THE WORLD HERITAGE SITES OF SRI LANKA
For both foreign and local tourists Sinharaja Forest is certainly not a hot spot like Yala or Wilpattu. It elicits neither excitement nor thrills. Traveling inside requires no jeeps nor four wheel drive SUVs – just your two legs! Yet adventure is there. In plenty. To be experienced, by seeing, listening and feeling as Nature embraces you in its sound of silence. Sinharaja may it be emphasized, is the most valuable and unique environmental treasure in Sri Lanka. Located in the South- Western part of Sri Lanka it is the island’s last viable area of primary rainforest.
So, what is a rain forest? It is a forest which consists of tall, mostly evergreen trees, on which there is a very high amount of rainfall. These forests are earth’s oldest living ecosystems, with some surviving in their present form for at least 70 million years. According to experts it is likely that Sinharaja was formed during the Jurassic era. This means that Sinharaja is between 145 million to 200 million years old. Hence its uniqueness. Hence its value. To put this incredible fact in its proper perspective geologists have claimed that most of Sri Lanka’s surface lies in the Precambrian strata some of it dating back to 2 billion years. It belongs to the earliest part of Earth’s history.
According to folklore ‘Sinharaja’ derived its name from the lion king that dwelt in and protected this rain forest. It will interest readers to know that the three largest rainforests in the world are the Amazon in South America (also called ‘Amazonia’) which is 2,482,636 sq. miles in extent; next is the Congo rainforest . in Africa which is 1,108,113 sq miles. (Those who are literary minded may recollect that Joseph Conrad’s novel ‘Heart of Darkness’ was centered on this forest through which runs the Congo river; then there is the Valdivan rain forest on the West coast of South America bordering Chile and Argentina. It is 95,753 sq miles.
Just for comparison of their vastness and extent, Sri Lanka is 25,332 sq. miles in extent. So the Amazonia is 98 times the size of Sri Lanka! Sinharaja is 3,422 sq. miles in extent. But its smaller size compared to the largest rain forests just mentioned in no way detracts from its unique endemic fauna and flora. It makes Sinharaja truly incomparable. Sinharaja borders on three districts – Galle, Matara and Ratnapura. Its elevation ranges from 300 to 1,170 meters. The average annual rainfall over the past 60 years has ranged between 3,614 mm to 5,005 mm which is attributed to the South West Monsoon ( May to July ) and the North East Monsoon ( November to January ).
There are three points from which one could enter Sinharaja. One is from Kudawa which is the most frequently used. It is from Colombo to Kalawana to Kudawa. Next is the Pitadeniya entrance. From Colombo to Galle/Matara to Deniyaya to Pitadeniya. The third and least used, is from Colombo to Galle/Matara to Morning Side Estate in Suriyakanda. Whichever way one desires to go it is always advisable to get a licensed tracker. Otherwise there is a danger of getting lost and more importantly a tracker who can unfold the wonders within. Hiking is the only way to go..
And now let’s get inside this marvelous, mystical, mysterious, forest.
Inside Sinharaja, because of the green canopy of trees, through which only about 5 % to 15 % of sunshine falls through, it is dark, eerie and foreboding. And yet it is fascinating. You will be, as Thomas Gray said ‘ far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,’ hearing only the orchestra of the forest – the chirping of birds, the chirruping of insects, the occasional ‘coot, coot’ of monkeys and the soft tread of your own feet, as you walk through this cathedral like sanctuary of trees.
Many of the trees reach a height of around 40 meters ( 131 feet ). More than 60 % of these trees are endemic and what is more, many are rare species. Some of the trees, the timber of which is used in house building, are ‘Hora,’ ‘ Bu Hora’ and ‘ Balau’ which is a type of Mahogany. The vegetation density is around 240,00 plants per hectare ( 11,960 sq. yards ) which makes Sinharaja the most dense rainforest in Asia.
The wild life is exotic and enchanting. However unlike in Yala the wild life is not easily seen. The thick dense vegetation hides many of Sinharaja’s mysteries. It has been claimed that there may be a few elephants and leopards but the most common large mammal is the purple faced langur which is endemic. Langurs are long tailed monkeys which have a characteristic loud call. Some have described this species as ‘old world’ monkeys found mainly in India. There can also be found the Brown Mongoose, the Golden Palm Civet, the Small Flying Squirrel and with plenty of luck one may sight the Red Slender Loris, which sleeps by day and ever so stealthily is active at night.
The bird life is varied and colorful. There have been 147 species of birds recorded, whose habitat is within Sinharaja. Of the 26 endemic birds 20 can be found in Sinharaja. Amongst the birds are, the Red Faced Malkoka; the Sri Lanka Blue Magpie’; the Ashy Headed Babbler whose head is grey while its body is ochre/brown, its leg are pinkish while the beak is grey above and pink below; the White Headed Starling with its white head and breast and yellow legs and beak; the Sri Lanka Spotwing Thrush which is light brown in colour with white spots on its body and has a black beak; the Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon which is similar to a dove since both species belong to the same family, (columbidae); the Dusky Blue Fly Catcher which is blue grey in colour with a bright blue forehead. It darts from branch to branch catching tiny insects while in flight. And the Green Billed Coucal which is a type of cuckoo with black plumage and a greenish beak. It is supposed to be the rarest of Sri Lanka birds.
Butterflies of kaleidoscopic colors and sizes flit and flutter amongst the greenery. Here can be found the Sri Lanka Tree Nymph, with a wing span of 15.5 centimeters or 6. 1 inches it is the largest butterfly in the country. Perhaps the most beautiful is the Blue Banded Peacock whose iridescence is unmatched by any other butterfly. The rarest of butterflies is the Sri Lanka Five Bar Swordtail which makes its timid appearance from January to end March.
Reptiles are ever present. The very venomous cobra. The equally venomous Russel’s viper and its cousins, the green pit viper and hump nosed viper. There is also the equally poisonous, krait. Living in peaceful co-existence is the quite docile but frightful to see, the rat snake ( ‘Garendiya’), not to be confused with the poisonous rattle snake, which is not found in Sri Lanka. Finally the very largest and longest of all snakes in
Sri Lanka. It is around 23 feet long weighs about 200 pounds and has a girth as large as a telephone pole. It’s the python. It is non-poisonous. But with its sharp backward forming teeth it grasps a prey – anything from rodents to monkeys to deer, wraps several coils around it and constricts it to death prior to swallowing it.
Hence the reason why this species is also called boa-constrictors After a very delicious meal (from the python’s point of view) it coils itself and lies in deep slumber. There are also the scary, but harmless tree frogs which will spring on to you as you move through the heavy undergrowth. Within the damp surface leeches abound. Hence it’s best to wear slacks with the bottom tucked into knee high socks and the shoes liberally doused in salt water. Leeches can bleed you until you faint from blood loss.
There are eight waterfalls cascading down the rocky slopes near the Pitadeniya entrance. One in particular called the Duwili Falls because its three step downward cascade is like a dusty spray, has two large bathing spots at the bottom of the falls. The water is chillingly cold. But if you are brave enough to take a dip you will after the initial shiver find it most invigorating. There are three sparkling, gurgling, streams of cool, clear water which criss-cross through this forest. These streams wind their way and lead on to the North to the Napola Dola and Koskulana Ganga. In the South and South West to the Maha Dola and Gin Ganga. To the West the Kalukandawe Ela and Kudawa Ganga.
In 1978 Sinharaja was declared by the UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve and in 1988 was declared as a World Heritage Site.
We now need to turn to a threat – deforestation. It is one of the most serious issues facing our motherland. In the 1920s the forest coverage was 49%. By 2021 it had dropped to just 17%! and alas! Sinharaja, this million year old ecosystem of a treasure gifted by Nature to Sri Lanka did become a victim of partial deforestation. It happened during the 1970 – 1977 tenure of Srimavo Bandaranaike as Prime Minister. Whether it was her own decision, a Cabinet decision or a Minister’s decision, only history can reveal. But yes, by the early 1970s selective logging had commenced. Canadian contractors had with the full authority of the Government entered the forest reserve and begun felling. A 12 meter roadway was cut and trucks, bulldozers and back hoes moved freely carrying the felled trees. The purpose was to feed a massive plywood factory in Salawa, Kosgoda.
There is a saying ‘ Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man’. That man was Thilo Hoffman. During the time of this near calamity to Sinharaja he was Managing Director of A. Baur & Company. He was also President of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS ). He did not wear the mantle of the latter position lightly. He was an active, dedicated and professionally qualified (holding a Master’s Degree in Agricultural Science) protector and conservator of wildlife.
On being informed about the deforestation of Sinharaja, the WNPS headed by Hoffman initiated a fact finding mission. Hoffmann the indefatigable worker, traversed the length and breadth of Sinharaja and published a report explaining in detail the magnitude of the destruction of fauna and flora in Sinharaja. The WNPS published a booklet written by Hoffmann and freely circulated the English and Sinhala translations. This created a major public outcry against the further damage to Sinharaja. The Government could not ignore the issue, and was compelled to take notice.
A Ministerial Sub- Committee headed by George Rajapakse was appointed. Apparently the plywood was for the manufacture of tea chests. In 1977 Srimavo Bandaranaike’s United Front Government was defeated getting a mere six seats in Parliament. It was at that election that J.R.Jayewardene’s UNP won a landslide victory. Thilo Hoffmann met the new Prime Minister who, it may be recalled, became President one year later, and explained the gravity of the situation in Sinharaja. Jayewardene immediately banned any further logging. Perhaps at this point it is most relevant to request the Governmental Authorities to have some sort of memorial built out of stone at the entrance to Sinharaja, mentioning the name of Thilo Hoffmann – The Saviour of Sinharaja. May he be remembered for generations to come.
There is presently a controversy that a hotel is about to be built within Sinharaja. However in a statement reported in the press on April 8, 2021 the Dept. of Forest Conservation has completely refuted this allegation. The hotel is being built five km away from UNESCO’s World Heritage Site demarcation of the boundary of Sinharaja. It is on a private land adjacent to the Pothupitiya – Rakwana road.
But Sinharaja is too tempting to be allowed to continue its millions of years old existence. Either through colossal ignorance or supreme indifference there will threats to ravish Sinharaja. We know. We are confident. President Gotabaya Rajapakse would never permit this. After all was it not he, who as the one time Secretary Ministry of Defence and Urban Development Authority, pursue the Colombo Beautification Project? Remember how the old Grand Stand at the Race Course was transformed? How the International Rugger Grounds opposite it was created? How the Walking/ Running/ Cycling tracks near Independence Hall were made? His love for our motherland is deep seated and genuine. He saved Sri Lanka once from the cruel clutches of the LTTE. Yes, Sinharaja – this incredible treasure trove of biodiversity will be safe in his care.
Patali Champika Ranawaka’s somersault into the political establishment remains one of the more interesting developments from the last quarter century or so. Beginning with the JVP, moving to the nationalist right, only to later turn to the neoliberal right, he remains shrouded in enigma, a cut above the rest: while most of his colleagues go round in circles, shifting parties as you would shift from one musical chair to another in a never-ending cycle, he prefers straight lines.
The issue has to do with where those lines are leading him. What are his beliefs and strategies? Who are his friends and enemies? Which side does he tilt to? These questions may remain unanswered for some time, well into the long run; to search for answers now would be futile.
Ruthless to a fault, yet quiet and tactful, our most perfectionist parliamentarian happens to be one of our most intelligent. He knows the numbers, and quotes them almost effortlessly. Even if he jumps to the wrong conclusions, he gives the impression of having taken a longer, more tortuous route to reach them. Whether he’s critiquing a development initiative or a financial scandal – of course while in the opposition – he resorts to logic, not speculation. His speeches are among the eloquent we hear from parliament today, at least by the standards set by both present government and opposition MPs in that unfortunate institution. He says what critics of the government want to hear, not what they’ve heard elsewhere. Insofar as opposition MPs are concerned, Ranawaka has thus laid the benchmark and set the yardstick, even if he lacks the charisma and charm of his opponents.
What explains his appeal? It’s not as though he’s been consistent throughout. The truth is that he has indulged in as much pole-vaulting as most of his colleagues and contemporaries: a dubious record to be sure, but one which hasn’t attracted for him the kind of outrage others have.
Take a look at his affiliations: the JVP, Jathika Chintanaya, Ratawesi Peramuna, Janatha Mithuro, National Movement Against Terrorism, Sihala Urumaya, Jathika Hela Urumaya, United People’s Freedom Alliance, United National Front for Good Governance, UNP, and finally SJB. His entry into the latter remains tenuous and debatable at best, yet it was with its formation that he let go of his past, for good: having served as leader of the most powerful nationalist party in the country, the JHU, he left that party, even if he did not disavow its ideology. What’s extraordinary about it is that regardless of where he has jumped to, his record has attracted less censure than that of most of his colleagues. Bottom line: consistency is not his forte, but his lack of it hasn’t worked against him.
If it’s isn’t consistency, is it survival? From the tail-end of the Cold War to the peak of a pandemic, Ranawaka seems to have been driven by two impulses: power and adaptability. But he’s hardly the only such politician who’s stuck to these credos. To say he’s survived due to some farsighted powers of adaptation is to overlook a crucial, inescapable fact: that adaptation for him signals not so much an ability to harbour different ideological affiliations across parties as it does an ability to adhere to the same ideology, the same worldview, while straddling different parties. In this, he is the superior of many colleagues and foes. Bottom line: he’s survived not because he’s changed so often, but because, at a fundamental level, he hasn’t changed at all.
At a Q&A session organised by a group of young activists a few weeks before last August’s election, Ranawaka was suave, confident, and a tad tired. He spoke about his journey from university student to political activist to politician, underscoring his achievements without bragging about them. The man has, if anything at all, a clean record as a minister, whatever his failings on other fronts may be, and this became apparent as one slide moved into another on the screen.
Yet what caught me wasn’t the conviction with which he outlined his achievements, but the answer he gave to my question as to why he abandoned his activism over alternative development paradigms (he called it Sanwardhanaye Thunweni Yamanaya, (“The Third Era of Development”). Ranawaka was polite, yet to the point with me: “We must bend when we have to, without clinging on to the same ideas, movements, and personalities forever.”
Does this offer a clue to his philosophy, if he follows a philosophy at all? Critics, especially from the Sinhala nationalist right, accuse him of peddling nationalism as a launch pad for his personal politics: a strange assessment, given that since at least the Donoughmore period politicians have been peddling nationalism, of all shades, for personal gain. What makes Ranawaka a target of nationalist vitriol here is not his tendency to shift parties so quickly, but his gift for dominating nationalist discussions while cohabiting with parties hardly amenable to such discourses: the UNP then, the SJB today.
That boils down to a simple truism: no matter the virtues he claims for pole-vaulting, no matter the vices he claims for sticking to the same ideologies, he’s achieved the best of both worlds, bending to the currents of political expedience while sailing on the same ship. If Ranil Wickremesinghe has been compared to a fox, Mr Ranawaka’s spirit animal, given these predilections, ought to be a leopard: not a leopard that doesn’t change its spots, but one whose spots can never change.
All this is peripheral to any proper discussion about the man, his dreams, and how he has set out to realise them. Far from concentrating on why he’s survived all these decades despite abandoning any pretence at ideological consistency, while sailing on the same (Sinhala nationalist) ship, it behoves us to consider the challenges his track record poses to his future prospects. Put in another way, what are the biggest obstacles he faces as he charts yet another new political course?
To ponder these is to ponder Ranawaka’s vision for the future. None of his critics, from the nationalist right or the pro-SJB opposition, has engaged him over that vision. In essence, it centres on the need to nurture what he calls “fifth generation leaders”, a meritocratic class of results-oriented politicians and officials. The emergence of that generation is, in fact, the objective of “43 Senankaya.” Rawanaka’s strategy to that end is to consolidate the Bandaranaike reforms of 1956 and the Jayewardene reforms of 1977, forming “an administration comprising of experts from various sectors.”
One can of course question how the reforms of 1956 will square with those of 1977 – can you think of a more contrasting, disparate set of policies? – but that is grist for another piece. For now, what needs to be understood is that Ranawaka’s political philosophy has engaged a suburban petty bourgeoisie, along with a young precariat milieu fresh out of university, engaged in part-time employment, and entranced by his talk of next generation leaders. The “43” in his brigade’s title refers to the year free education was enacted here: its aim, therefore, is the realisation of the hopes and aspirations of a post-1956, post-1977, and post-2000 educated class. This is ambitious, cutting across political differences and potentially unifying everyone from everywhere. Yet it is not without its problems.
Ranawaka’s showing at last year’s general election (he came second from last in the SJB’s Colombo district preferential results) confirmed two things: one, that the nationalist crowd he wooed long ago has defected to the SLPP today, and two, that despite a lack of support from this crowd, he could not canvass enough support from other communities and groups. The latter revealed a more fundamental failure: an inability to cut into a) Colombo’s upper middle-class and b) ethnic minorities from Central Colombo. In these constituencies he was upended by a neoliberal rightwing, populist centre-right, and minority bloc. Once these groups deserted him, he was left with only a Sinhala suburban middle-class: a paltry base from which you can aim for little, and achieve even less.
Ranawaka’s challenge then is two-fold, necessitating two strategies. Firstly, since he is locked into Colombo’s middle-class and ethnic minorities, he should cross the terrain, beyond city and district, canvassing popular support from other regions. Secondly, since he cannot do without city and district, he should scale the wall, winning support from non-suburban-Sinhala constituencies there.
To both cross the terrain and scale the wall is not easy. But given his dismal showing last year, he should opt for a strategy which squares the circle. Otherwise, he runs the risk of not only irrelevance, but also marginalisation: both of himself and of the “43 Senankaya.”
The problem for Ranawaka is that he has ruffled the feathers of three minority communities: Tamils (anti-federal postures, coupled with an ambivalent stance on devolution), Muslims (comments about them being outsiders 13 years ago), and Christians (anti-conversion campaigns vis-à-vis the JHU, following the passing away of Soma Thera). Simultaneously, his defection to the UNP and SJB has led to dwindling support from the Sinhala nationalist right. All these factors have led to losses on all electoral fronts, with no compensating gains.
Today, he courts support from a niche audience: an anti-Rajapaksist, pro-meritocracy Sinhala middle-class as conservative as rightwing neoliberals. Unless he claims real estate elsewhere, he will find it difficult to achieve either his aims or the objectives of his brigade, even with a Sinhala electorate on his side. In politics especially, the past cannot be allowed to determine the future. In Ranawaka’s case, the past seems to be coming back with much ferocity. He must do what he can to let go, paving a new road. A failure to do so can only condemn him to irrelevance and extinction.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
Military Officer Cadets- A Nation’s Promise of the future
Major General Nanda Mallawaarachchi VSV’s article in the Sunday Island and Sunday Times of April 25, 2021 respectively titled ‘Being blooded into the Ceylon Army in 1971’and ‘The making of a soldier’ would certainly have brought back pleasant memories to army officers of their days at Diyatalawa while training as officer cadets.
A retired officer of the Armoured Corps residing in Canada puts it across very well in a letter “Good read … about what was normal, and common to all intakes. The analysis and mention of individuals and places also brings back fond and nostalgic memories of training days at Diyatalawa ……. Loyalty to intake mates is good”.
The Major General may be forgiven for not mentioning the landmark of Diyatalawa, Fox Hill and its environs, including a hill jocularly known as ‘R… kellage passa paththa’ where quite a lot of training is done, the White Gate at the top of the dominating steep hill from the polo grounds where senior cadet’s test junior cadet’s fitness and interaction with the SLAF cadets.
Diyatalawa is also the only Garrison town in SL, something even the Directorate of Legal Services at Army HQ appears to have forgotten to the delight of dozens of unchecked illegal squatters. Leaving out the demonstration platoon from the Gemunu Watch may also be excused as they may have added to the cadets’ tales of excruciating woe on tactical exercises like Frozen Trout on the Horton Plains.
The mission of SLMA Diyatalawa, called the Officer Cadet School when Maj Gen Mallawaarachchi was there, is to educate, train and inspire officer cadets to be good military leaders and good citizens.
However in what appears to be a misconception of the mission, possibly due excessive zeal and popular exaggeration, the writer has made a few avoidable declarations. The first is considerable and dramatic. It fuels myths. It states that the Chief Instructor Captain, (not Major as given – later Major General) Sena de Sylva SLLI in his opening address said ‘We will break you and remake you in such a manner that nobody… will be able to break you again”.
This cannot be. Is it due to a severe memory lapse and a mistake, 50 years on? At a time when Geneva is giving SL no respite, this description could be added manna for SL’s detractors to be made by no less than a Major General that the Army ‘breaks’ even its officer cadets. It could also cause considerable negative concerns to parents, teachers and future aspirants as well as the public that holds the Army in considerable esteem and to former instructors. Major de Sylva, a Sandhurst alumnus from Trinity College, now living in the USA, actually said the training would be ‘very hard’.
The article misinterprets the objectives of the SLMA. As the above retired SL officer in Canada expands with passion “there was nothing to be broken. Inherent characteristics, talents, qualities and capabilities were enhanced and corrected while new ones were added through training, leadership examples of instructors and later seniors in one’s regiment. It includes transparency, respect for law and order, common decency, upholding the highest ideals of human behaviour, not by someone in authority but as a normal human being.” Military training is certainly very hard, robust, grueling, and very tough and extremely challenging as surely it must be. However it is not intended to ‘break’ inductees, especially future leaders.
The aim at SLMA Diyatalawa is to produce an officer who is morally, mentally and physically able to lead soldiers. The motto of the Military Academy Diyatalawa is ‘Serve to Lead’. It means officers must first serve their men in order to lead them. The officer trains them in the field, looks after them when in barracks, plays with them, goes out on adventure training with them, helps solve their personal problems and generally builds up confidence and trust. It is said a good young officer will know his men better than their own parents. This is what makes a soldier risk his life in obeying his officer in battle as he knows the officer would have done the same to save his. Would the charter of Diyatalawa be compromised by ‘breaking’ them first?
Such methods may possibly be attempted in a penitentiary or by sadistic ‘seniors’ (IUSF members with complexes) on ‘freshers’ at Universities in SL, with pitiful consequences including sadly, suicides.
The idea at Diyatalawa is to encourage imaginative and flexible and predictable leadership that is sensitive, honest, develops group spirit, camaraderie and a sense of fun as seen in the article. There will be pride, friendship forged by shared suffering, military knowledge, basic skills, discipline and finally a willingness to risk their lives for their comrades, regiment and country. They should be quick witted, hardy, well educated, approachable and have the trust and esteem of their soldiers, being responsible for lives not only livelihoods.
The article for some strange reason also states that cadets were paid Rs 460 in 1971.This is quite curious as even subalterns (second lieutenants) starting pay was Rs 275 then and a captain was paid Rs 525. Cadets who went to Sandhurst in the 1950/60s were paid a soldier’s salary. It was Rs 60. No one was shy to say so.
The article goes on about doing night sentry duties in ‘fox holes’ at Diyatalawa when the 1971 JVP insurgency began. Fox holes are tubular and uncomfortable. Foxes may know! This is an American term for the wholly inadequate preparations they used to make to protect themselves from enemy fire. It was a shade better than their alternative ‘shell scrapes’. They found the bitter truth of this in the Korean War. That term and concept was not in use at Diyatalawa. Surely what was meant were fire trenches? They provide protection for two from enemy small arms fire and substantially from artillery fire. What is not known was why NCOs like Reeves (later Regimental Sergeant Major of the First Field Engineers and now living in Canada) were allowed to slip into the trenches ‘at night to catch anyone sleeping and punish them’. Corporals were never allowed to punish cadets anyhow. Why Reeves was not shot is the real question!
Whatever these asides are, the real finale to these experiences will be when the former Officer Cadet Gotabaya Rajapakse of Intake 4 takes the salute as the Commander in Chief (C in C) at the next commissioning parade at Diyatalawa. He will remember that day, 50 years back, when he too was among those who paraded on the same grounds at a similar but smaller parade to salute the C in C’s representative.
The many battles he fought against the terrorists and his comrades both soldiers and officers who died and were wounded, will flash across his mind. He will humbly recall the leadership promise fulfilled when he as Defence Secretary was a part of the triumvirate that headed the armed forces which ended the 30-year conflict bringing total peace to SL.
Retired and serving officers, parents of the cadets and the public watching the parade live and on TV and the cadets on parade will bring to mind an officer cadet who then became an elected president without being a politician and came back to Diyatalawa as the C in C to take the salute.
Thankfully he was not broken but challenged, encouraged, set examples inspired and made. Emulation is highly unlikely but the mountain was climbed right up to the top. What an achievement. What an Academy! What an unforgettable and unique moment it will be.
A former officer cadet/instructor
Covid-19 surge as an opportunity to re-calibrate
by Malinda Seneviratne
Lockdown. Isolation. Quarantine. Wave. Social. Spread. Cluster. These are not new words. They are however words that have acquired fresh currency courtesy Covid-19. And, as often happens, when used frequently, they lost meaning or rather they are treated with (cultivated) nonchalance.
That’s as far as the general public is concerned. Meaning, all those who are not directly involved in designing policies and developing strategies to prevent or curb the spread of the virus, enforcing safety protocols and of course treating the infected. Yes, from Day One we were told that every single citizen has a responsibility. Indeed such communications were relayed not just through state media but private media institutions, social media and through innumerable notices. We saw them all. We heard them all. We continued to see and hear. We still do. Therefore, if there’s virtue in soul-searching then that’s a national exercise which neither government, opposition, institution (private, public or cooperative) nor individual can brush aside saying ‘not my/our business.’ We can ask, ‘where did we go wrong?’ We can ask ‘where did they (say, the government) go wrong?’ We can also ask, ‘where did I go wrong?’ The yet-to-be-infected or say the non-infected can say/think ‘well, I must have done something right,’ but then again if such an individual violated the basic safety measure of avoiding crowded places he/she would have unknowingly contributed to increasing people-density in certain places (say a shopping complex, a supermarket, a party or religious gathering). You add yourself and you make it that much harder to maintain social distance protocols. That’s one way of playing the blame game. There’s another. You turn your binoculars on the government. It’s fair enough. It’s the state authorities that have to design policy and enforce rules. So we can ask a lot of questions.Did they become paranoid too soon (March to June, 2020)? Did they become complacent thereafter? Didn’t they anticipate a second and third wave? Were they foolhardy in opening the country to tourists? Did they go overboard or were too indulgent with the so-called magic remedies? Have they done enough in terms of preparing for the unforeseen? Was testing done in a systematic way? Did they select and procure the correct complement of vaccines and in adequate quantities? Were they administered prudently? Were preparations for a surge in infections adequate? Then there are questions that are not asked or are not shouted out. Is there some kind of fail safe formula to balance containment with the need to keep the economy moving? Can Sri Lanka afford an extended or comprehensive lockdown? What would you/I say if for instance such measures were put in place? Would we then whine about the economy grinding to a halt? Would you/I keep our mouths shut if businesses large and small were forced to shut down or lay off employees? Would you/I not lament the plight of the poor(er) employees?
Have we studied adequately the political economy of pharmaceuticals, including vaccines (procurement of raw materials, production and distribution)? If someone told me/you that the USA used its Defense Production Act to ban exports of the materials needed to make vaccines to India, resulting in a 50% drop in production, would I/you believe it and conclude that vaccination is not free of politics, free of the profit-motive?It’s all about how easy we want to make it for ourselves, isn’t it? It has something to do with political preference hasn’t it? In the early days of the pandemic there was fear and foreboding. Even paranoia. Things got better and people were less paranoid. The recent surge in infections has produced a hike in worry. People are frustrated. They need someone to target. Anyone. Anyone but themselves. They want everyone (else) to do their bit and the government to do much more than it can hope to, but many are reluctant to do their bit. It’s easy to vent and ‘someone else’ is always a better target. We are not rich in self-reflection. We are poor when it comes to responsibility. In the early days there was a sense of siege. Fear made people think of coping mechanisms at all levels. Maybe we will return to all that. Maybe the government will figure out a way to allocate resources prudently and design better balancing systems (of pandemic response and an acceptable/reasonable level of basic economic and social activity).Speculation, however, can only help so much. It is clear that a concerted effort by one and all would help. Criticism has a role to play in all this. If it is constructive. If it is motivated by decent intention. For example, a year ago, an opposition in disarray ranted and raved about ‘risks’ when elections were to be held. When the second wave hit us a couple of months later, some people got into we-told-you-so gloating mode. Obviously they knew very little about the behavior of the virus and cared even less. What does tomorrow hold? Can anyone answer? What should be done? What should not be done? Talk to 10 people. Make that eight persons who have an axe to grind about this government. They won’t speak ‘in one voice’. Talk to ten ‘experts’. Same effect, I would wager. Everyone is a self-appointed epidemiologist these days. Everyone is an expert on balancing pandemic-mitigation and managing the economy. Everyone is more or less in the dark and if you doubt this, check out the various measures put in place by various governments and how these strategies have been amended over the past 18 months or so. There’s a lot that a lot of people can do. There are some basic things that an individual can do. Perhaps it might be useful to go back to one of the rules-of-thumb that did the rounds in the early days of the pandemic: assume that you are infected (rather than assuming someone else is infected). Assume also, if you like, that the virus is in your face, so to speak. That might bring those who prefer to loaf in ethereal regions back to earth.
It’s about doing what we can. It’s about doing no harm. Dialing down anger. Being kind. Restrictions of any kind provide one thing: the space for sober reflection. Not a bad thing. It could even be seen as a blessing, an opportunity to re-calibrate a lot of things, not just the response to the virus.
[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views]
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