Annus horribilis — a miserable and disastrous year is coming to a long-awaited end. An unforgettable year it was, for all the wrong reasons not just for Sri Lanka but the entire world stopped in its tracks by an unseen virus. As 2020 winds down, it’s as if we can’t wait for it to be [...]


Waiting for the dawn of annus mirabilis


Annus horribilis — a miserable and disastrous year is coming to a long-awaited end. An unforgettable year it was, for all the wrong reasons not just for Sri Lanka but the entire world stopped in its tracks by an unseen virus. As 2020 winds down, it’s as if we can’t wait for it to be over. Young and old, all will remember it for the COVID-19 pandemic that swept across a world that prided itself on its might and advanced technology, forcing a new reckoning of society and lifestyles.

Many have even refused to take it into account, and in their reckoning 2020 has been a wasted year. No one will deny that it has been frightful year, plagued with fear and uncertainty.

Yet for Sri Lanka, it was a year that began with new hope. A new President was in office following the collapse of what turned out to be a dysfunctional administration that had also begun back in 2015 with great hope and sky-high expectations.

Local astrologers predicted a new era of ‘milk and honey’ in 2020. None of them saw what was coming. No wonder Shakespeare, that great poet/playwright of the 16th century, cast doubts on astrology in his writings. “The fault dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves; Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck, And yet methinks I have astronomy, But not to tell of good and evil luck, Of plagues, deaths or season’s quality.”

The coronavirus turned the world as we knew it upside down. Even as countries across the world came first to grief and then to grips with this unseen enemy, it surged and resurfaced in more virulent forms, attacking rich and poor, the mighty and lowly alike, though the lowly more so because they live in crowded slums, tenements and ‘wattes’.

The horrific death toll is still rising and rapidly, both locally and abroad. Worldwide, there have been 78,194,947 confirmed cases, including 1,736,752 deaths, according to the World Health Organisation as of December 25, 2020. Sri Lanka’s cases number 39,782 with 186 deaths. These are recorded figures only. Waiting to hear the daily case count and death toll has become a regular chore of the day.

While initially, lockdowns and islandwide curfews seemed to have been effective in containing the spread of the virus within Sri Lanka, and the Government was patting itself on the back for its successful handling of the coronavirus, it turned out it was all a tad premature. Alas, the economy had to be opened up but the complacency that inevitably set in was to have dire consequences. The last few months of the year have been alarming with cases rising daily with more testing — and the death toll climbing. The people, despite stringent and repeated warnings from the health authorities to stay home and avoid unnecessary outings, seem to have corona fatigue and now seem to be going their merry way, eager not to miss out on the festive season, arguing their sanity is as important as their health.

Elsewhere in the world, the picture is even more frightening. With the UK reporting a new more transmissible strain of the coronavirus, Europe and the United States are continuing to grapple with increasing numbers, facing a long bleak winter of discontent. China, where it all started, claims it has controlled the spread of the virus within its borders. Given questions of its information credibility its claims are subject to proof, but it also seems to be the only country to survive the devasting economic downturn that has resulted from this pandemic.  The WHO that was blamed for delaying the global warning in what appeared to be moves to protect China from worldwide condemnation in the early days has still not come out with a definitive report on how the virus started — at least as a warning for the future.

The UN labour agency, ILO, says 400 million people around the world have lost their jobs as a result. This seems to be a conservative figure. India’s tourist industry alone reports 50 million job losses. In Sri Lanka, the economic toll has been heavy. Daily-wage earners who form a major portion of the workforce have been the hardest hit and Government handouts were a pittance, hardly the answer to their woes, many of them trapped in disastrous cycles of debt. Small businesses struggled and went bust, a few adapted and switched to online to stay afloat if they could.

Yesterday (December 26) was the 16th anniversary of what Sri Lankans thought was the worst possible natural disaster in recent memory — the tsunami. The country can never forget that devastation where an estimated 35,000 people lost their lives. Like with COVID-19, the country was caught by surprise.

And like COVID-19 and the tsunami, the 30-year northern insurgency also came from abroad. The country that heaved a collective sigh of relief as the terrors of war receded then had to face the horror of the Easter Sunday bombings of 2019 and was only just beginning to recover when the pandemic struck.

All this has come at a time when the economy is in shambles with a debt crisis that is being exploited by foreign powers pretending to be friends.

The grim reality that an otherwise resilient nation now has to face is that this pandemic is going to flow over to 2021. If the foreign news segments highlight the world’s North-South disparities, there is no better example of countries in the West rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine and their leaders taking their shots before the cameras. The rest of the world will have to wait their turn like for the crumbs falling off the table. There is no hope of a ‘silver bullet’ in the form of a vaccine reaching ordinary Sri Lankans in the early months of the new year. They will have to make do with their faithful koththamalli.

How much the economy will hold without the bottom falling off is left to be seen. The dollar is rising in step with the virus cases. The ubiquitous greeting ‘Happy New Year’ that trips so lightly off people’s tongues takes on new meaning as the New Year approaches. Will 2021 be an annus mirabilis, an auspicious year?  Hope may spring eternal but mingled with it, is the reality that people will have to brace themselves for, in 2021.



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