Keeping the Bull at Bay: Notes from Sri Lanka

Corona Diary

Barely a year earlier, on 21st April 2019, Sri Lanka suffered one of its worst shocks since the end of its ethnic war, when churches and hotels were bombed on Easter Sunday by an Islamist group. The attacks resulted in 269 deaths and a tourism sector in ruins. For an already struggling economy and citizenry, the pandemic feels like the proverbial bull.

At first sight, from a public health perspective, Sri Lanka has been fairly successful at keeping the bull at bay. At the time of writing, for a population of 21 million, it has 233 confirmed patients, 7 deaths and no community spread. The government closed the country’s borders and imposed curfews fairly soon after the first Sri Lankan patient was identified on 11th March, ‘aided’ by  a ‘strong man’ President in Gotabhaya Rajapakse, a commensurate public hankering for decisive leadership, a militarized state and a prorogued parliament in view of a general election which has now been postponed. A fairly robust public health service and universal free health care also came in good stead, as did friendship with China, India and Japan which resulted in initial supplies of vital drugs and medical equipment. Serious concern on the lack of widespread testing for the virus notwithstanding, the government’s tactics of containment and delay have won approval. There is no illusion, however, that if the virus gets to the community spread stage, Sri Lanka’s health system will be completely overwhelmed.

The sense of existential crisis experienced elsewhere has not been felt here so far because of the relative low numbers. However, Sri Lanka is no stranger to such trauma. A protracted armed conflict and a horrific natural disaster in the 2004 tsunami in which 35,000 died in Sri Lanka alone and 230,000 deaths occurred in Asia (a number still higher than the total global death toll to the pandemic) means that untimely deaths, inability to protect loved ones, bid them final goodbyes, hold and attend funerals with customary last rights are eerily familiar. As health care systems in the global north struggle to cope with shortages of all kinds, forcing doctors to decide whose life is worth saving and whose is not, the virus has made the first world look third world. Corvid-19 has foregrounded in ways unthinkable just a month ago, the fragility of geopolitical power. It has also made us recognize our common humanity.

The virus will still cost Sri Lanka dearly. A country with a 72% debt to GDP, it is heavily reliant for foreign exchange on tourism and migrant labor remittances both of which are now in jeopardy. 60% of its labor force work informally and risk losing jobs and pay as small businesses go bankrupt. Sri Lanka has little room to maneuver in providing stimulus packages. As a middle-income country, albeit at the lower end, it has not been listed so far by the IMF for debt moratorium. There are costs to democratic governance too. The military, tasked with operationalizing quarantines, refurbishing hospitals and monitoring curfews has gained ascendance. The media is awash with patriotic songs on emerging victorious from this crisis just as the country did in the war. Sinhala Buddhist sentiment is high and a symptomatic scapegoating of Muslims for spreading the disease has emerged in the mainstream media. Invoking health emergency rules, the order to cremate (which Buddhists do anyway), overriding the preference of Muslims to bury their dead has taken on ominous ethno-religious overtones. We are back to the schisms of last Easter and these fault-lines carry as deadly a viral overload as the pestilence in our midst.

Colombo, April 15, 2020.

Neloufer de Mel is Senior Professor and Head of Department of English at the University of Colombo. Her work draws on critical legal and cultural studies for an analysis of gender justice. It combines multidisciplinary perspectives on society and culture, gender, literature, film, disability, and performance art. Neloufer de Mel was a Guest Researcher at the IWM in 2018.