With the entire country under a blanket curfew over the weekend and a virtual lockdown till the next weekend, one of the wisest decisions taken was to postpone the Parliamentary elections scheduled for April 25. There’s a local saying that refers to just such a situation. It points to a bullock cart in the midst [...]


Nominations first, curfew had to wait


With the entire country under a blanket curfew over the weekend and a virtual lockdown till the next weekend, one of the wisest decisions taken was to postpone the Parliamentary elections scheduled for April 25.

There’s a local saying that refers to just such a situation. It points to a bullock cart in the midst of a traffic jam. If the situation is bad enough, the cart makes it worse. That cart was the holding of an election in the midst of the crisis that is the global coronavirus pandemic that has hit this country as well.

Despite a few shortcomings like allowing Italian tourists and Sri Lankan returnees from Italy where the virus is full blown slip into this country without quarantine, the Government has managed to act reasonably swiftly in handling the situation.

Claims on television talk shows by official advisers that the Government acted well ahead of time in the early stages of the crisis are pure nonsense. When this newspaper first reported the outbreak of this virus in China by our reporter from Hong Kong, the medical unit at the Colombo international airport (BIA) had not even heard of the outbreak. There was much to be desired in the screening process at the entry points to the country — the airport and the harbour.

Somewhat slow off the block, the Government however, seems to have got its act together turning to its new ‘kokatath behetha’ (medicine for all ailments) — the military. This time it was totally justified as it is only the military that can execute some of the things that had to be done urgently like setting up quarantine camps and transporting persons to these camps.

The GMOA (Government Medical Officers Association) which is almost a political adjunct of the new Government seems to be an influential force that has pushed the authorities towards imposing a sudden curfew over the weekend. In a statement issued hours before that imposition it said that the next weeks are crucial to contain the virus that has now assumed “community spreading” proportions.

In the meantime, the Government stepped up measures by upgrading a Presidential Committee to a Task Force, but the entire exercise was coloured by its political agenda to proceed with keeping roads open to accept nominations for the Parliamentary elections.

It was ‘business as usual’ for elections. A police spokesman tried to defend the move by saying elections were a fundamental right of the people — but so is the right to life. It is best that policemen not dabble in political decisions of the Government.

Clearly, the Government was taking advantage of the disarray in the Opposition camp, especially within what was once the main Opposition party, the UNP. It wanted to frustrate any eleventh hour attempts for the two factions in the party to get together.

Coming over a television channel, the President said that the Election Commission (EC) can decide later whether to hold the elections on the due date. He didn’t say exactly why the District Secretariats were kept open while all other state institutions were closed as if they were immune to the spread of the virus.

It betrayed the fact that the Government was prepared to take political decisions even at the expense of a national and global health crisis. The President’s argument that there was an urgent need for a new Parliament to pass a budget to pay salaries and fund the fight against the virus rang hollow because he could have reconvened the old Parliament whose constitutional term runs till August and brought a limited purpose money bill that could have received Opposition approval.

That apart, the President has exercised his powers to authorise money from the Consolidated Fund and the Chinese Government has come forward with yet another loan of USD 500 million euphemistically called a “financial facility” which the Government is sure to use to fund its activities in the coming months.

The primary political objective of the Government was patently apparent. It is targeting a two-thirds majority in a Parliament (150 seats) by exploiting the political vacuum in the Opposition. The groundswell of public opinion and possibly the concerns of the public servants and security personnel who would be on duty during an election exposing them to the virus would have had to be taken into consideration. A low poll due to voters keeping away can always be remedied after all, by ways and means.

We referred last week to what happened in Iran recently when a Parliamentary election was held just when the coronavirus broke out in that country. The rapid spread of the virus among its citizens has been directly attributed to holding these elections at such a time.

Italy has been a different story. It is probably the one country in Europe that has the most interaction with China. There is a massive exchange of tourists so much so that Chinese policemen are present in certain Italian cities to help visiting Chinese with directions and other assistance.

That is not all. The high-end USD 80 billion fashion industry of Italy from its designer hat makers to the fur coats from foxes and raccoon farms in China relies heavily on Chinese raw material. This week, Italy surpassed China in number of deaths due to the coronavirus.

Sri Lankan authorities missed a trick by delaying to quarantine those Sri Lankan returnees and Italian tourists in the early weeks of the outbreak. Now, they have been forced to impose a curfew starting in ‘Little Italy’ on the western coastline of Chilaw followed by an all island curfew.

Again, there was an information deficiency on the need for an all island curfew. Unlike in earlier instances, there was no sudden breach of the peace or immediate threat to national security. The public was taken totally by surprise leading to panic all round. There is uncertainty about the future with no official intimation from the Government of what its thinking is.

A secondary factor in Iran that escalated the crisis was the public’s own carelessness when the virus broke out with people in the main cities going back to their villages for an annual spring festival — taking the virus with them.

The curfew just imposed here saw a mass exodus of city workers this week, with buses and trains absolutely jam-packed. Was it just the antithesis of the GMOA warning of the possibility of the virus spreading to the “community”? With the National New Year vacations approaching, what contingency plans the Government has to ensure the virus doesn’t spread countrywide making it more difficult logistically to curb, must surely be in the thinking caps of those in charge.

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