ECONOMYNEXT – A year into President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency, we are in the midst of a raging pandemic, with an ailing economy and mounting debt trap. Our woes are compounded by shrinking foreign reserves, soaring unemployment and increasing poverty.
This is contrary to the picture the current ruling party painted before the election, in which there were promise, positivity and optimism. There were expectations that professionals and technocrats would drive the country forward without political interference. There was hope that stable policies and strong leadership would usher in an enabling environment for businesses.
All these expectations have disappeared into thin air now, with Sri Lanka relying more and more on the military, and drifting towards an authoritarian, surveillance state ruling over a poverty-stricken nation. The crusade against corona has been spearheaded by men in uniform and not qualified doctors, and even the handful of civil officials who were instrumental in handling the first outbreak of the pandemic — Dr Anil Jasinghe and Dr Paba Palihawadana — are not to be seen.
There seems to be no concentrated effort to protect vulnerable groups from the economic fallout of COVID19 and the ongoing lockdowns. Those living in housing schemes in Colombo have been seen flocking to the streets demanding food and money. The newly established ‘Drone Regiment’ of the Army has deployed state-of-the-art surveillance devices to track the movements of curfew offenders. But these new technological capabilities have not been used to track those in need of urgent assistance and provide them with essentials during prolonged lockdowns.
The second outbreak of the pandemic, which source is yet to be established, has spilt out of control. The death toll is on the rise and hundreds of new cases are reported on a daily basis. We do not have adequate facilities to conduct aggressive and comprehensive random testing on civilians and the large majority of new cases are reported within “clusters”. Our health sector is currently grossly ill-equipped to handle a major outbreak of the pandemic and we do not have adequate intensive care facilities to meet mounting challenges. A newspaper report revealed two weeks ago that the Ministry of Health has ordered no new ventilators since March and only 146 ICU beds have been designated for COVID19 patients. This shocking revelation speaks volumes of the inefficiency of the government and its complacent approach towards the global pandemic.
The ill-fate confronting Sri Lanka at the moment is not by accident and was caused by the current government’s flawed approach to the most critical issues the nation is currently facing.
When the government claimed that it brought the first wave of the pandemic under control, Sri Lanka did not have adequate facilities to aggressively test patients. Despite such shortcomings, the government basked in the glow of becoming the “second country after China to defeat COVID 19”. If there hadn’t been a PCR test on the Brandix worker who admitted herself to the Gampaha Hospital, we would still be eating “Kiribath” (Milk Rice) in celebration of the “success” of becoming the second nation to defeat the deadly virus. Such was the government’s ignorant approach to a highly complex public health issue.
The government went into handling the second outbreak of the pandemic with a superiority complex come about from a false euphoria. As in the case of the victory of the war, the primary responsibility of “crushing the pandemic” had been given to the armed forces with medical experts taking a backseat, and the fear generated by the military was maintained to keep people at home. The quarantine process was made seem punitive measure and the cumulative result of this militarised approach to pandemic-control was the stigmatisation of patients, which, in return, made them reluctant to seek medical treatment.
There even lacked a coherent policy on the imposition of “quarantine curfew”. Two weeks ago, the Police Spokesman gave the public 48-hour notice before imposing curfew in the Western Province, prompting a “mass exodus” from the province before the curfew came into effect. It was clear the Police had failed to foresee and mitigate this situation leading to the forced 14-day quarantine of all those who left the province, even at a great personal financial cost. The government has failed miserably to empathise with the woes of daily wage earners and low-income groups who have borne the brunt of prolonged lockdowns and isolation periods.
It was apparent from the early stages of the outbreak in Sri Lanka that the government’s first priority was to consolidate power, not take aggressive action to protect the country from the pandemic. This is a recipe for failure and we are all reaping what the government has sown since the last Parliamentary election. We must remember what we have learned from this; that a government that puts greed for power before a raging pandemic is bound to fail. A government that trusts a family and a coterie of friends over experts and professionals is bound to fail. And a government that hoodwinks the public by manipulating news rather than delivering results is bound to fail. (Colombo, November 16, 2020)
Rasika Jayakody is an active member of the Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya Youth Wing. His opinions are his own