Lockdown too little, too late?
By Jude Fernando
After nearly ten months of refusing a lockdown, bowing to pressure from medical professionals, politicians and trade associations who closed their businesses, as well as the failure of travel restrictions to control the pandemic, the government has finally imposed a 10-day countrywide lockdown starting on August 20. While the lockdown is necessary, it is too little too late, and more importantly, is not supported by the services necessary to maintain an equity and justice-focused lockdown. Instead, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and State Minister of Finance, Capital Markets and Enterprise Reforms, Ajith Nivard Cabral, have stated that during the lockdown, citizens must bear the lockdown-induced hardships. The President also reminded the public of the dangers of the first lockdown: “The lowest economic growth of the country since Independence was seen during the first wave of COVID-19 as a result of placing the country under a lockdown.” The state minister blamed those who support a lockdown as being inconsiderate of the impact a lockdown will have on 4.2 million daily wage earners.
The nation was left puzzled when the Army Commander and Head of the National Operations Centre for Prevention of COVID-19, General Shavendra Silva, told journalists that a 10-day quarantine curfew was to be declared, contradicting the word lockdown used by the Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella when announcing the nationwide 10-day lockdown. The Army Commander, while declaring quarantine curfew, said apparel industries, agricultural activities, and pharmacies will remain open during the quarantine curfew.
The epidemiological basis for a 10-day lockdown is both confusing and untenable. The lockdown does not indicate a radical departure from the government’s response to the pandemic. In fact, it highlights the ongoing policy incoherence and coordination issues endemic in the governance culture of the regime. If the lockdown fails to check the spread of the virus and exacerbate the survival hardships on the people, the government will almost certainly pass the blame for it on those who advocated the lockdown and use it to vindicate the government’s refusal to lockdown.
Placing justice and equality at the centre of our assessment of responses to the pandemic is crucial to ensure the efficiency and efficacy of pandemic response efforts and prevent the government and its loyalists from exploiting it for their own selfish gain. Society should not be held to ransom by, nor be complacent about, the idiosyncrasies, egos, moral bankruptcy and short-sightedness of the country’s rulers. Civic responsibility demands that we protect people’s rights to life during and after the pandemic, especially when restrictions on travel strengthen the very forces responsible for society’s systemic inequalities and injustices.
Although the COVID-19 virus did not originate in humans, its transmission from the natural world to humans, and subsequent growth into a pandemic, with all the difficulties attendant on such an event, has largely resulted from decisions made by mankind. Countries with the political will to prioritize the right to life of their citizens have managed to better contain the spread of the virus and have saved more lives than those that have failed to exercise this moral priority, and they are now better positioned to recover economically. In contrast, the current predicament in Sri Lanka results from a political decision that reflects the mindset of the ruling regime, which sees election to power as bestowing upon them the divine right to dispense with people’s lives for the sake of economic development.
If the citizens of Sri Lanka are to survive, they must reclaim their right to live from the current political incumbents. First, decisions on measures to control the virus must be guided by expert knowledge. Second, elected officials must proactively provide people with access to the necessary resources to survive in isolation until the pandemic is brought under control.
Ironically, pleas for the rights to live are being made to the same people who rose to power on their promise to safeguard these rights by ending 30 years of civil war, the last stage of which witnessed the deaths of as many as 40,000 civilians. These same leaders in government are now willing to sacrifice people’s lives to protect their own economic interests, in the face of advice from health care professionals and epidemiologists.
As the Alpha variant gives way to the more contagious Delta variant, doctors unofficially said that around 6,000 new infections were being detected a day while the death toll was expected to hit above 200 per day in the coming days.
Promises by the government to expedite the vaccine rollout does not absolve it of its responsibility for deaths until everyone is vaccinated, and herd immunity is achieved. The government’s refusal to lock down the country makes it responsible not only for each death that happens while the vaccination program is in progress, but also for the long term effects on those who survive the virus, and for the disruption to the economy.
Reputable health sector experts and economists have disagreed with the government’s insistence on the need to trade lives for economic activity. Dr. Harsha De Silva, an economist and a member of the opposition, claimed that the government’s lack of an economic plan, and not the restrictions on travel, was responsible for the crisis in the country. The travel restrictions have resulted in increased imports and have adversely affected existing sources of revenue, thus further exacerbating the country’s foreign exchange rating and its ability to service debt.
The 10-day lockdown will fail to protect life if it is not driven by epidemiological necessity of controlling the movement of people to reduce their vulnerability to virus and back by a well-coordinated plan to provide necessities. The government did not announce alternative plans to distribute the necessities to people, despite the fact that the government’s Extra Ordinary gazette notification set the maximum retail prices for 60 essential and commonly used medicines and provide relief allowance of Rs 2,000 for those are unable to carry out their livelihoods during the pandemic.
Based on widely accepted evidence-based epidemiological knowledge and the norms of social equity and justice, the narrative of protecting livelihoods and saving lives that the government uses to justify its refusal of medical professionals and justify its own version to lock down the nation, is irrational, misleading, unethical, and unjust. Clearly, the government’s economic and political ideologies and political interests have continued unabated during the pandemic and, indeed, have become even more aggressive. Humanitarian crises are notorious for opening doors to reforms that would be unpopular and politically costly under normal circumstances, and during this outbreak, the government has forced legislative changes that could have far-reaching negative consequences for democracy and freedom.
A lockdown alone does not eradicate a virus, nor is it a substitute for other measures such as vaccination and social distancing. Rather, it complements a multi-faceted strategy that is necessary to efficiently manage the pandemic, including restrictions on travel. Far from simply shutting down economic activities, a lockdown involves a well-coordinated strategy to manage a humanitarian crisis that is first and foremost aimed at protecting life while providing access to the minimum of necessities for these disadvantaged groups.
The burden of making personal sacrifices will disproportionately fall on the underprivileged people. The dwellings, modes of travel and workplaces of the elite are already socially distanced from the areas where the virus is most widespread. The elites can escape to safer areas without a significant disruption in income. Incidents of people in this class using their economic power and political influence to escape the scrutiny of the law when they participate in prohibited activities during the pandemic are not uncommon. The refusal to lockdown provides opportunities for the rich to increase their wealth by exploiting labour and by the socially and politically sanctioned inequalities in society.
The argument for travel restrictions alone, did not emerge from an epidemiological assessment of the practicalities involved in its implementation. For example, the objective for travel restrictions to limit people’s mobility between and within provinces has not been achieved to date. Checkpoints in selected locations at the provincial boundaries do not prevent the routine movements of most of the country’s population because this travel occurs mainly within the provinces. At the same time, despite the restrictions, crossings continue at provincial boundaries. For example, people from the North-Western Province travel by bus to the province’s border, walk over the Maha Oya bridge, and take another bus to points in the Western Province. In this situation, the travel restrictions apply more to the buses than to the people. Movement within and between provincial boundaries negatively impacts only those forced to take crowded buses and trains.
Late-night curfews to supplement the checkpoints at provincial boundaries are meaningless as Sri Lanka does not have a vibrant urban nightlife. Lockdowns, however, focus on vulnerable and risky contacts between people wherever they gather, rather than simply on roads between the provinces, as is the case with travel restrictions.
The government’s national security policy has informed its response to the pandemic, as it does in every other aspect of governance, which is evident from military personnel being assigned to important decision-making positions that is unprecedented in the country’s history. For example, the methods used by the government to prevent the spread of the virus mimic strategies for counterterrorism as they involve shutting down areas reported to have a high incidence of infected people who are apprehended and placed in isolation. The area is reopened for civilian movements after it is declared free of infected people. This approach has completely failed to contain the virus. The implicit assumption of this strategy is that the virus and enemies of the state exhibit similar behaviour. A virus, however, is an invisible force that moves from person to person, unobstructed by physical or administrative boundaries, and armies cannot shoot it or regulate its behaviour. Hardly anyone (except the bats) infected with the virus moves around during the curfew imposed by the government between 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a/m. Bringing epidemiological sites under control is very different to dealing with areas saturated by enemies.
The government treats the circumstances of the pandemic and war as if they are the same. This is partly ideological. The government appears to base the success of travel restrictions on its experience with the 30-year civil war against the Tamil militants, rather than based on the epidemiological realities of the pandemic. The notion that “Sri Lanka did not close the economy during the 30 years of civil war, why should it do now?” is a disingenuous justification for opposing a lockdown. The war did not disrupt the economy the way the pandemic currently does. Lockdowns mitigate the extent to which COVID-19 can disrupt the economy. Unlike during a war, there is no justification for sacrificing human lives for economic interest or political expediency.
The military’s rationality that informs the ideological basis of the government’s pandemic response, defines its culture of governance, led by a President whose popularity and legitimacy is based on winning the 30-year civil war. The president’s victory in 2019 was aided by the public perception that he could use his war experiences to develop the economy. The preponderance of military rationality in epidemiological governance during the current pandemic manifests the peculiar character of the current regime’s decision-making culture.
Sri Lanka’s armed forces have a proven record of being capable to assist during humanitarian crises, as we have witnessed during past natural disasters and the early stages of the pandemic. These disasters forced emergency operations, and in the aftermath of the tsunami, these operations even coincided with the war against the Tamil militants. Framing the pandemic response as a national security operation, however, was an inappropriate response to a public health-related emergency. Public health instructions that come from military personnel may not be as effective as instructions from public health professionals. The culture of decision-making within the military is radically different to that of a civilian-led process. A top-down decision-making culture values loyalty-induced political expediency more than social knowledge and expertise. This increases personal risk and creates obstacles for professionals trying to maintain standards and integrity, which in turn undermines the public’s faith in these professionals.
Rather than engaging with critics of the travel restrictions, the government continues to pass the blame on to the public. Blame has been applied to select groups, which often happen to be the public and those opposing the government. For example, the decision to accuse the teachers, who were on strike during certain days of the pandemic, of “irresponsible behaviour”, deflected and politicized a potentially productive conversation about the merits of a lockdown versus travel restrictions. There is no good reason to treat a teachers’ strikes as a wrongdoing when the government selectively allows all sorts of non-essential public gatherings to continue. In terms of the likelihood for spreading the virus, there is no fundamental difference between people who are forced to work or travel in crowded places during the pandemic and the protesters. In fact, the teachers strictly observed social distancing and wore masks in public places during their protests, and in response to an escalation of infections, they reduced the number of days and the duration of protests in public places, later voluntarily suspending them altogether, and there is no evidence of any protesters contracting the virus.
The government’s long term refusal to impose a lockdown disproportionately favoured privileged groups in society. The current 10-day lockdown is likely to have a disproportionately negative impact on already marginalized social groups. This could have been avoided by having a plan in place to provide necessities for these disadvantaged groups. The burden of making personal sacrifices will disproportionately fall on the underprivileged people. The dwellings, modes of travel and workplaces of the elite are already socially distanced from the areas where the virus is most widespread. The elites can escape to safer areas without a significant disruption in income. Incidents of people in this class using their economic power and political influence to escape the scrutiny of the law when they participate in prohibited activities during the pandemic are not uncommon. The refusal to lockdown provides opportunities for the rich to increase their wealth by exploiting labour and by the socially and politically sanctioned inequalities in society.
The argument that people must continue to earn a living during the pandemic is based on the idea that some are inherently more entitled to wealth than others. No wealth is gained without the exploitation of labour and nature. The idea that those who invest capital have a right to wealth is wrong; the acquisition and expansion of capital result from depriving the poor of their entitlement to natural resources. During the pandemic, the survival of the elite, especially their ability to maintain their dominant status in society by exploiting the opportunities the pandemic provides for them, has depended on the continuity of the services that marginalized groups – the so-called essential workers – offer.
Our main challenge in facing this pandemic is to develop a clear perspective of justice and to assess government policies, and our dissent, accordingly. We must move away from the idea of distributive and procedural justice to restorative justice. The idea of restorative justice emphasizes the need to repair the harm done to victims through a process of negotiation, mediation, victim empowerment, and reparation. It begins with the question of why and how people are being ‘wronged and aims to right the injustices: Why the majority of the population need to discriminately suffer during the pandemic?
-Jude Fernando is Associate Professor of International Development and Social Change, Department of International Development, Community, and Environment, Clark University, Massachusetts, USA and this article was originally featured on groundviews.org