The decision by the government to ease lockdown restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic situation was obviously motivated mainly by the need to hold a general election without further delay. Even a rudimentary grasp of modern political dynamics would suggest that after a famous Presidential electoral victory, the momentum would be too precious to be wasted, as Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP learnt, at the expense of a chance of obtaining a clear majority, in 2015 by waiting till August to hold a general election after recording a remarkable victory over the then President and strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa through the common candidate Maithripala Sirisena. The delay had resulted in not being able to build on the momentum obtained by the January 08 victory and the debacles such as the central bank bond scam allegations.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, obviously rues having to waste the high tide he was enjoying after the November Presidential election victory and the new hopes that had been kindled by even those who did not vote for him that some change of system would be good by a strong fisted leader.
The Economic fallout
The decision could, at the same time, partly be prompted by a concern that an economic fallout of such an extended lockdown would have on an already gloomy economic and fiscal landscape, a thing that the Rajapaksa presidency would have wanted to rectify to the extent and as soon as possible. A quickfire good performance at least in one or few sectors of the economy or one aspect of socio-political life would have kept the hopes smouldering. Yet the onset of the pandemic put paid to any expectation of a decent, if not a stellar performance, in the economic sphere and the problem of servicing foreign debt which is now looming large over the entire economy to the extent that the very sovereignty of the country, when in such seemingly inextricable a debt trap, is a challenge that the President faces.
The dissolution of the Parliament which again, done on the urge of political expediency, has now all the potential of becoming a boomerang to the President. On the one hand, due to the absence of the legislature all actions as well as decision making is now squarely on the President and the inner circle, the top brass military and ex-military not being the least of it, and as much as the successes in the fight against COVID-19 will be claimed by him, any failure too, which we hope would not be in catastrophic proportions be entirely on his shoulders without a doubt. For one thing, some of the puffed up image that the Gotabaya PR machinery projected during the pre and post-election period as the ‘iron fisted decision maker’, did suffer blows specially during the first phase of the pandemic where he was not able to take a firm decision at first and then had to go back on his decision not to lockdown thereafter, imposing the total shutdown of civil life.
Public Health Vs Economy
There were certain countries in the World that went for total shutdowns and are not in a hurry to open up such as Canada, thus having public health as their priority. They are economically strong enough and have sufficient reserves for such a prolonged shutting down of economic activity. Countries such as the United States refused to close shop entirely and have always been pushing for a quick restart despite staggering death tolls and surprisingly, majority of the populace seem to be in acquiescence with their President Trump in the urge to re-open economic life. In Sri Lanka’s case, there is little doubt that we are going to be among the worst hit countries economically in the pandemic’s aftermath. Yet the only thing that we could be proud of, the relatively low death toll, even if one does not entirely go by the official figures given by the government, is also the only thing that the President would be able to hold up in the public eye as a testimony to his decision-making; a thing that is too precious for him to waste by risking a second wave of attack as in the case of Germany.
The two days that passed after the restrictions were eased in the Western Province, showed that the careless, undisciplined and callous manner in which the populace behaves in this country does not augur well for the hopes of the authorities of resumption of civil life amid restrictions. Although some segments of the society are sufficiently cautious and obliging to the health directives, there are others who are not and thus pose a threat to the entire populace. Any outbreak sans a lockdown could be a chilling spectacle and one which will be beyond the scope of an already constrained and tiring health care system.
In defence of the President, one has to admit that he took reigns of a system more than seven decades old and with anomalies in our societal, organisational and behavioural configurations, leaving aside the obvious political and economic aspects, that could not be changed and replaced overnight. One is reminded of what transpired when permission was given to travel during curfew using a medical prescription to buy essential medicines for dire ailments. The ‘NIC last digit system’ too does not seem to serve as a bar on all and sundry from breaking out in the open. Fortunately, some inbuilt immunity and conducive climate conditions do seem to be in our favour; yet the New Coronavirus is capable of mutations and could adapt to any condition to thrive. One takes things for granted at their expense, when dealing with a pandemic of this magnitude.
Two Thirds mantra
The eagerness the President and the bigwigs of the pohottuwa dispensation showed to hold the general election was buoyed by the possibility of a two thirds landslide which could have been harnessed to do away with the restrictions imposed by the 19th amendment, on the unfettered powers of the Executive and to usher in yet another constitutional monarchy as the elder brother of the incumbent President wanted to accomplish but failed. Yet just as the Central Bank bond scam did to the UNP, the COVID-19 situation has now created a debacle for the new President and his family dominated tribal alliance called the SLPP in their bid for such a sweeping mandate. The accusations levelled at the Aid and relief funds received by the government as well as the request made by the Secretary to the President on a ‘ personal’ basis and the handling of the forces in dealing with the outbreak are sore points that could erupt and irritate such prospects.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised so much for the people when he was elected as President last November. Even those who did not vote for him entertained a glimmer of hope that he would deliver the goods. Although the COVID-19 outbreak has put paid to a stellar performance during the first year of Presidency, the outbreak itself holds the potential for him to be a vehicle that could consolidate his image as a practical and firm decision maker.
He has decided to put the tip of the toe in to water, so to speak, cautiously. One only hopes and prays that he has not done it too hastily.