By Jehan Perera
The sudden spread of the coronavirus has caught both the government and larger society by surprise and much to our alarm. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been chiding the people for failing to be more careful about their safety and taking the necessary precautions. Until the recent outbreak took on serious proportions, people felt obliged to wear face masks to avoid being questioned by the police rather than for their own personal safety and that of those around them. Participants at social gatherings frequently put aside their masks after they got inside the venue. The belief that was propagated by the government that Sri Lanka was the second most successful country in the world in terms of containing COVID-19 took a firm grip on the popular imagination.
The lax attitude towards the coronavirus pandemic on the part of the general population was due, for the most part, due to lack of adequate knowledge. The responsibility for this needs to be shared by the government and not simply on the lack of studiousness of the people. Even after the coronavirus statistics had surged, large political gatherings were to be seen in which those in attendance demonstrated a cavalier attitude to such safety concepts as social distancing and the wearing of face masks. The tragedy is that the government was caught by surprise as much as the rest of the population because they did not know of, or foresee, the spread of the invisible enemy.
The failure in knowledge gathering and sharing could have been avoided if there had been more participation of those from outside the government, including the political opposition, independent professional associations and civil society organisations such as the Sarvodaya Movement with its vision of the wellbeing of all in working with communities at the grassroots level. President Rajapaksa is reported to have said that if this was a real war, like the one he fought against the LTTE, he would know what to do. However, a fatal trend of non-transparent decision making was set early on in the Covid crisis. At the root of the problem was the political desire to hold elections early and so the truth of the situation was confined to only a few.
In leading the war with the LTTE as Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his team of top military commanders looked at the lessons of the past and the known behaviours of the enemy and designed effective counter-strategies. Making the point that wisdom comes late in the day, too late to make a new beginning, the philosopher Hegel said “The Owl of Minerva sets flight when the shades of twilight are already falling.” But it is human ingenuity and leadership that dares to rectify the mistakes that have been made by learning from the past and not repeating them. This applies as much to peacetime problems as to wartime ones.
The COVID-spread has now reached the level of the community. More and more of Colombo is being shut down as a desperate measure. Where there is community spread, the problem cannot be solved by decisions made at the top without reference to what is happening at the ground level. Those who are working on health issues at the community level, including both medical personnel and civil society organisations, need to be brought into the campaign. Sociology Professor Kalinga Tudor Silva has written that “In order to address these challenges effectively, we need to have a broader community participation at all levels, inclusive decision making and a two-way flow of information in place of a purely top down communication pattern.”
There is a concerted campaign in the social media that is focusing on the government’s failures. Its inability to halt the spread of the coronavirus is the main theme of this anti-government propaganda that seeks to especially target the president. There are invidious comparisons made between the indecisiveness of the present government and previous one. There are several examples of decisions being made and changed with regard to the extension of lockdowns and withdrawal of subsidies given to the consumer and producer items. There is a parallel to the initial period of the previous government where it was opposed from the very beginning and not given the time and space to settle down and figure out what needed to be done.
In times of crisis and economic scarcity it is easy to scapegoat and target minorities which can then spread into violence. There is also hate news that focuses on ethnic and religious minorities with the allegation that the government is not doing enough to put them in their place. Starting with the Easter bombing last year and continuing to the presidential and general elections, government politicians destroyed the political reputations of their opponents for their failures. They pledged to ensure national security and to secure the position of the majority community whose vote they campaigned for and obtained in an unprecedented manner.
However, social media posts indicate that the manner in which the government secured its 2/3 majority in parliament by obtaining the support of Muslim parliamentarians who crossed over from the opposition to vote for it has eroded confidence in the government leadership’s commitment to the pledges they made. The question is how the government will seek to ensure the continuing confidence of the people in its governance and decisions it takes. President Rajapaksa is best positioned to make the decisions that call for sacrifice but which are fair by all. In Opposition, leaders such as Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake have the capacity to help the government do what is right without being politically partisan.
The virulent coronavirus is not the only destructive problem the country faces. There is also the deeply felt disaffection of the Muslim community, and also sections of the Christian community, at the practice of compulsory cremation of COVID victims. This is practised nowhere else in the world and contrary to World Health Organisation’s guidelines; it has brought a black mark to the country internationally. There are also the deep wounds of the 26-year war and missing persons and those detained for over a decade and they are a black cloud hanging over the country. It is to be hoped that President Rajapaksa can give the enlightened leadership that unites the country to face these challenges and overcome them all with the vision of the wellbeing of all.
BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7
It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.
The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’
It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.
At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.
However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.
The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.
There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”
The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.
Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.
What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.
In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.
However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.
Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.
Queen of Hearts
She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.
Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’
When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”
Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.
The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’
She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.
“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”
A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.
“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”
Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.
“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.
“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”
What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.
“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”
The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.
Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.
And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.
We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.
Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue
KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1
by Harshana Rambukwella
In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.
This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.
However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.
Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.
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