Editorial/Opinion

Let’s not persecute the persecuted

The past week has been the most prolific in the detection of Covid-19 cases since the global pandemic arrived in Sri Lanka mid-March. The five days from Monday to Friday last week saw over 400 individuals being detected with the virus, sending the overall number of infected soaring past the 1,500 figure.

Although the majority of the new cases have been those returning from the Middle East via especially arranged repatriation flights, the fact of the matter remains that each one of those who tested positive is a Sri Lankan national and now a patient occupying a hospital bed in the country.

Their collective fate now rests in the hands of the Government of Sri Lanka. What must be kept in mind is that these are people who were virtually thrown out onto the streets by their employers and many of them had not even been paid their salaries, leaving them at the mercy of the Sri Lankan missions for repatriation.

Although initially at least one government minister publicly objected to the continuation of the repatriation flights operated by the national carrier, SriLankan Airlines, citing health concerns, the flights are continuing after a temporary suspension was revoked mid-week.

The Middle East has always been hostile territory for Sri Lankan domestic workers, but that has not deterred thousands from flocking to those countries, essentially driven by sheer economic necessity. Therefore, it is no surprise that these usually hostile employers chose to evict their workers en masse on the pretext of Covid-19 while the governments of those countries did little or nothing in turn to stop these acts, obviously for reasons of self- preservation.

Health Services Director General Dr. Anil Jasinghe is on record that no country should evict the sick until they are healed, citing Sri Lanka’s example of the Chinese tourist who was treated and cured in January. But such adherence to both international and moral conventions is beyond most in the post-pandemic world where the doctrine of national interest supersedes all else.

Over the past two months, thousands of Sri Lankans, mostly workers in the Middle East and students in other parts of the world, have been pleading with the Government to bring them home. After exhausting access to official lines of communication, frustrated by the delay caused by the suspension of operations by the national carrier and advise by the health authorities to delay mass repatriation, many of them resorted to social media to plead their case.

The essence of the message was that they have been thrown onto the streets by their employers and therefore, helpless and at the mercy of the Sri Lankan missions which in turn were not accommodative of their grievances.

Social media was flooded with messages from the Middle East showing the harrowing conditions that hundreds of Sri Lankans were undergoing while awaiting the repatriation flights. It was this digital storm that finally worked in their favour with Opposition politicians taking up the cause. With an election round the corner, it became a case of Hobson’s choice for the Government to spring into action.

Given the runaround these people experienced over the past two months, it was just a matter of time before they became carriers of the virus, having been exposed to various elements and the unsanitary living conditions they had to endure prior to returning home. It can be safely assumed that no human being would ever willingly contract this virus, even if they are low on the grey matter, and therefore, it is unfair on the part of some politicians to portray them as outcasts after they tested positive for the virus on their arrival in Sri Lanka.

When a vocal minister termed these arrivals as a “bomb from Kuwait”, all hell broke loose with the Opposition joining the commotion and reminding him that it was these workers who kept the country’s home fires burning by being the top foreign exchange revenue earner. Since then, sanity has prevailed and the repatriation process is continuing apace.

As things stand, there are many more awaiting repatriation and it is becoming apparent that the health authorities are scrambling to expand capacity for treatment of positive cases. This was evident by the declaration of the Hambantota and Teldeniya Hospitals as Covid-19 treatment centres last week.

Going by the current trend, the need of the hour is to mitigate the onset of a second wave which could be triggered by a mere moment of distraction as in the case of a Covid-19-positive Navy officer being detected in Fort.

The authorities as well as the public must not for a minute make the mistake of letting their guard down, just because most of the curfew restrictions have been removed.

This, no doubt, is easier said than done as it is becoming apparent that most of the precautions that were in place during the lockdown are being gradually thrown to the wind following relaxation of the curfew.

For instance, crowds can be seen thronging supermarkets, economic centres, Pettah, and even the Jathika Pola in Narahenpita, which incidentally is patronised by the more educated and so-called elite class of Colombo.

Sri Lankans by nature have very short memories and prefer to take the easy way out whenever possible. For instance, if not wearing a mask is an option, one can be sure not many will wear one.

Since the pandemic is far from over in this part of the world, every effort must be made to ensure crowds do not gather in public places at least for a few more weeks and the basic safety protocols are adhered to by the public through the active intervention of the Police.

The funeral of late Minister Arumugam Thondaman which takes place today in Kotagala will pose a challenge to the authorities as it is likely to turn into an event attracting thousands of mourners. It is hoped that the authorities will at least enforce the minimum safety protocol of wearing a mask, so that it sends a strong message to the rest of the island that there should be no compromises or exceptions to the rule in the fight against Covid-19.

The Government for its part must be logical in its promulgation of rules and regulations governing the operation of businesses if such measures are to be effective. For instance, permission has been granted to hotels and restaurants approved by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) to recommence business, but not others which mainly cater to local clientele. Does it mean that the virus only affects establishments not registered with the SLTDA?

These establishments include ordinary restaurants and even the sports clubs that sustain various national sports.

They too have hundreds of workers who need to be paid their salaries apart from the other overheads that have to be met.

If the Government is of the view that alcohol lowers body immunity to resist the virus, then it should not permit any type of restaurant or hotel to sell or serve it, although Sri Lanka would be the only country in the world to do so. Therefore, if conformity is to be expected, it is important that rules and regulations show uniformity. Besides, the thought process in the formulation of rules and regulations should be perceived as logical as otherwise it runs the risk of backfiring on the authorities. It is not only the returning workers that should not be persecuted but also local businesses that have endured persecution in the name of Covid-19.