Blind obedience or informed self-discipline?

The Government last week announced much-awaited news: the end of the month-long lockdown – or travel restrictions, as the Government prefers to call it – and most people are excited to be able to finally step out of their homes without having to produce a letter from their employers. 

But did the lockdown really help manage the pandemic? Just going by the raw statistics, one would have to say the answer is a resounding no. However, one could argue that things could have been far worse had the lockdown not been imposed, especially with the newly discovered B.1.617.2 Delta variant of Covid-19, better known as the Indian variant, floating around.

While the jury’s out on the lockdown’s effectiveness, there can be little doubt about one thing; Sri Lankans, as a population, responded to it positively. It is often said that Sri Lanka as a nation lacks discipline and does not appreciate the importance of following rules. However, if this is the case, it certainly has not been visible during the pandemic so far. 

A nationwide curfew was imposed in March 2020 without any warning, despite the Government repeatedly saying that they would not resort to a lockdown. This sudden curfew was extended week after week, and was only relaxed close to three months later. While this deprived many people of their livelihoods and left many families in dire straits, there were very few protests, and certainly no large scale protests. In fact, the people appeared to be rallying behind the Government, the military, and the health authorities.

Then, when the second wave came in October 2020, certain freedoms were curtailed again, despite a nationwide lockdown not being imposed. Despite many feeling that the Government had bungled a strong position, there were no protests from those in lockdown areas. This was the case even when there were clear examples of the law being applied differently to the rich and powerful from how it was to the poor and powerless. 

Thereafter, even during the third wave, which came before the first wave had even properly died out, the public has been extremely patient with authorities, despite continuing double standards in the application of the law, ad-hoc announcements about lockdown extensions, and mixed messaging all round. Overall, fear of punishment has helped keep Sri Lankans at home.

Contrast this with the situation in developed countries over the past 18 months, since the global outbreak of Covid-19. The UK, the US, Spain, Australia, and Canada have all seen street protests, discussions, and debates about lockdowns/travel restrictions, as well as Covid-19 safety regulations, such as making it mandatory to wear face masks. Most of those protests were not anti-government protests, with the possible exception of a remarkably polarised USA, where the Covid-19 pandemic became extremely politicised. 

But in other nations, these protests were mostly anti-system protests, and in most cases, led to constructive discussions. It is also ironic that these nations have far less reason to protest than Sri Lanka. As highly digitalised countries, it is less of a challenge to work from home, order groceries and food online and have them delivered home, make financial transactions without visiting the bank, and even educate children through distance learning systems. Furthermore, less of these economies are informal, and most people enjoy greater financial security in the formal economy.

However, Sri Lanka, being a lower middle income country with a largely informal economy, enjoys neither comparable digitalisation benefits nor the financial security. Yet Sri Lanka has seen far less protest overall, and certainly no street protests. This pandemic has brought to the forefront Sri Lankans’ innate desire to be ruled and governed by authorities such as the Police, the military, or the Government. 

Of course, it helps that Sri Lanka is far more familiar with emergency situations, having been through a 27-year war, many large scale terrorist attacks and two insurrections. The developed countries, being used to civil liberties and a higher quality of life, would less easily adjust to strict restrictions.

Whether Sri Lankans’ obedience to authorities is a positive in the grand scheme of things is up for debate, as such populations have been known to enable corruption and incompetence and tyranny. However, few would argue that in the case of Covid-19 pandemic, it has helped the health authorities, the Government, and the military immensely to control the spread of the pandemic, despite many missteps and moments of ignorance or negligence on their part. 

The authorities are fortunate that Sri Lankans are a forgiving people, and one that is brought up in a nation with a less-than-stellar political culture, quite understanding of administrative bungling. The hope is that the authorities and the administration start repaying Sri Lankans’ obedience and patience with efficient and well-planned suppression of the virus to bring an end to the pandemic in Sri Lanka over the next few months. Sri Lankans deserve it.