“Consider the COVID-19 as a bomb-threat and keep it away all the time.” These words, reportedly by the Army Chief and Head of Sri Lanka’s Task Force on COVID-19, are only the latest in the national narrative that we are at war against the novel coronavirus. This rhetoric is not unique to Sri Lanka. President [...]

Sunday Times 2

We are not at war – and it is dangerous to believe we are


Sri Lanka has fallen to pinning the blame on different groups

“Consider the COVID-19 as a bomb-threat and keep it away all the time.”

These words, reportedly by the Army Chief and Head of Sri Lanka’s Task Force on COVID-19, are only the latest in the national narrative that we are at war against the novel coronavirus. This rhetoric is not unique to Sri Lanka. President Donald Trump speaks of himself as a “wartime President”, while across the pond, Boris Johnson talks of being the head of a “wartime government”, before himself becoming a ‘casualty’ in this war.

The Sri Lankan government has likewise fed this narrative of being at war against an invisible enemy. The media has jumped on the bandwagon. Much has already been written about why governments are keen to employ this rhetoric, and whose interests are served thereby. In this piece, my aim is to suggest some reasons why the fight against COVID-19 is quite distinct from war, and why employing such rhetoric might be counterproductive to combatting COVID-19, and dangerous for our democracy.

The parallels to war are lazy, but compelling at face value: there is loss of life, the disruption of national life, and the mobilisation of various groups to meet the threat. But to hang this analogy on the fact that the way in which the state responds to the two scenarios looks the same is to grossly downplay how society should feel about the two, and to mischaracterise the ground realities.

First, in war, the nature of the threat is existential. The probability of this coming to fruition may vary from conflict to conflict. In civil wars, for example, the aim of those taking up arms is typically to defeat or overthrow the government in an extra-constitutional manner, or to secede or break away from the rest of the country. This represents an existential threat to the state. The coronavirus does not present such an existential threat. There is no doubt that it has left a trail of destruction in its wake; over 300,000 deaths worldwide, millions left unemployed and struggling to meet their daily needs, and entire economies reeling from the sudden halt in daily activity. Nevertheless, nowhere is there a suggestion that the organs of government themselves are at risk of being destroyed or overthrown. To the contrary, the only governance concerns raised are to do with abuses of power during this time – but more on that later. Thus, in this respect, the fight against COVID-19 is not a war – the stakes just aren’t the same.

Second, you cannot have a war without an enemy. In conventional war, this enemy is visible and tangible – someone you can look out for, keep at bay, and – if necessary – kill. Perhaps there is something in our nature that makes it difficult for us to wage wars on abstract ideas or invisible enemies; the ‘war on terror’ is quickly reduced to a war on terrorists. Similarly, a ‘war’ on COVID-19 can easily descend into a war on those infected with COVID-19; a little farfetched – you may say – but we need look no further than our own experience.

It seems the Sri Lankan government could not keep the messaging of fighting ‘an invisible enemy’ up for long – the public ‘at war’ needed someone (read: enemies) to blame. Social media was happy to oblige. We began to see fake news targeting the Muslim community; news organisations followed health inspectors into Muslim homes, clips intended to paint the community in a negative light were aired on national television. Then we began to rationalise this – ‘it’s because of their large families living in close quarters’. The “Muslim population” even made it into a GMOA report as one of the factors to be considered in its COVID-19 response. When it faced heavy criticism, it was removed quietly.

Then the enemies changed – it became people living in low-income and high-density communities in the city. Already, various institutional guidelines are beginning to caution employing people from these communities. Unofficial reports speak of abuse in the way these communities were policed, but at the very least, there has been a stripping away of their dignity – something we’re quite comfortable doing to our enemies.

The government did not seem too concerned with these developments, barring some appeals from health experts not to demonise patients. However, it then emerged that some naval officers had been infected, and that the virus had spread rapidly within their camp; this cluster is now the biggest in Sri Lanka. There were reports of these officers and their families being vilified in their villages – and it was only then that the government stepped in. The Defense Secretary, among others, called on the public to acknowledge that these officers had made sacrifices for the sake of the country, and should not be mistreated for becoming victims of the virus. No word on why they were not given adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for their safety.

Some may argue that painting the pandemic response as a war is helpful because it unites the country against a common enemy. But this is not what has happened – Sri Lanka has instead fallen to pinning the blame on different groups, with the powerless and marginalised becoming easy targets. The distrust and suspicion that this can breed is perhaps captured in the story of the soldier who had a seizure in Dambulla, and was left unattended for a full half-hour before any assistance was rendered. Reports suggest that the bystanders thought he had COVID-19.

Third, during war, a country puts its military men front and center. The politicians and civil servants have their say, but it is the forces that call the shots. As if the war rhetoric were not enough, the President put the Army Chief in charge of Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 Task Force. It is his visage we see at the daily briefings. Is this the best approach to take? There is no doubt that the forces have certain useful traits – rapid mobilisation, a clear chain of command, and the training and discipline to adapt to changing instructions. But one crucial weakness I would suggest, is that forces (by their design) are not adept at taking criticism. Orders are meant to be followed down the line (‘Ours not to reason why’), not questioned and challenged. But challenge and criticism are vital in a pandemic response, because it allows feedback to flow from bottom to top, and allows the authorities to adapt to meet those needs.

We are seeing an increased number of military officers taking leadership roles in the public service, most recently, at the Ministry of Health. With the heightened rhetoric about being at war, and the allegedly flawless and efficient mission carried out by the forces, the public is being primed to accept these changes submissively. Sri Lanka has been without a Parliament since March 2, but we have seen consistent messaging on social media telling us that we don’t need these “self-serving” representatives when the disciplined forces and their leaders are “keeping us safe” just fine. We also saw attempts to take action against those who criticise public officers on their response to COVID-19. All these are signs of a creeping militarisation – a process which now has added legitimacy because of the war rhetoric.

If this isn’t a war, then how should we look at it? I suggest we treat it as it is – a natural disaster. Sri Lanka has experiences of natural disasters, and in such times of crisis, we have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to show solidarity, and to come to the aid of those affected. After the tsunami of 2004, we saw a temporary cessation of hostilities between the government and the LTTE, as both sides prioritised the humanitarian effort. Whenever we experience serious flooding, there is an outpouring of support. Recall the difference in the tone of the response: no one blames the victims who have lost their homes to floods or landslides – they are seen as victims. There is a sense that we must share our resources, and share their burdens. Can such an approach be successful with a pandemic?

War rhetoric in response to a pandemic is not only dangerous for democracy, it is also counter-productive to combatting the virus. If minorities feel they will be vilified, they may not report symptoms of COVID-19; this is a growing concern among the Muslim population, as they now face the prospect of cremation if they die while suspected of COVID-19. If low-income workers are not reassured that their jobs are safe even if they don’t turn up for work – because they suspect they have been infected – they will come to their workplaces regardless, and risk infecting many more. War rhetoric will not create this atmosphere of reassurance – it breeds an ‘us versus them’ mentality, the desperation to do anything to survive. Instead, we need the language of solidarity and compassion – those who fall ill are victims, and we will share their struggles and take care of them. It is only by securing the health and well-being of all that we can secure our own.

I will end on a facetious note. If this is in fact a war – will there be decorations handed out when this is all over? Will the military chiefs get medals for their decisive leadership, and the soldiers for falling ill ‘in the line of battle’? If they find this notion outrageous, it is only because they know that this is nothing like an actual war. This is not a war; we should stop treating it like one.

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