Photo courtesy of Daily Mirror

The detection of a COVID-19 positive case from a garment manufacturing facility in Minuwangoda earlier last month sparked new fears among the public while waking the government up from its fantasy of having successfully contained the spread of the virus in Sri Lanka. The daily rise in new infections across all districts alongside the increasing death toll provide reminders of the stark reality facing the country albeit community transmission is yet to occur, according to health authorities.

At the outset, the COVID-19 positive female factory worker was heaped all blame on social media platforms for being the source of the recent outbreak despite having little scientific evidence to support the claim. Sweeping aside responsible reporting, a state-owned TV channel followed suit this ugly social media trend, making female garment factory workers the target of sexist and misogynistic verbal attacks, notwithstanding their massive contribution to economic development. Even though health authorities later stated that there may have been other positive cases prior to the initial identification of the COVID-19 positive case at the Minuwangoda facility, a barrage of online verbal abuse on garment workers had already surged.

Contrary to outpouring of gratitude from those who were under quarantine to the army for their role in managing quarantine centres in the previous months, numerous media reports surfaced on how female garment factory workers were loaded into buses at short notice to be placed under quarantine by security personnel who had barged into their private boarding houses. The Daa Bindu Collective, a non-profit apparel workers’ service organisation, claimed that the garment workers were ill-treated at makeshift military-run quarantine centres where basic facilities were scarce, exposing how vulnerable segments are sidelined in receiving healthcare services, especially in the context of a pandemic on a scale never seen before.

More recently, the Junior Bar Committee wrote to the President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) to urge authorities to allocate suitable hospitals in the event of a member lawyer or his/her family member is affected. If social status is employed as a yardstick in providing medical treatment, the purpose of Sri Lanka’s free and universal health care is likely to be defeated. That being said, even fee-levying quarantine centres that are operated at hotels are said to be offering substandard services in spite of their exorbitant prices. Owing to inadequate facilities at quarantine centres to handle the sudden COVID-19 resurgence, the government resorted to keep the first contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases on home quarantine preceded by the suspension of repatriation of migrant workers, marking a departure from the previous approach of providing medical attention to all suspected COVID-19 cases at quarantine centres. In this scenario, the Human Rights Commission’s move to issue guidelines to regulate the quarantine process is a step taken in the right direction to ensure safe quarantine facilities for all, if implemented properly.

The Brandix cluster has brought to the limelight dire working and living conditions of the Free Trade Zone (FTZ) workers that have exacerbated during the pandemic. Social media allegations levelled against Brandix are indicative of how workers’ rights have been ostensibly violated in the name of achieving targets. Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, there is no evidence that the Brandix plant in Minuwangoda has violated labour laws, as acknowledged by the Department of Labour. If legislative loopholes are perceived to be leveraged to let offenders go scot free, public trust in the government is likely to deteriorate. Raising more questions than answers, the police investigation as well as the internal probe of Brandix involving alleged violation of health and safety protocols are yet to come to fruition. Prompt attention to and action on this matter would have been ideal but the recent track record of probes have been far from speedy.

A considerable number of construction workers at sites in Colombo were recently detected with COVID-19, illustrating how the blue collar sector is more at risk posed by workflow congestion unlike their desk-job counterparts who have the privilege of working from home in the new normal. In a similar vein, the apparel industry will have to face another huge blow if employee turnout declines in the coming months amid concerns over workplace safety. The FTZ workers’ struggles are further compounded by lack of access to affordable and decent accommodation as evidenced by the mushrooming of makeshift private boarding houses with shared sanitation facilities that was later acknowledged as a key factor for the outbreak. As a measure to boost the already shattered economy, the government allowed factories to remain open, which begs the question of whether health and safety guidelines listed on the government gazette such as social distancing and hand hygiene practices can be followed in actual practice in congested work settings. Unless special attention is given to mend the gap between legal framework and their implementation, worker issues at ground level will remain unaddressed.

With the looming economic downturn, blue collar workers’ job security has taken a heavy toll, apart from their physical safety at work. Subsequent to sudden closure of factories, the FTZ manpower workers who are on precarious daily wage schemes hired through third party labour sub-contractors and agents have been overlooked by their agents and employers. On the other hand, daily wage labourers are unable to travel in search of livelihood as mobility has been restricted due to curfew regulations. The proposed unemployment financial benefits scheme will possibly enable the workers to survive the pandemic in financial terms if implemented without delay to cover the true cost of living. Given that the country’s economy has been hit by coronavirus, it is questionable whether cash handout schemes are a viable long term option. Yet, even well-intended government initiatives run risk of being jeopardised by undue political influence that was evident in controversies surrounding the payment of relief allowance of Rs. 5,000 for low income families and provision of relief packs to families being quarantined.

While return to normalcy remains a distant dream, a presidential statement that made the public and media wholly culpable for the COVID-19 upsurge stunned the country anew. Admittedly, it was only a matter of time before public apathy towards COVID-19 grew. Setting a bad example for the public, political figures of different hues were seen disregarding health guidelines not only at general election campaigns but also during recent parliamentary sittings. While the political blame game glosses over government’s lack of preparedness to face the exponential COVID-19 upsurge, health authorities’ apparent absurd explanations linking latest confirmed COVID-19 cases to the Minuwangoda-Peliyagoda dual cluster further reduces credibility of government’s response to the pandemic. The sorry spectacle of dropping clay pots containing “holy water” over bridges into rivers by the Minister of Health, displayed how “divine intervention” is sought to combat the pandemic in the absence of a science-based national action plan. The army may have won the war against terrorism but experts in health and other public sector officials are better equipped with knowledge and skills to fight against an invisible enemy. No pseudo-martyr can save Sri Lanka by jumping into the sea if more and more frontline healthcare and security workers get infected with COVID-19. Such political bravado will perhaps divert attention away from pressing issues such as mandatory cremation of Muslim COVID-19 victims and disruption of food supply chains. Regrettably, dealing with other issues such as violence against women and children and mental health have been overshadowed by government’s preoccupation with epidemic statistics.

The sight of Minister of Health affectionately hugging the Chinese national who was the first positive case of COVID-19 became a symbol of the government’s capacity to handle the virus. With the massive mandate garnered at the parliamentary polls, the government gave a quick kiss to the public with the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, touted as the vehicle for rapid socio-economic development. Within a matter of days, people were ironically slapped with drones monitoring their movement. In light of this, the strange phenomenon of hug, kiss and slap might serve as a litmus test of governance during social and economic crises.