Coronavirus Diary Part IV
This isn’t just about the economy. Over thirty years of civil war, the economy suffered, faltered, but recovered and kept going. Tourism suffered lows but managed to keep humming. The Easter Sunday bomb wave of April 2019 did untold damage to both economy and social fabric, but the country was recovering when the novel Coronavirus outbreak came.
It did something that three decades of war could not do. It not only brought millions to the brink of poverty, starvation and stagnation. It set people against each other as individuals whereas the war divided people into groups along ethnic and political lines. In a world where identity is clouded by a mask, where acquaintances may pass each other without recognition, people regard each other with suspicion.
True, the pandemic highlighted existing gaps in a glaring light. It divided the world sharply into those who can work from home, in relative safety, and those who couldn’t, those who could afford to order home delivery and pay with electronic money, and those who couldn’t – in other words, those who could afford to buy a degree of safety and those who couldn’t.
"COVID-19 not only brought millions to the brink of poverty, starvation and stagnation. It set people against each other as individuals whereas the war divided people into groups along ethnic and political lines"
But, as the crisis grew from weeks into months, that divider too, became a blur. In this, ethnicity, politics, class and all other dividers became less and less irrelevant. A germ invisible to the naked eye reigns supreme, and brought in a degree of paranoia.
We try to judge normalcy by official parameters. On Monday, June 8, ‘Countrywide public transport services back to normal today (after a lapse of 75 days and ban on Colombo, Gampaha districts lifted)’ blared a newspaper headline. Visiting the Colombo Fort area in the evening, I saw a different reality – very few buses were still running, as people who have cars, motorcycles or other modes of personal transport use them as an alternative, though fuel and vehicle allowances have been cut by many companies, causing traffic jams at entry points to the city much earlier in the day than it used to be.
But restaurants still remain closed to the public, offering only take away food, and schools, cinemas and public parks closed. The trouble is that this isn’t a reliable yardstick for judging the normalcy that we long for. That normalcy was already one of huge socio-economic gaps, and we can only guess at the kind of gaps we shall have to face from now on as the economy goes into a slump and people lose jobs or face pay cuts.
The resourceful, and the lucky, will find alternative jobs. Last week, I saw a girl rider delivering fast food, studying the Google phone fixed on the handle bar of her motorcycle. But this is exceptional, something to be considered adventurous by our cultural standards. I presumed that she has lost her job and decided on this alternative. But that isn’t for everyone.
For many millions all over the world, no matter how resourceful they might be, there’s no such luck. The Guardian UK reported recently that many self-employed people such as house painters have no work. Volunteer groups in the UK have begun social welfare programmes. As much, or more important than the material help they may provide, the feeling that there are people out there who care about you is so vital in this bleak period, with mental depression expected to reach new heights the world over. Unfortunately, there is no such volunteer ‘reach out’ activity at present in Sri Lanka - nor in India where, despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s brutal lockdown since March, there are now over 257,000 Coronavirus cases and poverty levels have increased considerably under the pandemic. Over the weekend, India overtook both Italy and Spain to register the fifth highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, 257,000, with cases climbing by more than 9,000 each day.
Pakistan too, is under great strain with 108,317 cases and 2,172 confirmed deaths. Globally, the WHO confirmed the biggest ever one-day rise in confirmed cases this week, with 136,000 cases in 24 hours. Most were from south Asia and the Americas.
"Ethnicity, politics, class and all other dividers became less and less irrelevant. A germ invisible to the naked eye reigns supreme, and brought in a degree of paranoia"
In this context, those who still have a job under whatever conditions can consider themselves lucky. The security guard’s photo was taken in Colombo during the curfew. He was at high risk out there while everyone else sheltered but, from his perilous vantage point, he still had a job.
Others took the initiative and did brisk business during the curfew, such as Madhu, the three wheeler driver in the photo, who provided an invaluable service to curfew-struck residents of the city by bringing fish to their doorsteps. But such opportunities too, were limited, and now that the curfew has been lifted and markets reopened, he will be just another worn out cog in the much disturbed social fabric machine as the entire world goes into recession, with countries like Sri Lanka that depend so much on tourism and foreign aid facing bleak times.
This is a time when people expect leniency and sympathy from governments and the corporate world when it comes to bills and taxes. Though grace periods were given, bills still have to be paid. In Sri Lanka, the police force is regarded as a source of revenue for fiscal authorities, and traffic fines bring in a considerable income. Now that they are back in operation after the curfew, the traffic police are showing no leniency whatsoever.
An example is the merciless manner in which motorists driving from Kollupitiya towards Town Hall along Dharmapala Mawatha are fined. This was being done regularly before the curfew, and now they are back in style. There is a long white line separating the two lanes – one towards the Town Hall junction, the other towards Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha past the Public Library. Watching from the exit of the Hunupitiya Cross roads, the police stop and charge anyone careless enough to cross this white line even though both lanes are now one way and there is minimal risk of causing an accident by crossing the line.