Photo courtesy of The Indian Express

Cricket nationalists should blame COVID-19 for the repeated abject failure of our nation’s First Eleven. Why not? COVID-19 has been officially blamed for the economic crunch as well as for the population’s current hardships. It is also the reason, apparently, for burdening this country’s highly professional military with the management of our public health crisis and also dumping many other civilian responsibilities on ex-military professionals. 

In a country where top governmental leaders, as well as a whole lot of citizens, fell for a ‘peniya’ gimmick, a range of cultic rituals were also hurriedly tried out, clearly, the scientific approach to this public health disaster has been relegated down the clicking order in the ‘options’ list which we like to think we possess to save ourselves. Rationally speaking and scientifically reasoning, the political authorities would naturally ensure that the public health crisis management is led by the public health administrators teamed up with the epidemiologists, virologists, immunologists and various other directly related professional cohorts and expert leaderships. 

And since this is a societal level new crisis, a rigorous enforcement of measures is automatically required. This is where the State security agencies, including the Police and armed forces, play their time-honoured role. 

At the same time there are several cases of states being caught up in collisions between various sectors following the failure of the apex political leadership to suitably allocate clear roles for each sector strictly in accordance with their specialities. Of course, given that COVID-19 is a wholly new disease with an initially fully unknown impact potential, there has been a natural ‘trial and error’ experience in every country’s response. 

Worldwide assessments of different countries’ practices have clearly shown a greater appreciation for the harnessing of the technocracy and relevant infrastructure to the fullest possible extent. The Lowy Institute, the reputed Sydney-based think tank, in its meticulous analysis of world Covid counter measures notes that, after over a year’s monitoring of the pandemic that “certain structural factors appear to be more closely associated with positive outcomes” rather than the health systems capacities. It points out that the global comparative data reveals that population size and intensity of population concentrations and speed of mass population transit have hamstrung even the richest, most focused, states in their pandemic counter measures. At the same time, political systems or, at least, the ability of regimes to obtain public cooperation, has been a significant factor. In this sense, according to a recent Lowy report of its ongoing monitoring, some autocratic systems – not regimes – have managed the contagion better than the more liberal democracies. 

The key seems to be the ability of a state system to obtain social consensus and public cooperation, including the public acceptance of enforcement of pandemic measures. Lowy quotes American political scientist Francis Fukuyama as arguing that the dividing line in effective crisis response has not been regime type, “but whether citizens trust their leaders, and whether those leaders preside over a competent and effective state”. 

This means the ability of a regime to effectively mobilise populations without too much division within a national society. Of course, Fukuyama is just one of numerous social analysts and philosophers with such an understanding of politics and society.      

The Lowy Institute’s incisive Covid Performance Index as at March 2021 has ranked Sri Lanka as 11th best in the world with a score of 75.5 in a ranking from ‘0’ (worst) to ‘100’ (best). This is among the 116 countries Lowy has measured in accordance with a certain level of accessible data. Significantly, China is not on the list because Lowy says the requisite accessible data is not fully available. 

The Lowy Institute’s six Performance Measurements are:- Confirmed cases, Confirmed deaths, Confirmed cases per million people, Confirmed deaths per million people, Confirmed cases as a proportion of tests, and, Tests per thousand people.   

All of the top fifteen countries, including Sri Lanka, are notably countries with relatively small populations (less than about 25 million) and are, like Sri Lanka, less tightly linked with rapid international mass transit systems with a consequently low intensity human traffic across borders (e.g. Bhutan, New Zealand). Thailand is the sole exception in the above attributes among the top fifteen. All these top fifteen are, on average, blessed with generally healthy populations although, in terms of efficient and well-resourced public health systems, there may be a greater variation.  

Significantly, in its rankings according to three broad political system classifications, namely, Authoritarian, Hybrid and Democratic, the Authoritarian (49.6/100) systems have done best, followed by the Democratic (46.8/100) and lastly by the Hybrid (a mix of democratic and authoritarian) at 42.8/100. This is because, in keeping with the Fukuyama dictum, in many Hybrid states the regimes are weakly entrenched and their attempts to cling to power without institutional legitimacy has resulted in less public trust and public cooperation. 

The above discussion of criteria is helpful to understand the situation and performance of national pandemic in Sri Lanka. We can see how and why we seem to have done relatively well and also we can see what we need to overcome or change in order to ensure that the country continues to progress and not regress. The basic data criteria used by Lowy alone should alert citizens as to whether the Sri Lankan pandemic management system is adequately obtaining this data and suitably deploying this data (such as disease-testing efficacy) in fine tuning pandemic management. 

The disease transmission speed and extent of spread arising out of economic activity is made clear in most studies of which the Lowy research is only one example. Mass production, mass consumption and mass transit are key ‘spreaders’. But so are constant social interactions at basic population level, especially community festivals of any kind. This is why the health authorities, including our Health  Minister, constantly appeal to the public for more pandemic-sensitive social discipline. 

But social discipline cannot be maintained if the economy is allowed to operate as much as possible and the population is then left to engage as ‘normal’ in order to retain livelihoods. 

Responsible government spokesmen continue to argue today that the State lacks the funds to subsidise both consumers and producers during an enforced, full scale economic shutdown (except essential supply and delivery systems, including finance and emergency services). This was being argued at the onset of the pandemic as well, a whole year ago. In the interim, most other countries (if not all) have created special budgets for such needs, in addition to making special political and bureaucratic appointments. In this country, a lot of appointments have been made – as well as sackings – but, more than a year into this health disaster, a pragmatic government would not be expected to repeat the same financial excuse made at the start of the crisis over a year ago.    

The abrupt bureaucratic and technocratic changes constantly being made, including the many resignations of the most relevant technocrats, are in stark contrast with the total lack of any changes being made at the apex governmental management level. Even though the pandemic has actually worsened at an alarming rate, no one has been made accountable at that level! 

This marked differentiation between the continued blanket retention of those politically accountable at the top and the constant removals and departures at the level of those actually implementing and developing the pandemic response needs to be reiterated. This directly raises questions as to whether the whole system is being manipulated to both evade political accountability on the one hand and also to achieve goals that are not calibrated tightly with the desired pandemic counter-measures (as advocated by the entire health and medical profession). 

This differentiation is also made obvious by the continuing contradiction between the public messaging by those at the apex command level and the health technocracy itself. Even medical organisations that have been notably enthusiastic advocates of this regime’s general policies, have adopted a dissenting note in their messaging concerning the management of the pandemic. 

This clearly bifurcated public messaging only serves to create public distrust and has, indeed, done so. The continuing flood of ill-informed public speculation and deliberate dis-information via the social media has only added to the overall ambience of distrust and confusion. Public hygiene measures that have discriminated against certain social groups – e.g. the burial issue – and, ignores urgent socio-economic needs, has served only to weaken social consensus and cooperation.    

In the light of the above, it is arguable that unless important course corrections are made, Sri Lanka may begin to lose its performance ranking at a speed that matches a worsening pandemic. 

A quick remedy will be for the regime and the opposition political forces to transcend political competition compulsions to some extent and begin more direct collaboration and consultations at least at a downstream level of sub-national endeavours to mobilise community discipline on the one hand and ensure a direct adherence to technocratic roles and expertise on the other.  

All incitement of inter-communal suspicions should be regarded as direct obstacles to the urgently needed public cooperation in compliance with pandemic hygiene. Properly budgeted subsidies are essential. Equally urgent is the need to uphold the scientific foundations of managing a health crisis in a manner that counters all superstitions and cultism that undermine it.  

Likewise, the direct ecological nature of such a contagion must be acknowledged and environmental management needs to complement rather than contradict the required protection of the biosphere as a whole.  

These political steps outlined above are important both in the successful management of the immediate health crisis and will also help mitigate those under-lying social conflict potentials that were discussed in the preceding parts of this essay series.