Photo courtesy of AP News

The European Union threatening our precious garment exports to that rich market? As we sit at home stuck in front of various video screens while the curfews, so-called ‘travel restrictions’ and ‘lockdowns’, grind through our days and weeks, we wonder what will happen when all this suspension of life ends. What will or who will explode first once the pandemic eases and ‘normal’ life resumes?

So many things are pent up within us: in our homes, family life, businesses, careers, struggles, aspirations, projects, ventures, even our problems, predicaments and tragedies. All the postponements keep us in agonising uncertainty. Can our beautiful business venture or work project actually proceed after the pandemic eases? Or, once we start up, will we find that all is lost, anyway? Collaborators could have moved on or markets have died out due to pandemic-induced poverty or consumer needs could have changed due to changed circumstances. Our education ambitions may begin to lack lustre due to changed career prospects due to lives transformed.

All this disruption of our futures could happen even if we are not directly affected by COVID-19 either personally or by the loss of family or work partners. Such is the awesome power of an invisible virus that spreads so rapidly and harms our bodies so swiftly, brutally.

This personalised account of post-pandemic prospects needs necessarily be extended to the social and the dynamics of collective human activity and group interests, predicaments and challenges. After all, the epidemic nature of the current COVID-19 disease outbreak means that the disease itself has a powerful social or community dimension, not just in our neighbourhood but globally, thanks to the continuous, high speed, mass transit of humanity, very large scale mass production in the global economy and mass consumption in a globalised society.

Such mass scale, continuous human interaction is the perfect incubator for a highly communicable virus like COVID-19. Indeed, in accordance with the nature of virus transmission, the larger the scale of mass human interaction, the faster the viral spread and also, the greater the variety of mutations – ‘mutations’ being no more than the virus reacting and adapting to the stimulus of fast-changing environments, which it experiences when hosts commute and interact.

Certainly, the medical sector is directly and immediately affected by the pandemic as an entire social constituency. So much so that the interests and challenges they face have spurred medical personnel of all categories to activism on their issues even as they slog to rescue the population from this viciously dangerous epidemic. After all, the slightest slip-up in PPE or in the rigid sanitary procedures could result in death or permanent health damage or a traumatic illness experience at the very least for our medical personnel.

Sri Lanka is by no means the only country to have its medical personnel agitate for their urgent survival interests as well as professional needs while dealing with this global health crisis. Agitation has occurred worldwide in many countries – both rich and poor. The problems experienced by medical and public health personnel has been due to under-development and resource scarcity, but also due to sheer mismanagement even amid high levels of resources and massive financial reserves. Significantly, there are also many countries with no such agitation simply because the pandemic has been better managed in those countries (New Zealand, Costa Rica).

Whatever the shortcomings of the authorities in the handling of the immediate health crisis in terms of reducing human toll, the various moves to reduce disease transmission, even if half-hearted due to economic and political interests, drastically curbs human mobility of all kinds. Curbing population mobility is essential to combat the contagion. But this inability to be mobile and physically meet also blocks social activism.

The intent of this essay series is not to complain about the human difficulties experienced due to pandemic counter-measures nor to criticise the lack of efficacy of the counter-pandemic strategy itself. That is already being done by many – by affected individuals, social sectors and the medical experts themselves. This immediate dimension of the pandemic, namely the sudden difficulties caused by pandemic counter-measures as well as controversy over the crisis management strategy, are both typical of any sudden and novel societal crisis, whether in public health or larger ecological disasters or social-political crises.

This essay series focuses on the state of society in the midst of the health crisis and on the future outcomes in terms of larger social issues already inherent in society. The focus is on how this presumably transient but socially numbing health crisis affects those other larger and on-going societal issues. These essays hope to explore what Sri Lankan society can anticipate in post-pandemic outcomes for these issues in the long term.

While some of these larger societal issues have, indeed, been directly affected – perhaps worsened – by the health crisis, either by deliberate actions or by collateral impact (the cremation issue) due to pandemic mismanagement, others are largely reduced to a temporary dormancy due to the pandemic conditions. That is, people affected by these issues are even more affected by the pandemic.

But even amid the pandemic furore, we are given sharp reminders about the larger societal issues, as when the EU threatens a punitive measure on Sri Lankan exports to that vital market citing our non- compliance with basic human rights standards laid down by the United Nations.

Readers know well these larger societal challenges besetting the country. These essays will briefly examine their current status and also explore their possible trajectories once COVID-19 is brought under control.

Notably, at least one newer issue seems to have taken on more substantial significance in the course of the pandemic management itself. That more recent emergent issue is the increase in appointments of ex-military officers to senior posts in the civilian administration.

The two biggest societal issues besetting Sri Lankan society for the longest period are (a) the ethnic conflict and (b) the problem of poverty and widening income disparity.

Ethnic conflict     

Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict has, no doubt, resulted in the biggest social and political dislocation in centuries on this island. If one were to add up the successive pre-war ethnic pogroms culminating in July 1983 together with the 30-year Thamil secessionist insurgency and massive counter-insurgency, it is likely that this severe a scale of infrastructural destruction and economic and social dislocation was last experienced only during the Chola invasions from South India over a millennia ago.

Nearly a million people were successively displaced internally and externally. The degree to which a well-knit community has been displaced overseas wholesale is starkly evidenced by the continued sustaining of a cohesive secessionist movement (however weak in numbers) overseas in the form of a ‘Transnational Government of Thamil Eelam’.

Resulting in much less infrastructure destruction but, with a similarly heavy human toll, were the successive southern social class-based insurgencies led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, first in 1971 and again in 1987-91. Despite two defeats of its armed struggle, the JVP today remains a potent political force albeit without much influence in legislatures yet.

While a decisive military defeat effectively eliminated ethnic secessionist insurgency within the country, the failure to politically resolve or even systematically address persistent ethnic group grievances has seen a continuation of substantive ethnic-based political mobilisation. The once war-torn North has experienced some piece-meal infrastructure improvement but minus any comprehensive programme that could not only mobilise and directly benefit populations but also feed social expectations and divert aspirations away from the old politics of exclusive nationalism and secession. But that needs fresh provincial elections and a conscious and generous facilitation of the elected provincial administration to enable it deliver.

In fact, the ethnic conflict, despite the erasure of an armed Thamil secessionist dimension in 2009 has since then actually widened in scope to include a heightened sense of grievance among the Muslim community as well. It must be acknowledged that the devastating single suicide bomber strike on Easter Sunday, 2019 came in the wake of several years of the worst ever social violence against the Muslim community.

This widening included an unprecedented level of ‘hate speech’ in the mass media that cast insults and hostile exhortations against Islamic community life styles and sacrosanct ritual practices. This also included threats of administrative action against hitherto wholly accepted ritual practices as well as hostile public speeches. The anti-Muslim violence in Aluthgama (2014) and Digana-Kandy (2018) were but the worst moments in a chain of incidents of ethnic targeting in the past decade. Inevitably, these antagonistic mass communications, in turn, provoked intense Islamist xenophobic rhetoric in preachings and propaganda, especially on the Internet.

The country, therefore, is immersed in a cauldron of inter-group hostilities and rivalries even as COVID-19 distracts from these dynamics and, pandemic counter-measures stifle whatever mobilisation emerging from non-COVID issues.

The next article on Lanka’s post-Pandemic future will be published tomorrow.