These are unprecedented times that have dramatically changed our daily lives. Whilst the uncertainty can be unsettling, it is no secret that COVID-19 has made the entire world paralyzed and given humankind a powerful message. Yet, it is unfortunate to note that many are still not willing to learn the lessons this invisible virus has taught us. Although a limited number of countries did take appropriate actions swiftly, many countries had no other option but to follow the front runners with no definite plan specific to their circumstances. We also find a few countries with leaders who run their own agendas under the cover of the COVID-19 crisis. Where does Sri Lanka fit in? Unfortunately in the third category, with leaders who are trying to gain political advantage despite the current disaster.
We are fortunate that Sri Lanka is a small Island nation, which makes it easier to manage such situations better, particularly given the limited entry points to the country. We only have one main port of entry to the country by air, which is the Bandaranayke International Airport where possibilities exist for people with the virus to enter the country. Hence, this little country would have had its best chances to avoid this deadly virus come into the country altogether, had we acted wisely and promptly. Unfortunately, our leaders had a different mission in mind, which was to dissolve the parliament before the end of its official term and to hold elections as soon as possible.
Many professionals and parliamentarians from both the governing party and the opposition, as also, other civil society organizations and numerous other specialists made several appeals to the ruling party not to dissolve the parliament at this crucial juncture, but to let it run its full term which would constitutionally come to an end in August 2020. Further, they brought up the need and the urgency of the precautionary actions to be taken to manage the impending COVID-19 threat. As we are well aware, a developing country such as ours would not be able to cope with an out of control pandemic with the limited resources presently at our command. Despite having the best doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, we do not have the capacity to treat many critical patients simultaneously in terms of intensive care beds, and medical equipment. That’s why each country and each region has had to respond differently in a situation like this, by considering the local capabilities in facing the crisis, rather than just following others.
However, the government of Sri Lanka did not heed this advice seriously at the outset and did not implement necessary measures on time, which led to several people coming from overseas with the virus and spreading it to their immediate contacts. The government’s response to the request to take immediate action was “there won’t be any chance of this virus coming into Sri Lanka as all Chinese people who come into this country are well controlled and self-disciplined”. That was true. The people who came from China did not spread the virus in Sri Lanka, but by that time the virus had already spread across the globe, with many countries recording positive cases. A responsible government would have known that timely upfront precautions are vital to restrict the spread of the virus and to avoid a dreadful crisis within the country. Just as much as credit is being taken for the efficient handling of the security and medical aspects of the COVID 19 crisis through the provision of much needed support to the health and security authorities, the government must also take responsibility for delaying the actions based on political exigencies to not enforce a lockdown prior to 20 March 2020. This can be deemed to be the primary factor for the spread of the virus in Sri Lanka.
Politics-’20 started its play on 2nd March 2020 through the dissolution of the parliament and issuing its official gazette notification on the parliamentary elections. Had we actioned the call to close our airport for all arrivals on the 2nd of March or to send all passengers coming into the country for mandatory 14 days quarantine instead of dissolving the parliament, this country could have had the privilege of normal functioning within the country today. The worse tragedy is whilst we had medical experts to give accurate advice, the political leadership failed to prioritize the citizen’s wellbeing over their selfish desire to hold a winning election. People of this country elected them with the hope that they will lead us sensibly. But sadly, the main vision they seem to have is to gain political power and maintain it for a long time.
Eventually the government was left with no choice but to close schools and quarantine the travellers from selected countries (again not all incoming travellers were quarantined until 17th of March) following the situation that arose after identifying a parent of a student who had tested positive for COVID-19.
Despite the fact that the entire country had no other option but to close for business to curtail the spread of the virus, the government continued preparing for the elections and made sure that the Divisional Secretariats were open across the country for submission of nominations. Many political parties, specialists, civil societies again voiced their concerns and requested the postponement of the election, to make sure that we focus all our strengths on the health crisis and not waste money and resources on an election which is not yet due. However, the President said that the country won’t be closed just because there are 28 COVID-19 patients at that time. A few days later the same leader had to impose curfew across the country, stop all activities and close the airport based on severe advice being given by health sector specialists.
Fortunately, the Independent Elections Commission which was established in 2015, had the authority to postpone the elections with no new date given, soon after the nominations were submitted. Had we not had the Independent Elections Commission in this country with the authority to act, the rulers may have pursued their goal of conducting the elections as planned initially, putting the entire nation at risk.
Now another battle has emerged between the Elections Commission and the Executive Leader of the country after the Chairman of the Elections Commission wrote to H.E. the President, kindly requesting him to seek advice from the Supreme Court on the postponement of the elections due to the grave health emergency in the country. It is to be noted that notifying the President of the views of EC Chairman on this matter carries no negative effect, other than exposing the reality of the unpredictable times we are presently faced with. The Chairman of the EC has stated in his letter that it is not feasible to conduct an election before the 28th of May under the current uncertain circumstances. The President’s office has pointed out in a response to the EC that the election must be held soon. “As per the advice by His Excellency, it is not possible at this point of time to state that the election cannot be held on or before 28.05.2020” read their letter.
The letter also states that, “I need hardly emphasize that it is the right of the people of this country to exercise their franchise, which is their sovereign right”. But, instead of having a discussion with the EC and deciding what is best for the country and the people in the circumstances, certain parts of the Constitution are being quoted to achieve the insatiable desire for elections to be held. Sadly, these politicians do not actually care about the people who have a right to life and a right to health. The most vital rights of the people at this juncture are their health and basic living needs and not to get their fingers painted by casting a vote. But attempts are being made to manipulate the people’s minds to believe that their lives and well-being would purely depend on an election.
There is no need to be a legal advisor or a political expert to understand that this country is not in a position even to consider having an election in the immediate future for reasons such as the need to maintain social distancing and the financial implications of dealing with the virus. The minimum cost of conducting an election is estimated to be Rs.5 billion. Approximately another Rs.5 billion would be spent by political parties and contestants on election propaganda. Can this country handle such a massive spending at this time? First the country needs to have the pandemic under control and ensure that all Sri Lankans are safe and there are no further outbreaks of COVID-19, which will take at least a few more months to follow. In the meantime, there will be a great deal to be done to recover the country from the economic impact and the abyss it has fallen to. If the pandemic is contained by mid-2020, the economic recovery could begin towards the latter part of the year. Economists expect the real GDP growth to be less than 2% this year against the forecasted 4.5% at the beginning of the year. Looking at all these hardships, it is only best that we reconvene the parliament to avoid a Constitutional crisis and the breakdown in the sacred Rule of Law and let it run for its full term, allowing the Parliament to vote on passing critical bills and proposals to manage and overcome the current health and economic challenges. It is to be emphasized that the disrespect of the Constitution will be the beginning of an anarchy.
Fortunately our country’s armed forces, Police and Health sector and all support services work tirelessly, exceeding all expectations. They all do their job perfectly, better than many other nations in the entire world. We all know that if it is not for these dedicated and passionate people we already would have cremated many innocent lives over this deadly virus. We, as citizens owe these real heroes for all what they do around the clock, seven days a week risking their lives and their loved ones lives. We salute you for not getting trapped into Politics-’20 and clearly focusing and doing the right thing to curtail the spread of the virus. But unfortunately the politicians will take all the credit for your good work as it happens in any war, where the politicians and generals become the heroes while the people who actually fought the battle are forgotten. However, as citizens of this country we will always know and remember you and the services you provided with utmost gratitude.
In this crucial moment with many unknowns regarding the pandemic, the leader and his associates’ duty should be to focus on the wellbeing of the people, not to put innocent lives on a balance for personal gain. A true Buddhist leader would always consider the safety and health of his fellow citizens as the most important trait, which now leads us to wonder if the famous phrase used by the current political leadership in his political campaign as a “Sinhalese-Buddhist leader” was only to divide the citizens to gain votes!
On behalf of the citizens of this country, we appeal to the rulers to fulfil their duty to protect lives without bringing the election forward at this time which will only be an unnecessary burden to the system. Instead, render the full support and enable our health care workers, armed forces and police to do their part to end this crisis, improve the facilities in hospitals and assist the daily wage earners with their basic needs.
This downtime should be used to formulate strategies and processes on how to recover from this economic and social shock when things get back to normal. Appoint a non-political committee with experts across all sectors to evaluate, design and propose a sustainable growth plan for the country which should focus on sustainable living by all citizens. The following could be few important areas to focus on;
- Appoint a “covid-19 recovery committee” representing experts from all industry segments, scientists, economists, health sector, intelligence forces, business experts including from SME’s,education,cultural,mass media and communication and civil societies to ensure a 360 degree execution plan.
- Ensure continued focus on Disaster Risk Reduction and its Management, including value added human resources for Care Giving, since these areas will also provide opportunities for employment generation in the times to come, given also the continuing and ever increasing incidences of disasters and ageing populations the world over.
- Enhance focus on health, environment, economic and social issues [including education and social cohesion], which are the main building blocks for peace and sustainable development of the country.
- Ensure strict compliance mechanisms to prevent corruption and to ensure the strict and equal application of the Rule of Law for all citizens in the country.
- Prevent interference and undue influences in the judiciary and tampering in the judicial processes. Ensuring Justice and the Rule of Law in the country is paramount for a country to be considered a good country to live in and to invest in, both by its citizens and by the international communities.
- Developing an export based agriculture and other local industries to increase exports which will help with the exchange rate and long term sustainability of the economy.
- Re-skill the workforce which could balance the employment shortages in certain industries like IT and Healthcare with the surplus industries like Apparel and Leisure
- Enhance productivity through modernizing work methodologies, as also, by introducing “flexi working hours”, “shorter working weeks” and “work from home” for possible industries and areas of work.
- Ensure full digitization of governance, including at all levels such as in Provincial Councils, Pradeshiya Sabha's and Municipal Councils, to make them more efficient and transparent. Promote home grown IT and technical solutions
- Promote new markets and cost effective modernized production, packaging and distribution methodologies within the value chain to reboot local agriculture and apparel industries
The reconvening of the Parliament is necessitated in order to respect the Constitutional requirement that a Parliament has to be in place by 2 June 2020, since Parliament was prematurely dissolved on 02 March 2020 with a view to holding elections on 25 April 2020, which possibility does not exist now due to the yet unresolved COVID 19 Crisis situation." It is to be emphasized that the disrespect of the Constitution will be the beginning of an anarchy.
It is important for the government to keep the public informed regularly in a transparent manner, its strategies and mechanisms for the containment of the Covid-19 crisis, in the short, medium and long terms in its best interests of the country. At the sametime,the economy which has reached its lowest ebb will need to be stimulated by relaxing the curfews on a staggered and cluster basis, together with subsidies and relief packages where needed, in order to sustain the country’s economy.
Also, it seems appropriate to let the experts design a new mechanism to hold cost-effective elections in the country which could be used to hold the next parliamentary elections to help the economic recovery.
We as Sri Lankans want to see all our resources being directed towards ending the drama of Politics 2020 and enhancing efforts towards Peace and Sustainable Development for the greater common good of the country and for its future generations.