When Sri Lankan lives matter…

By N Sathiya Moorthy

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s belated announcement to declare a 10-day, nation-wide lock-down beginning 20 August could not have been delayed any further. Maybe, some lives would have been saved from the Covid grip if the clampdown had been declared earlier, but this one will definitely save many more lives in the coming days, weeks.

There is no knowing why the government delayed the decision, considering that Gota’s projected prime trait used to be his rapid decision. It helped the nation in the LTTE war and also during the first phase of the pandemic, but not after the parliamentary election, which the President’s distinctive decisiveness helped his ruling SLPP combine to sweep with a thumping majority.

It was not so post-poll when the second wave of the pandemic telescoped into what since has come to be known as the third wave with ‘Delta variant’ to boot. And you now have at least three Delta variants even in the same locality in capital Colombo, according to news reports. As a veteran Tamil editor in Jaffna pointed out, the recklessness of it all is such that a local web journal in the language has said that all three Delta variants was present in the same person.

Generally, the political Opposition in this country and others are known to protest if the government shut down offices, shops and factories, whatever the reason and justification. Barring national calamities, there have been very few occasions when it is left to the agency of the government to declare nation-wide lockdown. It is doubtful if either the two ‘JVP insurgencies’ or the decades-long LTTE terrorism could achieve it all at once.

Too high a toll

The Covid-19 pandemic has done it, not once but twice in as many years. Last year, ahead of the parliamentary polls, the government mounted a nation-wide lockdown, whose enforcement the political Opposition and self-appointed civil society was opposed to. They questioned the principle of handing over the enforcement of pandemic-control and also lockdown control to the armed forces, and a task force headed by army chief, Gen Shavendra Silva.

In particular, the criticism was about policemen and army soldiers ‘attacking’ lockdown violators or picking them up off the streets and sending them to prison or police stations. Yet, when it all showed results, they were all praise for the nation having the lowest Covid toll of about a dozen dead, and the pandemic under perceived control, they too celebrated it. If anything, they were complaining that the government was easing lockdown restrictions quick and fast, with an eye on reviving family economy with only the postponed parliamentary polls in mind.

Since then the second and third phase death roll was first crossing one hundred after another, and then one thousand after another, the Opposition and the civil society were pleading with the government, yes, to impose lockdown all over again. They even charged the ruling dispensation with wantonly lowering the pandemic toll.

Yet, even by those standards, the figure has crossed the 7,000-dead mark, too high a figure for a nation with 2.2-m population. And the Opposition has blamed the government and the armed forces for not doing enough – which charge however has stuck this time, for a fair amount of justification.

Travails of short-notice

Yet, when the government yielded and President Gotabaya proclaimed a ten-day lockdown on Friday last, the impression gained ground that they both were mighty reluctant to take the one possible step that could arrest the pandemic spread, the death-roll, that too in the name of boosting up tourism economy. It is anybody’s guess how the government could come to the conclusion that well-spending foreign tourists care about their own lives and health safety less than they were doing after the Easter blasts that took 40 lives of foreign nationals.

So, when the Opposition called for a lockdown, the government looked the other way. So, SLFP ally did so, the response was the same. It applied also to a group of 10 ruling SLPP combine partners’ demand as well. As always, the JVP said it differently, but the party’s demand too was the same. The party said that the Health Ministry had become the proverbial cat’s paw, for the government to manipulate the official toll.

It came to a stage when SJB Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa declared that Sri Lankan lives mattered. Obviously, he had borrowed the phrase from last year’s ‘Black lives matter’ in the US. There, white supremacists were seen as the perpetrators. Not thus in Sri Lanka, where the government as an institution was seen as letting Sri Lankans fall haplessly to the pandemic…

The President has since detailed the travails of the people who would be facing the second lockdown, now. In particular, he referred to daily wage-earners, whose cumulative number, he put at 4.5 million, who would be stuck at their homes without any income. Truth be acknowledged, a ten-day lockdown in their case could actually mean 20 days of unemployment and 40 days of family suffering.

Yet, news reports, especially in the social media has been claiming that individual communities, cutting across political loyalties had begun imposing self-restrictions and lockdowns on their own, if only to cut down on the toll. There are also others who wanted others too to believe that the government decision amounted to too little, too late.

It is equally so in the case of providing relief for the vulnerable sections, in terms of family relief that goes beyond healthcare and Covid protection. If anything, the government’s sudden announcement, without preparing the people and organisations alike, may have only added to the common man’s woes, who had come to believe that the political leadership was in no mood to impose what tantamount to a nation-wide curfew, and that they had nothing to worry about continuing daily wages/incomes.

The story of the chaos remains to be told post-lockdown. Or, exaggerated versions will be put out in the social media, if it had not begun already. Of course, the government has exempted the media from the lockdown, but it is unknown how many newsmen have escaped the pandemic’s vice-grip to be able to tell the real story to the nation.

The government has since imported vast quantities of medical oxygen from neighbouring India, which went through the crisis only weeks back. India too woke up post facto to produce more oxygen for its Covid patients. Thankfully now, India has extra stock thanks mainly to fall Covid figures, for which the governments at the Centre and in the states can pat themselves.

Hence, New Delhi could happily spare oxygen when the southern neighbour sought. The messaging is not from the Indian side. But the reality of India being there for its Sri Lankan brethren in their hour of need, one more time – and one last time – cannot but go unacknowledged in Colombo and unnoticed elsewhere, too.

For some good reason…

At the end of it – though the pandemic has not ended – it was left to the outgoing Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi to shed some philosophical light on the ways and waywardness of the government leadership. She was speaking at a ceremony where Health Ministry officials were giving her a send-off and welcoming her replacement Keheliya Rambukwela. She is now the new Transport Minister in the place of Rambukwella.

It is not known how anyone up there could have concluded that changing the minister-in-charge, especially the one who had fought it out together with her doctors and officials, with someone who is new to the portfolio would help matters. After all, no one said that Wanniarachchi was incompetent and incorrigible.

At the farewell, Wanniarachchi reportedly recalled a folktale of a king and his court astrologer travelling through dense forests when the ruler mistakenly cuts off one of his fingers. Not satisfied with the astrologer’s comment that it should be for some good reason the king abandons the latter and proceeded all alone on his horse-back. Then again, the court astrologer says that too was for some good reason.

Later when some tribals catch the king as the right candidate for human sacrifice, they find out he has one finger less and let him off. On way back, the king finds the astrologer still in the pit where the master had pushed him only hours earlier, and helps him out.

After narrating his tale to the astrologer, he asks why did he say that it was for some good even when he was being pushed into the pit. After all, but for the king’s return, no one would have been there to save him…Pat came the wise-man’s reply: ‘The tribals let you off because you had a lost finger. Had you not pushed me into the pit, I would have accompanied you and they would have sacrificed me as I have no physical deformity…”

Some wise words, these…

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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