Not in living memory do current health and scientific experts remember a world trapped in the grip of a deadly virus as today’s Covid-19. There have been diseases that have engulfed some parts of the globe but never spread so widely infecting so many nations — big, medium and small nation. Right now Sri Lanka [...]


Corrosive politics and global pandemic


Not in living memory do current health and scientific experts remember a world trapped in the grip of a deadly virus as today’s Covid-19. There have been diseases that have engulfed some parts of the globe but never spread so widely infecting so many nations — big, medium and small nation.

Right now Sri Lanka is going through a new or another phase or wave or whatever the boffins and those in pretentious garb call it. Whether this particular ‘cluster’ was anticipated by the more qualified of Sri Lankan experts or unexpectedly fell off a flight over the international airport one cannot say unless accurate information is made available.

That is what is so scary and continues to worry many governments around the world after an initial show of bravado by political leaders and those put in charge of managing the epidemic and containing its spread.

Even developed nations having the human and technological resources could and should have acted with greater prescience. But some leaders underestimated the ferociousness of Covic-19 or overestimated their ability to control it. Secondly they did not rely on or ignored the advice or more knowledgeable experts but turned to their favourite scientists or medical specialists leading to a rift in academic circles.

A classic example of this political-academic/expert battle is the one between Donald Trump and a group of highly qualified scientists. This has made controlling and overcoming the virus difficult. This is inevitable when the work of experts is hampered by political interference and public criticism.

In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, surrounded by a coterie of favourites who are administrators rather than scientists/medical experts, has created other differences up to the point that the anti-Johnson group has multiplied and even the government’s own experts are avoiding expressing opinions.

Bin the facemasks: Chinese delegation leader Yang Jeichi seen with Prime Minister Rajapaksa at Temple Trees last week

Those who have been regular viewers of TV (and radio listeners),especially the well-known international channels, over the last several months would know the verbal clashes originated by President Trump and the acrimonious debates that have resulted. It has come to the point that internationally recognised scientists, epidemiologists and others qualified to speak on the subject are castigating political leaders, half-past-six politicians as they used to be called and still are I suppose, and their hangers-on for misleading the public with prognostications as good as those of wayside saathara karayas.

Recently Trump publicly criticised one of his top scientists, Dr Robert Redford, a virologist and head of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr Redford had angered Trump by asserting that a Covid-19 vaccine would not be widely available until late 2021.  Shortly after, the President called a media conference to say that Redford was “confused.”  Trump said a vaccine would be ready before November’s presidential election.

Why all this rush to decry the view of a well-known scientist on a subject which the president knows nothing except that bleach is a good vaccine to wipe out Covid-19. It is because Trump was playing politics. He did not want it said that no anti-Covid vaccine would be available before the November election fearing he would lose votes at a time when he was several percentage points behind his challengers Joe Biden and facing criticism even in states that were favourable to him.

So when you play politics with a worldwide pandemic, mislead not only your own people but those of the world pretending to be the planet’s leader, you end up being treated as a charlatan with humbug tattooed across your chest. This is also what happens when political leaders gather to their bosom mediocrities masquerading as experts brandishing academic certificates from institutions of somewhat dubious heritage.

Nations can well do without politicians. But nations cannot do without people. Nor can politicians do without their acolytes and their regular hangers-on to do their odd jobs and contribute to their kitty and treasury at home. It is part of the political system under which we unfortunately live. Politicians and acolytes have a symbiotic relationship.

As a result of this interdependence they think laws do not exist for them however much the citizen is made to think that laws apply equally to all citizens. They do not. Only last Sunday fellow columnist Faizal Samath wrote this. I quote it “in extensor” so it would not go amiss especially by our uppity-classes who only look for their pictures in the social pages or wherever they think matter.

“At a wedding in Colombo, many people could be seen sans face masks.

“At a public concert while social distancing is displayed with every other seat assigned to the audience with the middle seat vacant, some people are not wearing masks so much so that someone complained and the organisers had to run an announcement pleading with patrons to wear masks. The audience was the crème de la crème of Colombo society, an educated lot but some of them still chose to be arrogant and not wear face masks, a fundamental requirement today in a COVID-19 world.

“At a private sector event promoting a product, some attendees are not wearing face masks and no one bothers to raise an issue. In buses, trains and taxis, people are seen without face masks.

“At a media briefing, some ministers, officials and journalists are without face masks and sometimes sit side-by-side violating social distancing norms as well, often rules set by the ministers themselves.”

“And all this was happening in the backdrop of a gigantic cluster of over 1,000 infections arising out of the Brandix apparel factory at Minuwangoda, Gampaha,” wrote Faizal Samath.

It matters not who. Why did the managers of the venue permit this to happen inside the premises? Why did the organisers of the wedding permit guests to sit down with others when the law or regulations were being publicly violated? Did they think that their head gear was big enough to accommodate their heads? Why were other attendees at these events allowed to be exposed to possible infection because of the so-called big-wigs behaved as though they were above the law?

Why are those responsible for such events not treated as they should? Is it because they are among those who made the law or regulations and are exempt from the ordinary people? Or is it that they are close to those who make the laws that are being blatantly violated.

And what of this story about Brandix workers, who are said to have been flown to Colombo and did not go through the medical tests? Is that true or not? If true what would be done to the owner/s and directors of the company. If nothing why not?  powers that be? Is the rest of the country to suffer just to pull the Brandix pants out of the fire?

Just a couple of days ago I saw a front page picture in a Sri Lankan daily that was remarkable. It was a meeting chaired by the president with something like 15-20 Buddhist monks. There were several others in civilian dress clothes and some from the media. The only persons wearing face mask was one monk who had partially removed it and one of the video operators. Nobody else!, not when the picture was shot. Why I do not know.

And just last week, the high-level Chinese delegation leader, Yang Jeichi, was seen without a facemask at  Temple Trees, though the Chinese embassy claimed that wherever the delegation went its members wore masks. (See pic.)

Despite all this official ballyhoo of combating Covid-19, this virus could not have asked for a better breeding ground. Hallelujah!

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


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