There are other sides to this corona tragedy that have remained buried in government statements and political obfuscation. From London to Colombo, debate on this unprecedented human tragedy has been obscured because an essential ingredient of democratic governance has been absent at a critical time. In London, the House of Commons has just emerged from [...]


Unmasking another side of corona


There are other sides to this corona tragedy that have remained buried in government statements and political obfuscation.

From London to Colombo, debate on this unprecedented human tragedy has been obscured because an essential ingredient of democratic governance has been absent at a critical time.

In London, the House of Commons has just emerged from its Easter vacation. In Sri Lanka, there is no parliament, which cynics might add, is not a bad thing after all, if past performances are anything to go by.

More than anything else a cash-strapped government is saving money not having to dole out salaries and what not to the so-called representatives of the people, some of whom more accurately represent themselves and their families.

Still other voices that should have been heard at this critical time the world is battling alien forces are absent or silenced. News, if that is what it is, is provided by governments. They tell the story, they navigate the narrative.

So with one critical arm of the democratic tripod silent or silenced the task of holding the executive to account has fallen on the media — those that have not fallen prey to political leaderships — what Edmund Burke called the Fourth Estate.

Then, of course, there is the leader of the so-called Free World, Donald Trump, who is free to make up the news with his buddies in Fox news, the most outrageous bits of fiction that shock the world but is lapped up with relish by his wagons-load of “Whites only” thugs that act as trumpeteers.

Let the Guardian newspaper’s Washington correspondent David Smith tell the story as it happened at last Thursday’s White House coronavirus task force briefing where the irascible Trump discussed new government research on the virus..

“And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute,” Trump said. “One minute! And is there a way we can do something, by an injection inside or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it’d be interesting to check that. So, that you’re going to have to use medical doctors with, but it sounds interesting to me.”

Dr Deborah Birx, the task force response coordinator, remained silent. But social media erupted in hilarity and outrage at the president, who has a record of defying science and also floated the idea of treating patients’ bodies with ultraviolet (UV) light.

Several doctors warned the public against injecting disinfectant or using UV light.

So now we have the US President selling disinfectant as though he had bought up the manufacturing company, as an antidote for the virus. It might not be long before Trump’s hangers-on go around the country smelling of disinfectant after swallowing tumblersful of the stuff to keep the coronavirus away.

Commenting on Trump’s latest contribution to alchemy, Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, had this to say, according to the Guardian:

“It is incomprehensible to me that a moron like this holds the highest office in the land and that there exist people stupid enough to think this is OK. I can’t believe that in 2020 I have to caution anyone listening to the president that injecting disinfectant could kill you.”

On the other side of the ‘pond’, UK’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock has taken a constant battering from the media for setting a target of 100,000 coronavirus tests per day by the end of this month when it is struggling to meet half the target. At the time of writing only around 48,000 tests were done daily.

It will come as no surprise if Hancock becomes a political scapegoat now that the Commons is functioning but with only a few members allowed to attend because of the need to maintain social distancing.

There have been perceptible shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) especially for frontline medical and care workers. Even several bus drivers have died of the virus because they had been exposed to Covid-19.

This is largely due to the British Government not taking early precautionary steps to equip the NHS with necessary protective gear, perhaps expecting the normal winter flu epidemic.

The sudden global rush with orders for protective gear from manufacturers and others has had its negative side. This is especially so in Malaysia, the largest manufacturer of medical rubber gloves.

The surge in global demand has left factory workers, many of them immigrants, exposed to what is tantamount to modern slavery, say experts. Though Malaysia is in lockdown, glove making factories are in full production and workers on duty round the clock.

The workers themselves are open to infection in the crowded factories and the British government has been warned not to neglect the plight of these workers whose lives are also in danger — like NHS frontline staff.

These political failures like Sri Lanka’s own mistakes in the early days of the coronavirus when the WHO declared an emergency in January warning the world of the impending epidemic.

Sri Lanka’s first infected case was detected in the same month when a Chinese woman tourist was found to be infected. But still in mid-March annual inter-school cricket matches were played with an attempt to shift the blame on to the Royal-Thomian match when no tests were done on players or spectators at earlier games and social distancing, an obvious step in containment was ignored.

But what struck one as extremely curious was the over-stretched analogy of South Korea’s recent national election used by Prof GL Peiris now nailed to politics.

At a recent news conference that dealt with Sri Lanka’s postponed parliamentary election among other things, Prof Peiris drew attention to the Korean election as an example of a country holding national polls while the country was seriously affected by neighbouring China’s Wuhan epidemic.

It seemed rather obvious at the time that the learned professor was saying that elections were possible under prevailing pandemic conditions thus trying to justify holding our own elections without any further postponement.

If that was the real reason and not the hazy one offered immediately when questioned by the media, Prof Peiris appears to be sadly misinformed. Given its geopolitical and geostrategic position South Korea has been long prepared to deal with disasters — natural and man-made including politically-generated exigencies. South Korean disaster-management systems are very adaptable. Perhaps he forgets that in 2015 Korea had to deal with MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) said to be a coronavirus more virulent than that which causes Covid-19.

Could Prof Peiris assure that the very stringent measures taken at the Korean election would be replicated if Sri Lanka holds elections without further postponement? One must seriously doubt it, seeing the highly scientific precautionary steps the Koreans took.

There is much more to add to dispelling this false analogy and some other rosy pictures which is tantamount to comparing coconuts with monkey nuts. Unfortunately space does not permit it. But perhaps an occasion would arise when it becomes necessary.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor, Diplomatic Editor and Political Columnist at the Hong Kong Standard before moving to London where he worked at Gemini News Service. Later he was Sri Lanka’s Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London before returning to journalism.) 


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