Last Sunday when this column looked at political developments — both local and foreign — against the backdrop of a global pandemic, it did not expect to come back to the subject so soon. What prompted a quick return to it is a cluster (a commonly used word these days) of decisions and impending events [...]


When politics downplays pandemic


Last Sunday when this column looked at political developments — both local and foreign — against the backdrop of a global pandemic, it did not expect to come back to the subject so soon.

What prompted a quick return to it is a cluster (a commonly used word these days) of decisions and impending events that make another look singularly appropriate.

But to take a step back and place political statements in their context is not without merit for they impinge on what is happening right now. Sri Lanka’s Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi would remember that not too long ago she predicted that by April 19 the coronavirus epidemic in Sri Lanka would be under control. She has been proved wrong as recent data clearly shows.

There were others whose political punditry readily claimed that a parliamentary election could be held on April 25 without any let or hindrance by some temporarily passing virus.

Pavithra Wanniarachchi was not the only health minister around who spoke too soon. Here in the UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock set a target of 100,000 tests a day which would include antigen tests that show whether people are currently suffering from Covid-19, as well as antibody tests to see whether people have had the infection and recovered. He promised it would be done by April 30th.

It was reported here that the Health Secretary had taken a £100 wager that it could be done by the target date. At 9am on Wednesday April 29th the figure was 52,429.

It might have reached something like 85,000 by the day’s end. It will take a day or two before we are told what the final figure was on the last day of April and whether Mr Hancock’s £100 is safely tucked away in his wallet or it was another political promise that fell by the wayside.

Across the Atlantic the greatest president the American people have ever elected, (according to “D for Disinfectant” Trump that is), coronavirus was nothing to write an early morning tweet about and it will all be over in a short while and America will be great again.

Today more Americans have died since the outbreak of Covid-19 in the US than the number who died in the entire Vietnam War. Now we know why he calls himself the greatest president of all time! What America is passing through today is due largely to Trumpian antics and his ingrained tendency to blame everybody but himself for the tragedy that is the US today.

So April has proved the cruellest month for many open-mouthed politicians and it is surely not over yet.

The point is that these prognostications of politicians proudly made should be taken not with a pinch of sea salt but with a large dose of Epsom salt said to be a bowel cleanser.

Tomorrow, May 4, is a significant date. When opposition parties met the head of the Election Commission, Mahinda Deshapriya, the day after a new date for the election was announced they remonstrated against such a decision being announced prior to any discussions with them.

Deshapriya then reportedly said that June 20 was not final and the Commission would evaluate the situation once more on May 4 before a date is finalised. He was no doubt referring to an overall assessment of the situation on the ground and not only a medical evaluation of the progress made in controlling the coronovirus.

Deshapriya and his colleagues know that it takes an army of personnel and close contact between and among staffers in running an election efficiently and fairly.  Social distancing as advised by the WHO and medical specialists would not be possible at every point of the election process.

There is more to the logistics involved in planning and holding a nationwide election than only a positive health report as Deshapriya told the media a few days back.

So tomorrow is going to be a critical day when we will know whether the election will be held on the day already picked or another postponement becomes inevitable.

An important question that is being asked —and if not should be — is why an island-wide curfew was re-imposed on Thursday and would be lifted only tomorrow if the picture presented of better control over the health situation is an accurate assessment.

As I write, the official data show the number of infected had risen to 660 persons and would, one assumes, be more by Sunday when this column appears.

So, according to official statistics, the number of infected has been rising in the last week or two. Considering this fact along with another nationwide curfew  clamped instead of in some districts only surely suggests that the government and its experts believe the infection could have spread far and wide.

The extended curfew was probably intended to track down those, especially the Navy personnel who left the base camp at Welisara and went home to their villages or wherever they live, possibly taking the infection with them and passing it on to their contacts.

Moreover there is much conjecture over some of the statistics released. For instance, the number of fatalities has stood at seven for several weeks or more.

While the mortality rate in several countries has been rising steadily except perhaps in South Korea and now Wuhan where no deaths have been reported, the plateaued figure in Sri Lanka has raised many an eyebrow in the country and elsewhere.

Either the medical treatment of infected patients has been exceptionally good and the earlier policy initiatives taken to control the infection have been highly successful or the calculations have gone askew for one reason or another.

My attention was drawn to this for two reasons. One was the questions being asked in the UK about the accuracy of the death toll. It was found that the official figures were based on patients who died in NHS hospitals and did not include deaths in care homes and at home which added together placed the toll much higher.

Then again there were reports on the Sri Lanka situation circulating that raised a very vital issue. Let me quote from a document I received authored by a group called Alliance of Independent Professionals.

That relevant paragraph read: “The government has stated that there have been only seven fatalities to date from Covid-19. Health officials are widely agreed that this number is a gross underestimate, as they have been forbidden from conducting Covid-19 tests on any person suspected to have died from the virus. Several persons who have died from ailments ranging from respiratory illness to heart disease have been forcibly cremated without coroners or Judicial Medical Officers being permitted to conduct Covid-19 tests on the remains.”

Differences of opinion between and among experts and knowledgeable persons in a variety of fields are bound to happen. In fact they are inevitable whether they be among experts or self-opinionated politicians.

Such controversies, especially when they raise questions over the violation of the law and trampling of the rule of law need to be nailed and the truth elicited.

This is why accountability is so very important. It is the call by the media, in the absence of a functioning parliament at the time, for accountability that forced the British Government to provide more accurate data on the total fatalities from Covid-19.

Without accountability and openness the public would be groping around like the blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that is not there, as my philosophy professor who taught logic used to say.

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