either not understood and therefore not practiced or they have become discussion topics only for academic pursuits. The world of Islam wishes to go back to what proponents term the real teachings” of the Prophet, and Sri Lanka too has witnessed a movement in this direction. The Easter bombing in Sri Lanka, and the very recent massacre of school children in Afghanistan defy any belief that the Prophet would have endorsed such murderous activity in His name.

Myshele Goldberg goes on to say that the words conscience and consciousness are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Consciousness, as used in expressions such as ‘raising consciousness,’ describes a person’s knowledge and awareness, and consciousness implies a process of value judgement, classifying situations broadly into right, wrong, or neutral”. 

One can argue that there cannot be a consciousness without a conscience and that consciousness is the expression of one’s conscience.  In the Sri Lankan context, if the behaviour of a significant segment of the wider society during the last few weeks, beginning with the Aluth Avurudu celebrations, and the behaviour of Opposition politicians, civil society leaders, religious leaders and other opinion makers including the media could be understood as an expression of their conscience, then, it does raise a significant question about the values and value judgement of the Sri Lankan society.

The COVID Pandemic is a health related issue and it needs to be directed by health authorities. Politicians of all hues, religious leaders, civil society leaders, the media, must appeal to the general public to heed the advice of health authorities, and assist the government of the day to manage the Pandemic on the basis of health advice while doing the utmost to ensure that the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people of the country are safeguarded while acting within health guidelines parameters. Dogs may bark while the Caravan keeps moving, but, the opinion leaders of the country should not bark like the Dogs but instead assist to move the Caravan forward for the benefit of the country.

7 Responses to “Has the COVID Pandemic exposed the lack of a social conscience within the Sri Lankan society?”

  1. aloy Says:

    Today is an important day in Muslim calendar and let me wish them Eid al-Fitr. I remember how we were invited to our friends’ houses and took part in their ‘hari raya’ (public day) celebrations.

    I believe Sinhalese as a community have had the social responsibility in our culture. That is the reason when there was a communicable disease like this chickenpox our people used to warn others by hanging Neemb leave in front of the houses.

    The opinions of medics also differs from one to another, I give one example from me: in 2014 one top medic in this country gave me just two weeks to live unless I go for a surgery and he gave me a rough estimate for the thing amounting to couple of millions. When I was waiting in the queue to see there was a serving minister also waiting behind me. I told the specialist to give me about 10 days for me to organize some jobs I had undertaken and return. I never went back, nor did I see any medic. I only followed a protocol one German non medical lady had published in the internet, which is a very simple therapy costing only a few dollars. Today I can do whatever I am doing with more clarity and confidence. So, whom to believe?.
    The values this author refers to are non existent today. From top to bottom is corruption. They think that’s the way to go. And the port city thing is one such attempt. If you look around even the so called civilized nations are doing the same. What was Eleina Tepliz doing in the East a few days before 4/21?.

  2. Ratanapala Says:

    The world outside in Sri Lanka is a replica of what we see inside the Parliament. Everyone wants to tell the others how to run the country. This is akin to the ‘tea boy’ at the local The’ Kade’ commenting on how cricket should be played and how selections should be made to the national team.

    It is common knowledge that most Sri Lankans who has ‘somebody’ down the grapewine connected to the administration of the vaccines have obtained the Covid-19 vaccines by taking the well trodden path of Adurumkama or ‘contacts’. The funny thing is after having got the jab ahead of others, abusing the ‘system’, they are the first to complain about the ‘injustices’ of the vaccination system!

    The Opposition, at least the so called Leader of the Opposition seems to think that he is the current President of Sri Lanka. He invites foreign dignatories who are keen to ‘fish in troubled waters’ and washes ‘government’s dirty laundary in front of the world.

    Only contribution that the Opposition can do at present is, as the writer so correctly says is to go among the public and educate the general public on the importance of following health guidelines and staying safe.

  3. Nimal Says:

    No one need to prove our lack of social conscience in the country. It has been there since the colonials left the country. See the way our people drive on our streets, officials behave as if the people they are suppose to serve are treated with much contempt and the biggest culprits are the politicians of all colours.
    This is our balu culture I have been on about as I constantly moved with foreigners from the age of 12,where I learned a lot of good from them.
    I was baffled by the dedication of the US peace Corp who had given up their comfortable lives to be with us to educate us and they even went with us to put toilets for the poorest, supposed to be low caste village close to Kurunagala.I owe a lot to them for my interest in Science and technology. These people in the West have a very strong social conscience, the reason why they allow in refugees who may harm their countries on the long run,where some of them bring all the evil habits of their respective countries they came from.
    I still remember the social conscience inculcated by the British Colonials on our people.One incidence I never will forget in 1948 where I was only 5 years old where I had to go to my aunt’s house at Raja maha vihara on Saturdays to lean English and I took the bus from Mirihana junction.Bus drivers got familiar with me and was very concerned for my safty.they took the bus away from the route to the premises of the old Police station on Station road where the bus could turn back to the normal route to Nuggegoda.Our house was in front of that police station and the conductor walked with me to the door step of our home and the people were patiently waiting in the bus.Some times they refuse to take the bus fare of 2 cents.same thing happened once when I took the bus from Colombo to kandy where the bus fare was Rs1.80.they felt sorry that I had to carry a metallic trunk from my boarding school,was only 10 years old. Since my father was transferred to Kurunagala there was no one to take me home to Kandy for the long school holidays. Those good days people had a heart and a conscience. I could write a book about this sadly we are presently left with a balu selfish culture, each one to oneself.

  4. aloy Says:

    Nimal,
    Our kings before 1604 never gave parts of country to anybody, but fought for it. So keep in mind that they were not ‘balu’. But JR, the slimy South Indian fox, who had the pre-signed letters gave away SL’s sovereignty on a platter to Rajiv Gandhi, and Rajiv paid for it.

    Our own parayas will no doubt sell the remainder for pre-signed checks amounting to $500 (already in Dubai)?.
    I suppose, this is our destiny, not in our control now, but who knows, they too will pay for it.

  5. Nimal Says:

    Aloy
    May be our kings never gave parts of the island to others because there was no necessity as the medieval kings had every thing they wanted besides they hardly knew the existence of foreigners that were more advanced.
    When the Dutch and the Portuguese came to far East, having used our ports to break journey etc got around our kings to settle in Kotte and Wahakotte.One of them even married one of them. King of Kandy enjoyed the luxuries like whisky from east India company and likes of Ehalapola even visited places in Indonesia and India.They saw the orderly lifestyles among those foreigners and wanted the same for their people back home and that resulted in the Kandyan convention.
    After the convention there was much development in the country, if one cares to honestly admit. Very few kings in all nations ever benefited the majority of the people under them, even in UK.Now we need another convention and another intervention of the right type of people, but not the Yanks. I would prefer the British to come back but I doubt that they have time for us.
    I went past the Palestinian demonstrators at Park Lane and one or two got in to my bus,had a bit of conversation and they admit that they need to make an effort to make Palestine like UK but I doubt the Yanks and Bibi’s lot will ever allow it, besides their religion had made them drift away from us in the first world. Therefore it will take decades and many sacrifices for them to make another UK elsewhere. There’s so much good in UK,like Ehalapola I would like that good ness be brought to our island, which is impossible as long as we have selfish people running the country..

  6. aloy Says:

    Nimal,
    To continue this dialogue, I must say I am not a historian, but quote here what I have read from here and there. The ‘balu’ kings that gave Wahakotte for Catholics to escape the Dutch also was of that type (after 1604).
    However I am surprised your lack of knowledge about even the existing physical evident to the glorious past of those true kings of Lanka. I suggest you listen to the ‘Neth FM’ weekly episodes of Prof. Raj Somadeva. I listened to his last episode which described about the longest reigning king of this land, king Wasabha (the first Lambakarna). That was in the 1st century AD when the existence of England was even not known and the geographer Ptolemy (100AD-169AD), put this country in his map as Taprobana.
    I am fascinated by the social structure he created and the knowledge of engineering of the people at that time. It is comparable to what is available in present day. One such hydraulic structure is near Trinco, which is a twin channel constructed with stones weighing over 30,tons cut and placed accurately so that it wont get washed away. He did not have cranes at that time. I have decided to put it as the first picture of my mobile app on ‘Gravity Flow Analyzer’ that uses today’s technology both engineering and digital.
    Please listen to the professor if you have time. He gives physical evidence to say that our culture and way of life has been crafted over a period of over 125,000 years. Many around the world are listening to him.

  7. aloy Says:

    Sorry please correct as the “the king Wasaba who reigned longest in SL and created the social awareness and responsibilities of individuals”

    Also, I will send a screenshot of one of the hydraulic structures I intend using to LankaWeb to place in this thread.

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