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  • Writer's pictureDr Chamindra Weerawardhana

Pandemic politics, or politicised pandemic?

Colombo Telegraph, 24 April 2020

The management of the Corona crisis in Sri Lanka has no shortage of critics. Some are purely cynical. Others opt to take a critical posture because it helps with their political, financial and careerist agendas. Certain news websites run by Sri Lankan journalists in exile, for example, have been consistently critical of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government’s management of the Covid-19 crisis. Just as the majority of these critics would do themselves a favour by adopting a more nuanced and reasonable approach, the same would unquestionably apply to the blind supporters of the Rajapaksa administration’s Covid-19 management work. The core Rajapaksa support base is one that does not budge. As some commentators have rightly noted, in Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa is not only a politician, but a faith, with many thousands of devout followers, who would categorically condemn every single critique of Mahinda Rajapaksa or any of his family members.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, the armed forces have been actively involved in handling the resulting crisis situation. Indeed, the work done by military personnel, especially those on the frontline, starting from the Sri Lanka Air Force [SLAF] personnel on duty at Bandaranaike Airport, merits unreserved commendation. Given the social and cultural context of Sri Lanka, one could argue that strong self-quarantine and obligatory quarantine measures could not have been implemented without the active participation of the tri-forces and the police. After all, a majority of Sri Lankans voted for a man with a military background who had never held political office to the country’s top political job back in November 2019, expecting an iron-fist with military might to govern them. That such a people would be more inclined to listen to men in military uniform than to medical professionals or the Health Minister is, whether one likes it or not, is a given.

As Comrade Bimal Ratnayake MP noted at a recent press conference, it is public health officials who take the lead in Covid-19 management initiatives in most countries. In Canada, the Chief Public Health Officer, Dr Theresa Tam, is very much the public face of Covid-19 management efforts. Prime Minister Trudeau provides daily updates by addressing the nation from the front of his Rideau Cottage residence, speaking francophone and anglophone Canada, identifying the ‘policy measures’ the Federal Government has taken and is taking to tackle this unprecedented situation. Despite the obvious challenges involved, Parliament was recalled in order to make crucial policy decisions. In the UK, where things have been challenging, with the Prime Minister and Health Secretary testing positive for Covid-19, it is senior cabinet ministers who make statements on policy issues, with responsible media houses prioritising views expressed by expert medical professionals, such as immunologist Professor Sarah Gilbert at Oxford, who is leading a team that works to develop a vaccine. In Sri Lanka, senior military and police officials have been on the frontline of providing government information to the public, and in reassuring the public. This writer narrows this down to political culture, and maintains that blaming the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government, the armed forces, or any other party for the repartition of hierarchy in the Covid-19 containment drive is absolutely futile.

Desperate for a general election?

However, one conspicuous development as of late calls for caution. It has for been quite clear over the past few weeks that the Rajapaksa family, the SLPP and President Rajapaksa in particular were all keen to get the 2020 parliamentary general election done away with, Covid-19 or not. Strategically speaking, this election means everything to the President, as it would strengthen his power base, especially if a two-thirds majority is ensured. If an election is held soon, there is indeed a chance that the current political-cum-military-led Covid-19 management drive will enable the SLPP to reach its two-thirds majority goal. However, the President and his allies may well benefit from paying close attention to present-day political realities. We live in post-19th amendment Sri Lanka. This means that a two-thirds majority will primarily strengthen the hands of the winning prime minister. Although the executive presidency is now well implanted in the Sri Lankan political psyche as the all-powerful top job, the truth is that this is no longer the case, and that a two-thirds majority will be a field day not for Gotabaya, but for Mahinda Rajapaksa. In these circumstances, it is only natural that the sitting Prime Minister would want to strengthen his power base by having an election and securing a two-thirds majority. Most importantly, there seems to be a concern that if the election is postponed, the adverse economic impact of Covid-19 would result in rising unpopularity of the current SLPP government.

The SLPP’s rationale for going for a general election at the earliest possibility, is therefore very clear, and from a perspective of power-politics, understandable. However, this reasoning needs to be contextualised in the very uncertain times we currently live in.

Problematic and Unethical?

What is problematic is the inclination to deploy the current crisis situation to push for a general election at the earliest possibility. Covid-19 is a global pandemic, and it does not spare anyone or any land. Most governments and political parties worldwide have understood this reality, and are orienting their political strategies accordingly. However, Sri Lanka’s Covid-19 management effort does appear to have a ‘them and us’ dimension. Does the political class and assume that they are somehow ‘beyond’ the reach of Covid-19?

Most countries that were supposed to hold national and local elections have postponed them. The only exception that comes to mind is that of Mali, where the first round of the legislative election was held on 29 March and the second round on Sunday 19 April 2020. Mali so far has recorded 216 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 13 deaths. The Malian case, however, cannot be used as a precedent. The election has been fraught with controversies, including the kidnapping of the main opposition personality, Soumaïla Cissé, and jihadist violence as well as election violence, even on election day. Unsurprisingly, the voter turnout on 19 April was a meagre 23.22%.

In Sri Lanka, political and media machinations to support the drive for a general election at the earliest possibility have been documented, especially in the Colombo Telegraph. One of the three commissioners at the Elections Commission has publicly voiced his bemusement and concern at some of the latest developments.

Election ASAP: a very bad idea?

Let’s spell it out clearly. In a small South Asian country with a population of 22 million people, it is extremely unadvisable to go for a parliamentary general election anytime soon. The Covid-19 pandemic needs to be contained, and as countries such as Germany and Denmark have shown, recovery efforts will be parsimonious and incremental, if not very slow. This slowness, and cautious decision-making are absolutely essential for public safety. Such decisions must in no way be based on purely political calculations. Instead, they must imperatively be based on sound advice from expert medical professionals in the field of managing pandemics and viral outbreaks.

Task at hand: Hold it Together!

Right now, the Government of Sri Lanka ought to listen to the WHO and to international and local subject specialists [meaning, immunologists, epidemiologists, public health experts and virologists], and prioritise the health of the population. This imperatively involves giving up the idea of an election anytime soon. Instead, the sensible thing, as well as the politically most advantageous step, is to use existing constitutional provisions to recall the dissolved parliament [respecting social distancing guidelines, of course], making important policy decisions, and ‘holding it together’. This might involve the revocation of the 2 March 2020 Gazette dissolving parliament. If not, the Elections Commission’s earlier proposal is also advisable - that the President consults the Supreme Court on postponing the election to a later date. Focusing on Covid-19 containment as the primary policy goal in all aspects of policymaking, prioritising the advice of medical professionals who are subject experts, and deploying all resources, including the armed forces, fighting fake news by credible media outreach to the public, are all key elements of an advisable ‘action plan’.

The deed is done!

However, the decision has now been made to have the general election on 20 June 2020 and this decision is now gazetted. This may be too soon for such a mammoth islandwide operation, where a great deal of human contact takes place. It is nigh impossible to deny that this is a very unadvisable decision.

The would-haves and the should-haves?

It is a pity that those in power fell short of reaching the realisation that a cautious, slow-paced approach was the most promising way forward. This would have invariably involved maintaining the lockdown in reasonable measure while simultaneously taking all possible steps to ensure the continuity of the supply chain, especially for food and other essential supplies. A key element of such an approach ought to have been that of reassuring the general public on the pandemic and its social and economic costs. Being frank about the impending economic challenges, and highlighting the importance of strong leadership and collective action under such circumstances, would have been crucial. This is how Covid-19 could have been deployed to the ruling party’s distinctive and long-term political advantage. Indeed, it is a longer and more painstaking process than any un-strategic, ill-thought-out and quick-fix efforts at politicising the Covid-19 crisis.

Inadequately addressing issues with the supply chain, delays in providing essential personal protective equipment [PPE] support to frontline medical staff, using the current situation to control any form of dissent or critique of the establishment, not providing adequate attention to subject-specialist medical professionals, using Covid-19 to incite ethno-racial discrimination, are all very unadvisable and dangerous drifts that should be avoided at all costs. This applies not only to the Government of Sri Lanka, but to all other governments everywhere in the world.

The question, then, is “does the current administration possess the strategic and political foresight, insight and tact to pursue such a slow, cautious and incremental approach? Readers are welcome to reach their own conclusions based on the developments of the past few weeks and of the weeks to come.

To recapitulate, what is required is an enlightened political response to the pandemic, not cantankerous efforts to politicise the pandemic. We need sound ‘pandemic politics’, not a politicised pandemic.

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