A people like no other 

Despite its dark side, Covid-19 has also been somewhat of a blessing in disguise for the majority of us Sri Lankans who, all this time, have steadfastly refused to obey basic public sanitation protocols. Now, Covid-19 has succeeded in doing what no politician or government could do, that is, to get people to wash their hands at regular intervals and await their turn to be served. The deadly pandemic which has killed thousands across the globe is yet to claim a life in Sri Lanka, thanks to the stringent measures introduced by the authorities and the dedicated healthcare personnel who have risked their lives to ensure that the infected persons are being provided the best of care, as a result of which, nine individuals have already fully recovered and gone home as of yesterday (28).

It’s certainly something to be proud of but one must not count the chickens before the eggs are hatched. Sri Lanka has to maintain this perfect record for at least another two weeks to consider itself even somewhat out of the woods. Then again, like in the case of Hong Kong and Singapore, there is every likelihood of a second wave if the basic precautions and sanitary protocols now in place are not maintained for the next few months at least.

A few years ago, Sri Lanka’s official tourism tagline was “a land like no other”. Today, when one considers the fact that over 5,000 people have been arrested for breaking a curfew that has been enforced for their own protection from a deadly virus and people are continuing to be arrested on a daily basis for organising parties, excursions, pilgrimages, etc. during curfew hours, it is more apt if the former tourism tagline is modified as “a people like no other” in order to better describe the nature of this land.

Sri Lankans by and large are an easy-going people and despise being told what to do. The bitter truth is that for the majority to comply there has to be constant enforcement as is evident now. Recent exhortations, such as to respect the bus lanes on main roads and keeping to proper lanes while driving, are classic examples of how easily people tend to forget the rules even when it involves the safety of their own lives. As with everything else, these rules were observed for two weeks and now it is back to square one with the usual free-for-all on the roads. Let’s hope that the Covid-19 precautionary measures now in place do not endure a similar fate, although everything points to it as witnessed in many open markets when the curfews were relaxed for just a few hours.

Hundreds of people thronged the markets even without a mask, rubbing shoulders against each other in a mad scramble to buy vegetables and other basic provisions. Thereby, the benefit of having been under quarantine for days and weeks was thrown to the wind in a matter of minutes putting hundreds of people at risk; which is why it may become necessary for the Government to rethink its curfew strategy as all the gains of keeping people apart can potentially be squandered in a matter of minutes due to the careless conduct of some. It is now being argued that a lockdown may serve as a better option as opposed to a full-blown curfew as done in many countries with mixed results. While it has worked for some like Singapore, it has not for others like Italy which, to be fair, waited till the virus had spread beyond control to announce the lockdown.

Under a lockdown, schools, offices, businesses, factories, public transport, etc. remain shut and only the most essential services are allowed to operate including supermarkets and grocery stores, under stringent supervision of law enforcement personnel. People can come and go to super markets as and when they like but must adhere to safety protocols. As a result, there is no mad rush and no one has to starve or run short of basic supplies. This also prevents people from unnecessarily hoarding goods and creating shortages which could lead to another headache for the Government as importing goods from producers in other parts of the world may prove to be difficult during this period.

Besides, many have heard the complaints of people standing in mile-long queues for hours only to be admitted into supermarkets filled with people and empty shelves. Most importantly, such a strategy will, at least to some extent, mitigate the economic fall out of the current crisis with regard to individual cash flow as well as replenishing the empty shelves.

The other alternative is for supermarkets and other vendors to deliver supplies to people’s homes. As is becoming evident, this is easier said than done. Apart from the logistical nightmare faced by suppliers, complaints continue to mount of vendors overcharging customers even for the most basic essentials, consumers complaining of poor-quality items being delivered, and long delays in delivery, etc.

Then there comes the question of the daily wage earners who have been out of work for weeks now. How are they expected to pay for their daily essentials? The answer may lie in the long lines witnessed in front of pawning centres when the curfew was relaxed. The State for its part has endeavoured to identify the marginalised sections of society and provide relief, but the question is, has every needy family been identified and how sustainable is such a programme, given that the status quo will continue for at least another two weeks?

All that aside, the authorities must embrace the opportunity provided by the ongoing crisis to imbibe in the average Sri Lankan the importance of basic hygiene and a sense of civic duty to not only lookout for the less fortunate but also to respect one another and take one’s place in the queue no matter the social standing. This grounding will certainly serve Sri Lanka well in the days ahead when the virus is long gone.

Sri Lanka as a country has taken basic hygiene for granted for way too long. For instance, it is an offence to spit in public in many countries including Singapore for obvious reasons. Imagine the millions of germs that are being transmitted via air every time someone spits in public or worse, from a moving vehicle after chewing betel? It is important to make use of this opportunity to ban such unhealthy practices once and for all. Another common unhygienic practice that needs to be stopped is the use of old newspapers as napkins in eating houses and the wrapping of rice packets in same.

The health authorities should make every endeavour to permanently inculcate in people the sanitary practices it has introduced to successfully contain the virus while not hesitating to legalise such practices wherever necessary. It is no secret that Sri Lanka has long harboured the ambition to be another Singapore. Economic prosperity alone will not get us there. The way people behave and conduct themselves will get us way past the halfway mark.

Therefore, it will not be a bad idea to go one step further and transplant some of those sanitation rules here to start with. In the current backdrop, no one is likely to complain; rather, there is every likelihood of public appreciation. Such legislation should be a top priority of the next Parliament. As for the rest of the way, let’s leave it to the economic pundits, and until we finally get there, we can comfort ourselves in being “a people like no other”.