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Shortsighted to see post-COVID situation as just an economic crisis: Sisira Pinnawala

ECONOMYNEXT – The following is the first in a series of interviews EconomyNext hopes to have with academics and public intellectuals on the way forward for Sri Lanka in a post-COVID-19 world.

Prof (retired) Sisira Pinnawala of the Department of Sociology at the University of Peradeniya warns that it is shortsighted to see post-COVID situation as just an economic crisis that can be dealt with by economic solutions. He believes it is a socio-economic crisis that needs to be understood from a political economic perspective.

“My concern is not the collapse of businesses and its impact on the corporate sector but its human dimension, namely, mass unemployment and its social consequences including general social unrest it may produce. If not prudently handled we may see a repeat of the Southern and the Northern militancies. It may be also possible that they might join hands this time,” he said.

EN: Very briefly, how do you see the immediate aftermath of the pandemic for Sri Lanka’s social, economic and political landscape, and what are your predictions for the coming months?

SP: I do not need to repeat what we already know and experience. The government will be able to keep things quiet with short-term solutions that are long-term harmful until the elections are over. The short-term measures aimed at elections will help keep people not experiencing the real impact of the collapsing economy. After the elections it will be a different story as the government will have to face the reality. Then there will be a reaction from the masses and things can get bad.  Repression is the inevitable outcome. There is every possibility of the ruling regime exploiting ethnic sentiments to its advantage making the situation worse.

EN: Even as Sri Lanka starts going back to work, mass unemployment threatens to be a major crisis, post-pandemic. The poor and lower middle-classes will be the worst affected by this, and the government will likely run out of options as it runs out of the welfare budget. How do you propose we manage this crisis?

SP: Managing the crisis will need a national effort,  I mean real national effort bringing all segments of society together,  not just top down technocratic solutions and empty slogans feeding to parochial sentiments as it is being done today. I do not see the possibility of that happening. Instead the regime will try to use minorities as scapegoats to divert attention from the real issues worsening the ethnic divide.

EN: In your view, what role will the private sector play in the efforts to revive Sri Lanka’s economy, and what can the government do to facilitate increased private sector participation in the recovery process?

SP: The private sector has a very big role to play but I am not sure whether it is ready and whether we have plans to get them to join in a long-term effort in that direction. For our policy makers and planners the private  sector is big corporations, which is not true. In terms of both production and employment generation it is the Small and Medium Enterprises. We need to get them to join forces with our poverty alleviation effort which is still a government run affair.

EN: Some glaring flaws notwithstanding, it is evident that the state has played a crucial role in managing the ongoing crisis and its socioeconomic repercussions. Going forward, to what extent should the state participate in the so-called new normal? In your opinion, in what ways – if any – must the state be modernised/re-calibrated for this purpose?

SP: Despite criticism the government managed the situation more or less without a hitch and the role of the state was crucial in the success. That is because the country already had an efficient health service delivery system in place. Unfortunately we attribute the success to individuals and some groups of professionals, not the system itself. Even in appreciating the role of professions we talk of the top segments not the bottom layer that played the most important role in the community, namely, the role of PHIs that was crucial in tracing the infected and supervising community level quarantine effort. (Colombo/Jun26/2020)

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