Sri Lanka; COVID curfew and after

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N Sathiya Moorthy 23 March 2020

In the absence of a cure for COVID-19, Governments across the world are doing the next best thing, to ensure minimum damage under the circumstances. Shut-down or lock-down, to borrow a new-generation western terminology are the only way to ensure that the virus does not take the pandemic form, which it otherwise is. Sri Lanka has gone one further step, by proclaiming a three-day police curfew, as a step in the right direction.

Sure enough, even those that pride themselves for not watching TV news, reading newspapers and not communicating with friends, relatives and neighbours, cannot now say that they did not know. Yet, to think that there are people who congregate in churches and elsewhere and get caught in the corona trap, are also taking the nation down with them.

There are those that simply vanished into thin air after landing at Katunayake airport before the nation became alive to the virus-threat need to look themselves in the mirror – if for nothing else for symptoms of COVID-19 on their faces. The Jaffna congregation that gathered to hear a priest from Switzerland say the Sunday Mass did not seem to have heard about Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith had cancelled all masses of the kind.

The issue here relates to the corona-positive priest taking the podium, knowing about the possibilities of his Swiss connection. The other one was that even as high a Church official as a Cardinal is the boss only of the Colombo Archdiocese and not the one in Jaffna. The ethnic strains are all too visible.

First in a series?

The police curfew is only the first in a series of measures that the Government may intend taking to check, and try curb the pandemic outbreak. At every turn, the nation needs to remind itself that prevention is not only better than cure – it is also the only cure available just now. Hence it also needs to cooperate with the authorities for whatever it is worth.

From the Government’s side, checking the virus spread is only the first of the various problems that would engulf the nation in the coming weeks, months and possibly years. The pandemic has put the economy clock by more years than the ‘Easter serial blasts’ put it less than 12 months back.

Restoring the confidence of the people is only one of the many daunting jobs before the authorities, starting with the political leadership. Restoring the economy, jobs and family incomes is going to be even more problematic than can be acknowledged at present.

Rather, a true assessment of the coronavirus impact on the economy can even be attempted only when it is all behind the nation. The question is when that ‘behind it’ will happen. It can take weeks, can go up to months, and no fault of the Government, whichever party or leader is in office.

National govt, but…

The temptation under the circumstances will be to form a ‘national government’ to face off what is an all-round real crisis. Suddenly, the nation is also realising that terrorism of the JVP, Easter blasts and even the LTTE are all passe in comparison. Here is a bomb that is waiting to explode, no one needed to remove the pin, or fire a gun.

Neither gun-shot wounds or blood-letting. Instead of deafening noise of blasts, here the silence can be even more deafening. But the results could be much more devastating than the outcome of all individual militant and terror attacks over the past several decades that the nation has faced.

A national government would be in order. But it is not possible. There is no Parliament for the President and the ruling SLPP combine under Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to consider forming one.

There is an alternative. Can the Government, that is President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, consider forming an all-party task force of the kind to connect with the masses, just as there is one headed by army chief, Lt-Gen Shavendra Silva, to take charge of the anti-corona mitigation efforts?

Hard-line chauvinism

Indications are that the parliamentary polls are not going to happen for several weeks from now, if not months. The representative character of this Government should not be compromised at the altar of virus-attack. It is not about any constitutional conundrum alone. It also owes to pragmatic connect with the people.

The temptation for the ruing party leaders down the line is to serve and sub-serve their own constituencies. The nation comprises more than them all. There are those constituents that are aligned to the present-day political Opposition. They might have also hurt and irritated the present-day ruling party counterparts when their party was in power.

Then, there is the ethnic angle to it all. The northern Tamils cannot blame the armed forces and the task force and the Rajapaksa leadership for what some may soon begin alleging ‘Sinhala-Buddhist hard-line chauvinism’. The Sunday Mass episode has exposed the Tamils’ error for whatever it is worth, but the community cannot be (seen as being) penalised for the errant behaviour of a few.

It is not enough that the Rajapaksas alone see the nation as a whole, and not let the outside world begin talking about ‘Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism’ all over again, after keeping quiet over the previous five years.  If offered, the multiple political parties should not shy away from joining hands with the Government, on any collective forum that it might moot, whether at the apex level or at multiple level to the last village.

The likes of TNA then should eschew the idea of boycotting any forum of the kind from commencement. That has been their privileged position from the past. Former Northern Province Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran, seeking to prove different from the TNA parent, should not start talking all over again about the Tamils’ rights, and vow not to contribute to the national effort at virus-mitigation, the way he wasted his five-year term – and left the Central funds for the Province mostly unspent on relief and infrastructure works.

Then there are the likes of UNP, now also the breakaway SJB, not to leave out the JVP and the JHU and the Mano Ganesan kind of Upcountry Tamil leaders. The multiple Muslim parties are mostly divided otherwise, but are united in walking out of Government-formed panels of the kind, at the most politically opportune moment for them, and inopportune for the nation.

The Government can play a backseat row in running such a consultative committee. Maybe, Speaker of the dissolved Parliament, Karu Jayasuriya, could be the convenor for a panel of the kind. If it were to be formed with all members of the dissolved Parliament, so be it – but its nature wold only be that of a consultative committee, nothing more nothing else.,..

Is anyone out there listening? 

The article appeared in the Colombo Gazette on 23 March 2020

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to Rediff.com since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University