This corona epidemic has given us much to think fresh; as citizens, community, professionals, media and even with regard to governance. At the same time, it throws light on five tiers comprising the above identified with regard to their responsibilities during this period of calamity.
Self – Stay at Home
As citizens, we are compelled to self-question “had we been responsible enough to ourselves and to others”. We being responsible to ourselves mean, at its minimum, to following health advice to protect ourselves and others from corona virus. This includes wearing facemasks, washing hands frequently, covering ourselves while sneezing, coughing etc. – basically issues related to personal hygiene. If we follow these basic sanitary tips, we would protect ourselves and others from the disease, say the health experts, although they don’t claim any of these is 100%. However, there is one measure that is (near) absolute, which is “Stay at Home”. If one stays at home, sure promise, he will neither get infected nor will spread it to others, (unless he gets infected by someone within the same household).
Community – Physical Distancing
As a community, while all above meant for the citizens are all well and good, community responsibilities go beyond these to include aspects related to interactions between members of the community. In this regard lockdown, self quarantine and physical distancing (misnomered as social distancing in corona control parlance, as discussed in Counterpoint of 24.03.2020), which means maintaining one meter distance between one another in public places are examples. The moment the curfew is lifted, the Sri Lankan public will show how they fail miserably in maintaining these responsibilities (perhaps, for their splanchnic requirements taking the better of the social requirements, which iscomprehensible).
Social distancing of other kind
It is saddening to see that, during this calamity, lines painted on political affiliations and ethnicity have worn into the social fabric of Sri Lankan society, sinisterly dividing it. Whoever expresses views not in favor of the government’s actions managing the epidemic or relief measures in facebook and other social media, are perceived as rivals (or even traitors) by the elements who are convenient with the government’s way of thinking. Lot of enmity and abuse will be vented on their “opponents” by these elements. They repeatedly blame the (irresponsible) community, the returnees from Italy and now extending it even to the Muslims for the spread of the virus, won’t ever accept the shortcomings on the part of the authorities. This type of mentality of a part of our society, that upholds everything and anything done by their masters, too could be disastrous in the epidemic control, especially when everything and anything done by the authorities, till now, are not correct.
Chamara Nakandala, journalist and political activist, gives a short and sweet explanation for this unsavory trend. “This is a product of a long term project. A product collectively created by the mainstream media, sleazy businesses with their black money and some segments of clergy. A divine devotion has been created towards the political leadership. And anything critical towards this devotion is met with scorn and violence”.
“Social irresponsibility”, if it is the case, one may wonder whether is a universal phenomenon, considering the way people behave in other countries as well. Except for a few countries like China, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea that are supposed to have contained the disease quite successfully within a reasonable time frame, most other countries have failed to make great strides with regard to the control of epidemic within their borders. (Even with regard to the countries supposed to have controlled corona, only time will issue the final verdict). Some economically advanced countries like US, Italy and Spain have fared worst in this regard. In the face of failure, the governments tend to put the blame on the public, (while some segments of public tend to question the credibility of government’s actions, while the majority stays baffled).
The blame game in Sri Lanka, amounting to gross discrimination at times, has taken many unpleasant twists and turns over the last two months. First it was Sinophobia. Then the finger was pointed at the Italy and Korean returnees. Since the last few days, racism, arguably the unpredictable snake under the Sri Lankan social fabric, seems to be rearing its macabre head again, fuelled by some irresponsible statements made by a few health and police officers on media. For the first, now the media have started to report the “ethnicity” of the corona patients in the country. We hope the health authorities will step into correct this situation, better sooner than later.
Professional – Ensure Supply Chain
Thus far in the management of the epidemic, two professions have outshone the others, namely, the health and military (including the police). Could this unproportionate prominence received by these categories mean that the other officials who need to be on par with them in the relief response are sidelined? If so, it has to be mentioned that maintenance of a top-heavy response will be the least productive, if not counterproductive, in response to the sweeping epidemic.
We should not underestimate the role that could be played by some other categories such as the divisional secretaries, NGO/ CBO and other community leaders (including the local religious dignitaries), and especially those who work with the grassroots, namely the Grama Niladharis, samurdhi officers, development officers and the likes. Getting them on board the “bandwagon” definitely will boost the capacity of the response, both numerically and ideologically.
As of today, one week into the “full-blooded” curfew, the most pertinent responsibility that has befallen the shoulders of the professionals remains the ensurance and maintenance of the supply chain. The supply chain ranges from supplying the health services to (all sorts of) patients to maintenance of foods and other essential services. Although the evening TV news bulletins lament the mechanisms created to maintain the supply chains, this has hardly become a reality for a majority of the public. As I said in article titled “Curfew and What Next” (Counterpoint of 25.03.2020) identifying and maintenance of essential services is a must in the coming weeks, and the professionals should take this up as a challenge.
Media – Don’t stigmatize
As it was said before, loads of discrimination and stigma have been spewed during this short period. Media (both mainstream and social) are responsible for this. On one hand while this hurt the offended people, may also be a factor that drives people away from seeking healthcare facilities, and even into hiding. This is a well known phenomenon with regard to any disease and was the case throughout the human civilization. As it was always, this could hamper the government’s efforts at controlling the epidemic. Therefore, the media is expected to play a more responsible role in this regard.
As much as publishing authentic, verified, true information, the media should refrain from identifying patients by their ethnicity, religion, occupation (and other social markers) and also from showing their faces and that of their kith and kin.
Government – Take correct decisions
As it is now, with no functioning parliament, the government, more or less, remains the President and the Cabinet. Following raising of concerns by many, a party leaders meeting was convened by the President a week ago to discuss the worsening calamity, which is commendable. What comes to the mind of this writer is how the then government responded to a menacing epidemic of Dengue in August 2004. It was swift to call a parliamentary special session where the government and opposition members were given opportunities to present their views and proposals. (The articles written by this writer to The Island on Dengue control during that time were tabled at this session).
In a nutshell, it has to be said, had there being appropriate decisions taken by the government at appropriate times, much of this present calamity would have been prevented. Closure of the airport mainly for inbound flights except for the arriving Sri Lankans (as Singapore did), imposing tight security at the airport and maintaining quarantine for the immigrants fully could have been some of the measures that have been implemented timely. Being an island, not sharing borders with other countries and having quite a manageable population (21+ million) where still a majority is rural are some of the positive geo-demographic factors Sri Lanka enjoys against the corona spread. Anyhow, lets bygones be bygones. Now the virus has entered the country, what we need as citizens in this country is to cooperate with the government in all their actions that are done in good faith to control the epidemic. And to this end, the government should ensure it takes the correct decisions, and only correct decisions. This they can do by getting advice from a good, balanced, experienced set of intellectuals.
Dr. Prasanna Cooray
(Public Health Writers’ Collective)
Image From - WHO