It was a barefaced abuse by the government of its own health laws amidst a virus epidemic. A state patronised funeral of a late minister threw to the wind much-publicised social restrictions so blatantly that it messaged to the public what was already known: one law for the politically powerful, and one for the rest--one country, two laws.
Savumiamoorthy Arumugam Ramanathan Thondaman, a Cabinet minister and the leader of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress, suffered a fatal heart attack at his residence in Battaramulla on Tuesday, May 26th. During the next five days, his cortege travelled to at least five places, including to Parliament and Party headquarters, and then to Upcountry fiefdom of his family.
Political leaders, party supporters, and paid mourners filled every inch wherever the late Minister’s remains were taken under the state patronage. Social Distancing laws were discarded. Health officials who tried to enforce the rules were threatened and coerced. The government announced a 24-hour curfew, however, the last rites, also attended by the prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and a horde of politicians, broke every imaginable measure of health rules that was so loudly advocated by the government itself. Health officials now fear the revival of the virus, PHIs warn to take legal action against the organisers if the new cases are found.
Amidst the real and feigned mourning, another family business was simultaneously undertaken: The passing of the leadership mantle to Thondaman’s 20 something son, Jeevan. He rode atop a motorcade and vowed to take forward the legacy of his father. His will be the third of the dynastic succession of the CWC, founded by his great grandfather. Another chapter of feudalism in upcountry Tamil politics is about to begin.
The politicised and state patronised funeral has opened the Pandora box of the communal spread of the virus.
Sri Lanka had not seen a community- based infection during the last 39 days as of yesterday. That may be due to the communal infection has been averted so far through successful contact tracing and suppression. Or that could well be because, carriers are asymptomatic - as it has been the reason with a good part of the local cases. The concerns over the latter scenario have prevented health officials from fully opening the country.
The gala funeral of the minister has made things worse. Any plans for further relaxing of social restrictions in the country are likely to be delayed as the health officials look for signs of new cases. It would be time-consuming. For instance, fresh infections are still reported from the Navy cluster even 39 days after the discovery of the first infected naval personnel.
- Amidst the real and feigned mourning, another family business was simultaneously undertaken: The passing of the leadership mantle to Thondaman’s 20 something son, Jeevan
- Upcountry Tamils, officially known as Tamils of Indian Origin, are one of the most economically vulnerable communities. They live in the close-quarter dwelling, line rooms, and in most occasions have only access to shared sanitation facilities
The delay would have a heavy toll on the economy and the livelihood of the public, including the plantation community, many of whom are migrant workers in Colombo.
Another danger is the spread of the virus itself. Upcountry Tamils, officially known as Tamils of Indian Origin, are one of the most economically vulnerable communities. They live in the close-quarter dwelling, line rooms, and in most occasions have only access to shared sanitation facilities. They are a tinder box for the implosion of the virus. (Exactly for the same underlining reasons, the health officials went on an overdrive, after a trickle of cases were reported from Colombo’s congested slum areas in April)
Needless to say that the economic impact of tea exports, one of the few remaining foreign exchange-earners, would be disastrous not just in terms of production, but also in the brand identity.
The funeral was not just a health risk. It was also a slap on the very notion of the rule of law. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president had been promising one country, one law, for all. But it seems, there exist different laws for different people depending on their political clout.
This very government cremated four Muslim corona fatalities, in contravention of the WHO guidelines, and in the pretext of preventing the contamination of water resources.
People spent the Sinhala Tamil new year, Easter and Wesak indoors. A three-day curfew would be in place during this weekend, to keep devotees at home during the Poson Poya.
Over the past two months, more than 50,000 alleged curfew ‘violators’ have been arrested.
In the meanwhile, the government paraded the remains of a dead minister across the country and held a mass funeral amidst a curfew.
At the very outset, the government turned a health emergency of the coronavirus into a national security and law and order emergency. It appointed military top brass in place of health officials to run the coronavirus response. Though there was some initial success, the folly of that strategy is now self evident in the implosion of coronavirus cases in the Sri Lanka Navy, which now accounts for more than half of the all domestically transmitted cases.
Now the rule of law has been made subordinate to the government’s political ambitions. The average public is taken for suckers. Self respecting Sri Lankans should ask themselves what made their and their loved ones’ lives lowlier then those of the politicos and their relatives. They can find answers in the lopsided status quo in the political system and rent-seeking politicians.
Sympathy vote for late Minister Thondaman would enlarge the CWC’s electoral prospects, and inch the government closer to a two-third majority (though it is still a tall order).
However, if the lives and livelihood of the public are to be sacrificed to prop up a legacy of the dead minister so that his political affiliates will enjoy the windfall, it is not just a tragedy.
It is a crime!
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