Sri Lanka is traditionally known to be a hospitable country with people, who are friendly, generous and ready to help each other. We are known to have imbibed these qualities from our parents and grandparents and influenced by the teachings of the four great world religions- Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.
But see what the coronavirus or COVID19 onslaught has done to this country. Apart from invading our country and threatening our health, it has also compelled us to keep each other at arm’s length fearing the other may be a carrier of the deadly virus. But there is no gainsaying the fact that COVID19 has also acted as a great leveller in the sense that no matter who we are - rich or poor, high or mighty, low or lowly, Sinhala or Tamil, Muslim or Burgher or adherents of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism or Islam – we are all equally at risk and under the ever-present danger of falling victim to this menace if it is not eradicated within the next few weeks or the next couple of months.
In such a scenario how justified can we be to look down upon or for that matter vilify or belittle those who have fallen prey to this unseen enemy, especially in the case of the Navy personnel, who were recently found to have been infected by the virus in the line of duty, treading where most would have feared to tread, to protect and safeguard us from falling victim to the deadly infection.
In a statement issued to the media, Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne bemoaned the degradable manner in which Navy personnel and their families had been treated by their neighbours and pointed out that the Navy personnel had been infected through no fault of theirs but while engaged in rounding up virus-infected drug addicts.
We will do well to remember the pithy Sinhala saying, “Pigan hodana kenage athin thamai pigan kadenna.”
It succinctly underscores the fact that it is only those involved in some kind of activity, who at the end of the day, have to pay the price. In this case, those who paid the price were the Navy personnel, who were infected during a search operation carried out to nab COVID19-infected drug addicts at Ja-Ela and escort them to quarantine centres in an effort to ensure that the vast majority of Sri Lankans remained safe.
Subsequently, in a chain-reaction, as it were, the family members and colleagues of the navy personnel contracted the disease.
Earlier, subjected to a similar kind of vilification, was the SriLankan Airline crew, who also at the risk to their lives and those of their families had flown to Wuhan in the Hubei Province on a mission, to bring back the 33 Sri Lankan students studying there.
The crew was maligned on social media websites prompting the SriLankan Airlines management to issue a statement requesting that this kind of attack be stopped and instead the detractors should appreciate the rescue mission carried out voluntarily by the airline crew to save fellow Sri Lankans.
Meanwhile, the WHO in its Situation Report-35 alerts world governments of the danger of victims of an infectious disease such as COVID19 being stigmatised or looked down upon. In the case of COVID19, there is an increasing number of reports of public stigmatisation against people in areas affected by the pandemic. Unfortunately, this means that people are being labelled, stereotyped, separated, and/or experience loss of status and discrimination because of a potential negative affiliation with the disease.
Given that COVID-19 is a new disease, it is understandable that its emergence and spread cause confusion, anxiety and fear among the general public. Such barriers could potentially contribute to more severe health problems, ongoing transmission, and difficulties in controlling infectious diseases during an outbreak, the WHO says and gives several pointers to overcome such unpleasant situations.
In the wake of Buddhists the world over-preparing themselves in mind and spirit to mark tomorrow`s thrice-blessed day of Vesak, which encapsulates the Birth, Enlightenment and Passing away or Parinirvana of the Gautama Buddha, we need to remind ourselves of his teaching on refraining from acts of ill-will and hatred towards our fellow beings and instead extend unlimited love, goodwill (Metta) and compassion (Karuna) to all living beings, who are suffering, in trouble and affliction; to be happy and joyful (Mudita) in the success of others, their welfare and Happiness and to maintain equanimity (Uppekha) in the vicissitudes of life.