Image courtesy WHO

“Epidemic diseases are not random events that affect societies capriciously and without warning. On the contrary, every society produces its specific vulnerabilities. To study them is to understand that society’s structure, its standard of living and its political priorities.” Frank M Snowdon (Epidemics and Society – from the Black Death to the Present)

This week, Chinese authorities heaped praise on ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, absolving him of the charge of disturbing public order. The rumourmonger has been declared a ‘hero who fought bravely’ by the very system that persecuted him for warning about a new SARS-like virus.

The exoneration came too late for the whistle-blowing doctor and for the 13,000 people in China and worldwide who had died of the Covid-19 pandemic, so far. That pandemic could have been avoided, had President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders heeded the whistleblower-doctors instead of punishing and silencing them. According to a study by the University of Southampton, had Beijing responded two weeks earlier (around the time of Dr. Li’s warning), the number of cases could have been reduced by 86%.

Even with the benefit of the Chinese example before them, political leaders from the orient to occident persisted in ignoring or downplaying the threat from Covid-19, cleaving to the myth of business as usual. Donald Trump said the virus was just like the flu, and will vanish miraculously. On the day Italy’s infectious cases exceeded 400, the leader of the ruling Democratic Party urged Italians not to change their habits. Iranian leaders refused to lockdown virus epicentres in the country and went ahead with a planned parliamentary election. Sri Lanka’s Tourist Board put out an ad touting the country as a safe-zone from Covid-19. The ad claimed great health screening, best health care, only one confirmed case and 34 days with no case – and continued to run even after the WHO declared a global pandemic.

Such blindness and inaction enabled Covid-19, birthed in China, possibly of a food chain that involved pangolins and men, to become a global pandemic in three short months.

The velocity and the spread of the virus’s sweep demonstrate that while closing national borders is a necessary measure, the eventual solution will have to be a global one. If the virus retains a hold on even a single land, the rest of the world will not be safe. To paraphrase John Donne, in our globalised world, where migration and tourism are ubiquitous, not even islands are islands.

The Hong Kong flu epidemic of 1968 which killed one million people and the Asian flu epidemic which began in China in 1956 and killed 2 million people barely touched us in our teardrop island. Those days of splendid isolation are long gone. Tourism is our lifeblood. And we have a Diaspora that is second (in terms of numbers) only to the Jewish Diaspora. we are unique only in our own besotted eyes. Any bell that tolls for the rest of the world tolls for us too.

The need for a political ceasefire

In Iran, election in the time of Covid-19 caused a low turnout, enabling hardliners to score a landslide win. That might have been what Lankan rulers were hoping for when they insisted on going ahead with the parliamentary election despite a burgeoning epidemic.  Politics trumped over commonsense to such an extent that a police curfew imposed on areas pinpointed as the virus epicentre was hastily lifted to facilitate the nomination process.

The Election Commission has postponed the election, using the powers accorded to it by the 19th Amendment. Had it not done so, the virus would have claimed many more victims by now. A stark warning of how the campaign would have done the work of the virus was provided by a Gampaha District candidate who also happens to be a medical doctor. Not only did she organise a meeting to felicitate herself; she also praised the participants (who were seated shoulder to shoulder) for coming to her meeting even against the advice of medical professionals. Had the election not been postponed, Sri Lanka would have been overwhelmed not only by a viral pandemic but also by a stupidity pandemic.

The election has been postponed but the electoral mindset, created by the dissolution of parliament and the nomination process, continues to pervade. Some of the party leaders might play safe, but individual candidates and their supporters will resume campaigning the moment the curfew is gone, leaving thousands of disease vectors in their wake. Hours before the curfew came into effect, a candidate in the Badulla district went around in a truck distributing pirith pan (Buddhist holy water) to people. This sort of behaviour would go national the moment the curfew is lifted, undoing whatever good the days of forced isolation had achieved.

The only way out is for all contending parties to come to an agreement to suspend campaigning until the situation stabilises. Once such a multi-partisan agreement is reached, party leaders would have the necessary political space to stop their candidates from engaging in their infantile battles for preference votes.

Unfortunately, this necessary political ceasefire is yet to happen. The President seems to think this is a problem he can solve singlehandedly, with the support of the military, just as he ‘won the war’. At a meeting of the Covid-19 task force, he dismissed the idea of a national lockdown, with a cackle. The imposition of the curfew points to a welcome change. Perhaps it had something to do with Basil Rajapaksa having to place himself in self-quarantine, a measure necessitated by a meeting with a local-level politician who had subsequently tested positive for the virus. If campaigning resumes before the epidemic has been seriously incapacitated, no one will be safe, including the president and his family.

A political ceasefire is necessary for financial reasons as well. The government has spending money only till end April. To approve finances beyond that date, the parliament has to meet. The government has obtained a loan from China, but that is merely a stopgap measure. Since a new parliament is not possible before end April, the old parliament will have to be reconstituted. Therefore, the only option is for the president to rescind the gazette that dissolved the parliament, thereby restoring the status quo ante.

If the President is willing to take the first steps towards a political ceasefire, the opposition must cooperate, using their numerical strength to pass whatever sums necessary not only to beat back the epidemic, but also to keep the country functioning and to provide relief to the more vulnerable businesses and households.

Countries that have managed to keep the contagion under control all engaged in aggressive testing. Even non-symptomatic people were tested, resulting in early detection and isolation. That means many more testing kits, as well as other facilities, from hospital beds and protective gear to ventilators. Funding these necessities might require unpopular measures, including the cancellation of some of the more irrational tax benefits of December 2019. If the government is courageous enough to propose these measures, the opposition, in turn, must be principled enough to back them, and not turn them into propaganda footballs.

A political ceasefire is also necessary to develop the right societal attitude in the face of a common threat. Cooperation, unity, solidarity – this is what we need today. Elections are times of intense competition, not just among parties but also among members of the same party. An election campaign, in this time, will turn common or garden political, ethno-religious and societal cracks into deadly faultlines. In a situation characterised by inter-party and intra-party fighting, the pandemic will become the lesser enemy. Until we wake up one day in the situation of China or Italy.

Avoiding a Stupidity Pandemic

American astrophysicist, Neil de Grass Tyson, said that “we are living in the middle of a massive experiment worldwide – will people listen to scientists?”

Sri Lanka’s record so far is not very encouraging. Our responses to the epidemic seem to be characterised more by prejudices and preferences than by facts and reason. Placing an army general at the helm of the campaign against the epidemic is as inane as asking a medical doctor with zero-military training to lead a war. Most of the quarantine centres are located in the North and the East because the political leaders are unwilling to antagonise their Sinhala base. In an even more disturbing development, most of the treatment hospitals are located outside the North and the East.

Contrary to claims by some circles, Lankan doctors have not developed a cure for Covid-19. The use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are experimental at best. The false boast of the two drugs being certain cures might make uninfected people disregard the threat posed by Covid-19, and some of the infected who are unwilling to go to hospitals might decide to try a spot of self-cure. (Contrary to claims by some local politicians, these drugs have not been approved by America’s FDA as a proven cure for Covid-19).

People turn to religion in times of crisis. That is understandable. But given the nature of the crisis, this embracing of religion must be done individually and not collectively. Catholic and Islamic religious gatherings have been cancelled by respective religious leaders, but the Buddhist hierarchy has failed to take similar precautionary measures. The monk in charge of Siripada issued a statement asking pilgrims to keep on coming. Ven. Galkande Dhammanada Thero has reminded us that even the Buddha, when sick, followed the advice of physicians such as Jeevaka and Komara pachcha. But his remains a lone voice of reason in a sea of myth and superstition.

The silence of the Mahanayake Theros combined with the government’s hands-off attitude has created a vacuum in which mass gatherings in the name of faith can still take place. The best case in point was the Christian religious ceremony in Jaffna conducted by a pastor from Switzerland who was tested positive for Covid-19 after returning home. Whether he brought the virus with him or whether he contacted it here is uncertain. What is certain is that hundreds of people have been placed in danger. The only way to avoid such instances is for the government to ban all mass religious gatherings and for religious leaders to ask their followers to practice their faith from the safety of their homes.

Yesterday’s incident in the Anuradhapura prison is a warning about another danger area that can explode to our common peril. The overcrowding and appalling sanitary conditions in our prisons renders such basic precautions as washing hands or maintaining social distance utterly impractical. The virus will spread like wildfire if it manages to gain even a bare foothold in any of the prisons. The government needs to think of precautionary measures now, such as reducing the overcrowded state in prisons by releasing those convicted of minor offences or are in jail for not being able to pay fines.

We are today in a place we have never been before, facing a fast-moving and still mutating virus. According to a report by a US federal task force, the pandemic might go on for 18 months or more, and it might contain of several waves. A certain percentage of those who are cured can become sick again. Or a second wave can come from abroad, once controls are relaxed.

The world must formulate a globalised response, rich countries helping poor countries, scientifically advanced countries assisting countries where science lags. Hopefully, the IMF, the World Bank and other multilateral financial institutions will set up special funds to assist the more vulnerable countries to cope with both the virus and its possibly even more devastating aftermath. According to some analysts, China’s GDP growth in the first quarter of 2020 will be as low as it was in the immediate aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Worse economic devastation will confront countries like ours.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the ongoing pandemic is the primacy of social spending, the importance of robust public health and education systems. Sri Lanka has so many private hospitals, yet none has offered its assistance to the government free of charge. Instead, two of the hospitals were trying to milk the epidemic by offering the Covid-19 tests at extortionate rates. If we fail to understand that for countries like us true national defence lies not in attack helicopters or warships or sophisticated weapons, but in an expanded public health service, in more hospital beds, intensive care units, outpatient units, doctors and nurses we would have learnt zilch from this crisis.