Photo Courtesy: iqna.ir

‘The history and literature of plagues shows us that the intensity of the suffering, of the fear of death, of the metaphysical dread, and of the sense of the uncanny experienced by the stricken populace will also determine the depth of their anger and political discontent.’ OrhanPamuk[1]

A rather dangerous myth has to be debunked prior to embarking on a discussion on COVID-19and its impact on democracy and human rights, i.e. the myth that COVID-19 is an equalizer. While the virus does affect everyone regardless of socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, etc., it does not affect everyone in the same way. The impact of COVID-19 on one’s life and livelihood, one’s chances of contracting it and recovering from it, and one’s survival would depend considerably on one’s socioeconomic position as well as one’s privilege.

The pandemic has shown how deeply people, communities, and countries are connected, but it has also illustrated how far apart we are.  For example, not everyone would be able to follow the two apparently simplest and most effective ways of protecting oneself from the virus, physical distancing, and hand washing. To some sections of the population, such as those living cheek to jowl-220 families living on 15 perches in Bandaranayake Mawatha, Colombo-physical distancing is a luxury, as is hand washing to those who do not have plentiful or regular access to water, such as prisoners or villagers who have to walk miles to collect water.

Addressing inequality in the midst of a pandemic

Globally, the pandemic has exposed systemic and structural weaknesses in the pre-COVID-19 world, a world in which populist and authoritarian governments were increasing at an alarming rate, along with the resurgence of ethno-nationalism and identity politics. There was a reversal of gains made in the protection of human rights due to increased militarization, the increasing influence of religious groups on government and governance, and legislation and economic policies that marginalized disadvantaged groups further while reducing social protection.

Rising inequalities that remained unaddressed increased the vulnerability of certain social groups, and elements such as race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation made certain communities more vulnerable to discrimination and marginalization. In Sri Lanka, in the past weeks, the precarious economic position of groups, such as plantation workers, daily wage earners, and the devastating impact of COVID-19 on their livelihoods, which have been lost overnight, has illustrated the failure to ensure equitable wages, fair working conditions and protect labor rights. Hence, discrimination and marginalization are factors that contribute to and exacerbate poverty, and in particular, limit the ability of marginalized communities to break out of the cycle of poverty. Hence, during instances like the pandemic, they become the most affected.

Instead of addressing systemic and structural inequalities, including the continued failure to invest adequately in social services and social protection mechanisms, donations from millionaires and billionaires, who contribute to and profit from unequal, inequitable, and unjust systems, are celebrated. As Anand Giriharadas, who has been critiquing the view that billionaire philanthropy is a solution to the social problems of our time, states, ‘The idea that after-the-fact benevolence justifies anything goes capitalism; that callousness and injustice in the cutthroat souk are excused by later philanthropy; that giving should not only help the underdogs but also, and more important, serve to keep them out of the top dogs’ hair—and, above all, that generosity is a substitute for and a means of avoiding the necessity of a more just and equitable system and a fairer distribution of power’.[2]In Sri Lanka, Dialog Axiatapledged SLR. 200 million for Intensive Care Unit capacity development in hospitals and billionaire DhammikaPerera pledged SLR. 70 million to urgent health care facilities, including the purchasing of ventilators and hospital beds; both donations earned the gratitude of the government. The public too, instead of raising questions about the adequacy of state investment in health and education[3], or inquiring whether the said billionaire or corporate entity paid taxes during the past decade, and how much of the billionaire’s publicly acknowledged net worth or the annual turnover of the corporate entity was paid as taxes,was effusive in its praise.

In the preCOVID-19 world, tech-based social entrepreneurship was touted as the solution to the social problems of our time. Yet, increasing inequality illustrated that wealth creation in a dysfunctional system, without a value base that is founded on equality, equity, and non-discrimination, will only deepen existing inequalities. If a society functions on patronage, has feudal tendencies and entrenched hierarchies based on race, ethnicity, religion or caste, wealth creation, and the digitalization of our everyday lives will only lead to unequal outcomes. This has been highlighted by the pandemic when children without computers, internet connections, or smartphones are unable to access online lessons. Hence, in societies that thrive on patronage, the growth of the private sector does not necessarily empower the economically marginalized or help dismantle historical systems of discrimination. Nor do high growth rates lead to the end of crony capitalism, patronage or corruption.

During times of crisis and upheaval, such as a pandemic, networks of patronage will not only continue to operate but might become the primary means of seeking remedies in the absence of other structures and processes that might have been temporarily suspended. An example is former member of parliament (MP) PalithaThewarapperuma requesting former MP NamalRajapaksa to intervene to enable him to donate relief material to the villagers of Atalugama. The video of Mr.Thewarapperuma phoning Mr.Rakapaksa, and thereafter being allowed to donate said goods was telecast widely and praised by citizens. Moreover, when former MP Ranjan Ramanayake stated he was arrested for reportedly trying to distribute relief goods during curfew, those affiliated to the Sri Lanka PodujanaPeramuna (SLPP) pointed to Mr.Thewarapperuma reaching out to Mr.Rajapaksa as an example of respecting the law.[4]  The issue is not whether the public benefitted due to to Mr.Rajapaksa’s intervention, which they undoubtedly did, as people often do as a result of patronage. The pertinent question is why Mr. Thewarapperuma sought the intervention of another former MP who had no official power to intervene, how that MP with no official power was able to intervene to immediately resolve the issue, and how Mr. Thewarapperuma seeking assistance through unofficial channels can be construed as respecting the law. Since patronage supplants systems and processes based on the rule of law, lacks certainty, and renders a remedy dependent on an individual than a rule-based and transparent system, what of those who do not have the privilege or ability to seek such interventions? What kind of remedies can such persons obtain?

Ethno-nationalism and identity politics

In the furtherance of Ethno nationalist politics, historically, particular minority communities in Sri Lanka have been the subject of incitement to hatred and vitriol, with Muslims being the targets at present. The stigmatization and scapegoating of Muslims has taken many forms, including senior state officials blaming the community for the spread of COVID-19 and the community being denied the right to bury those who die of COVID-19. One of the means used to delegitimize complaints of discrimination or marginalization is by portraying Muslims as seeking or enjoying exceptional privileges, despite which they continue to unfairly claim they are discriminated. An example of this is a recent Ada Derana telecast of politician HemakumaraNanayakkara’s speech in which he incorrectly alleges that Islamic banking is discriminatory and gives Muslims an advantage as compared to other citizens.[5]The incitement of hatred and vitriol by media outlets continues unabated despite Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne stating that ‘We have instructed the Police and other agencies handling fake news to take stern legal action against rumor mongers and some have already been taken into custody’.[6]However, while no action has been taken against popular TV stations that promote hate speech and peddle misinformation, there have been reports of arrests of citizens who criticize the action or inaction of state officials. [7]

In this context, while there has been little state action to stem or counter the incitement of hatred against Muslims, or provide reassurance of security and equal enjoyment of rights to minority communities in Sri Lanka, the President’s remarks during his meeting with the MahaSangha on 24 April 2020, which were widely reported in the media, are troubling. He had reportedly remarked that although it is not a secret he won the Presidential election due to the votes of the Sinhala majority, he had pledged to serve everyone regardless of this fact since he is duty-bound to do so. He had however further stated that despite his pledge there are conspiracies to make him fail and create a constitutional crisis by dragging him to court. These remarks smack of majoritarian muscle flexing and minority blaming. Moreover, discussing constitutional matters with the Sangha and seeking their advice on matters of governance, while blaming mainly minority politicians of precipitating a constitutional crisis through their calls for the reconvening of Parliament, illustrates a majoritarian, ethno-nationalist and patronage-based view of governance rather than a secular one that is based on the respect for the rule of law and diversity, and allows citizens to hold those that govern them to account without fear of reprisals.

Creeping authoritarianism andthe entrenchment of militarization

‘Fighting a social calamity is not the same as fighting a war where you take a top-down approach- it requires consultation, it requires ‘participatory governance and alerts public discussion’ – you can’t just order people to do something and expect the problem to be resolved.’[8]AmartyaSen

Globally, COVID-19 is being used to extend executive reach, dismantle accountability mechanisms, and implement authoritarian measures that erode civic rights[9], and Sri Lanka is no exception.

In the absence of a functioning parliament, the appointment of various task forces[10], the most recent being the one on ‘Economic Revival and Poverty Alleviation’ established on 22 April 2020, to undertake tasks that have to be performed by ministries and state officials, is an example of extending executive reach. The second task force, like the first one to monitor the delivery of essential services, is headed by Basil Rajapaksa, the founder of the SLPP, and brother of the President and Prime Minister, who does not hold any public office, nor is a state official. It is unclear why the membership of the Task Force, which includes the private sector, also has the Commander of the Army, the Acting Inspector General of Police, and the Director-General of the Civil Security Department, officials who have no role to play in decision-making regarding poverty alleviation and economic recovery. The Task Force has a very broad remit, and is mandated to oversee activities ranging from facilitating the import of dry goods to introducing‘new technologies and provide other required facilities to expand the network of Lanka Sathosa, Sathosa, cooperative network’, ‘Modernize traditional industries with new technologies to suit the market’, and ‘Introduce unique income-generating mechanisms to each category of urban, semi-urban, rural and estate poor and low-income groups to enhance their living conditions’. The Task Force also has the power to ‘Coordinate with relevant agencies, Department of External Resources and donor agencies to utilize the funds provided by various international banks and funds to make this program a success’.

The Task Force’s extensive powers and broad mandate raise issues of accountability and transparency since the Task Force is an ad-hoc body with far-reaching powers that seem to mandate it to take the lead in several matters that should be within the purview of state agencies, such as ministries, and is headed by a political appointee during a pre-election period. Further, since it has members from the private sector, and is expected to engage in activities that require state investment in/procurement of services from the private sector, potential conflict of interest issues can also arise.

An example of measures to curtail civil liberties is the notice issued upon the direction of the Inspector General of Police (IGP) that strict action is to be taken against those that ‘criticize’ state officials, point out ‘minor shortcomings/failures’ or ‘scold/chastise’ state officials performing their duties, which adversely impacts on the freedom of expression, in particular the expression of dissent. It is also antithetical to democracy as it is the civic duty of every citizen to hold state officials to account.

The other factor impinging upon democratic governance is increased and rapid militarization of the response to COVID-19, with the Commander of the Army heading the National Operation Centre for the Prevention of the COVID-19 Outbreak, and the military running quarantine camps. This can be seen to be seeping into other areas of civilian administration as well. While the military has a key role to play in responding to humanitarian crises, such as a pandemic, in a democracy their role should be subordinate to civilian authorities and they should always take directions from civilian authorities. The Disaster Management Centre (DMC) which has a director-General who is a retired senior military official, is within the purview of the Ministry of Defence and according to Secretary Defence‘has its own mechanism to work in coordination with Government Agents, Assistant GAs, Divisional Secretaries and GramaSevaka in all districts and divisions’ to distribute relief[11]. This illustrates the militarization of disaster management and the provision of relief. Civilian leadership of COVID-19 responses also requires that civilian authorities/ public health officials should be responsible for the dissemination of information to the public, such as conducting press conferences. In Sri Lanka, senior military officials give interviews and even provide information to the public, independent of public health officials or other civilian authorities. Further, membership of the military in the mechanisms established to respond to COVID-19, such as the Presidential Task Force on Economic Revival and Poverty Alleviation, blurs the boundary between civilian and military. It also involves the military in decision making, such as providing, ‘necessary facilities to farmers for the production of paddy, grain, vegetables, fruits, fish, meat, milk and egg products’[12], that should be solely within the purview of civilian authorities.

Given that increasing militarization since 2009 wasn’t tackled adequately or even acknowledged, the rapid impingement of the military upon civilian spheres shouldn’t be a surprise. With the increased involvement of the military in civilian affairs, the use of war metaphors to describe efforts to respond to COVID-19 has become increasingly common. Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Kamal Gunaratne, in an interview stated, “It is a totally different battle, the military has stepped into combating coronavirus pandemic, which is a calamity. The military has to fight with the enemy that will destroy the entire nation if not properly fought”.[13] War metaphors are used to create fear of the enemy, in this case, COVID-19, which the state will then assuage by pledging to become the protector that will take care of the population. In return, the state requests the populace to place unquestioning faith in its decisions. Anyone that questions or criticizes the actions or inaction of the state will then be deemed ungrateful and possibly labeled anti-national, unpatriotic, and even a traitor. 

Moreover, there is the danger that the security creep will be normalized and continue long after the pandemic is over. An example of the rapid normalization of militarization is the report that upon the instructions of the Attorney-General, Additional Solicitor General (Administration) reportedly wrote to the State Intelligence Services, and not the health authorities, inquiring whether the Department could resume work after an employee was found to be infected with COVID-19.[14]

In tandem with increased militarization, there is an increased use of surveillance and state intelligence services to respond to COVID-19. Globally, several countries have begun using technology to track and monitor those infected with COVID-19. China, for instance, uses facial recognition, cell phone monitoring, location tracking, and threat-scoring. In support of state surveillance initiatives, tech companies have agreed to provide data to states, and while they have promised to anonymize the data, as pointed out it ‘provides scant protection, considering it takes only four anonymous data points to de-anonymize 95 percent of subjects’.[15] Rights advocates sound an ominous warning about the construction of a global surveillance panopticon, with the GSM Association, a global association of mobile operators, ‘reportedly exploring the creation of a global data-sharing system capable of tracking individuals anywhere in the world’.[16] At the same time, we have witnessed corporates who own tech companies contributing to shrinking civic space by bowing to the demands of authoritarian governments and even selling or providing user data to repressive governments. In Sri Lanka too, according to the Secretary, Defence, ‘We have a software that the intelligence agencies can easily identify those infected persons’ and intelligence agencies are involved in contact tracing.[17]

Viewing technology as a panacea to help deal with COVID-19, and refusing to acknowledge the attendant dangers, requires viewing the state only as a benevolent entity that never has and never will violate the rights of its citizens. It means, placing our faith blindly in the state to always have the best interests of its citizens at heart, despite historical evidence to the contrary. It cannot be denied there is a possibility of increased surveillance of civil society and activists, and technology being used as a tool of repression. It is therefore imperative to be concerned about whether there is the possibility that the data so gathered could be used to crush dissent, and inquire into the kind of protections that exist and are required to ensure the privacy of citizens.

What lies at the end of the pandemic?

As Arundhati Roy states, ‘Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks, and dead ideas, our dead rivers, and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it’.[18]The pandemic hence presents an opportunity.

The pandemic presents an opportunity for the state to play a proactive, and progressive role in addressing inequality, which lies at the core of many rights violations. This signals a need to return to re-distributive justice with state intervention to establish social protection mechanisms. The pandemic also illustrates the indivisibility of civil and political rights and socio-economic rights and the inter-connectedness of protecting liberty and addressing inequality. Moreover, it points out that an intersectional approach to social justice, which enables the hidden socio-cultural inequalities that are experienced by those who suffer multiple layers of discrimination to be identified and addressed, is imperative. Linkages also need to be made between issues such as environmental justice and economic justice.

In this context, vibrant civic space is important to mediate between communities and the state and to advance social justice and address inequality. A vibrant civic space is particularly important for people at the margins to build solidarity across identities, to gain greater economic power in markets, and to influence the state to address key challenges.

[1]OrhanPamuk, ‘What the Great Pandemic Novels Teach Us’, New York Times, 23 April 2020, at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-orhan-pamuk.html.

[2]Quoted in Billionaire Philanthropy like Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s Covid-19 Donation is Great but Dangerous, 8 April 2020 at Billionaire Philanthropy like Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s Covid-19 Donation is Great but Dangerous

[3]In 2019 the total state expenditure was SLR 4,640,000,000,000 of which SRL 105,000,000,000 was spent on education and SLR 185,482,400,000 on health, while SLR 393,069,030,000 was allocated for defence. While education was only 2.3% of the national budget and health 4%, defence spending was 8.47%.

[4] https://twitter.com/amilaik/status/1250021950182682624

[5]https://twitter.com/Wasanth53468261/status/1254182888238723072?s=03

[6]‘Prompt interventions by military helped to reduce coronavirus impact in Sri Lanka- Defence Secretary’, Sunday Observer, 19 April 2020 at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2020/04/19/opinion/prompt-intervention-military-and-police-reduced-impact-covid-19-defence-sec-maj.

[7]University student arrested for spreading false information at http://www.adaderana.lk/news/62172/uni-student-arrested-for-spreading-false-info-on-covid-19; Person arrested for criticizing the Divisional Secretary of Trincomalee, Lankadeepa4 April 2020.

[8]AmartyaSen,Overcoming a pandemic may look like fighting a war, but the real need is far from that’, The Indian Express, 8 April 2020 at https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/coronavirus-india-lockdown-amartya-sen-economy-migrants-6352132/.

[9] ‘Your country needs me: A pandemic of power grabs’, The Economist,25 April 2020, at  https://www.economist.com/printedition/2020-04-25.

[10]For an analysis of the legality of the first Presidential Task Force established to direct, coordinate and monitor the delivery of continuous services and for the sustenance of overall community life please see ‘Structures to Deal with COVID-19 in Sri Lanka: A Brief Comment on the Presidential Task Force’ published by the Centre for Policy Alternatives at https://www.cpalanka.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/FINAL-Presidential-Task-Force-on-COVID19-April-2020-copy.pdf

[11]Supra n. 6.

[12]Gazette No. 2172/9 – Wednesday, April 22, 2020, http://www.documents.gov.lk/files/egz/2020/4/2172-09_E.pdf

[13]Supra n.6.

[14] Clearance sought to resume work at AG’s Department at

http://www.adaderana.lk/news/62984/clearance-sought-to-resume-work-at-ags-department 24 April 2020.

[15]Azeezah Kanji and Martin Lukacs, Emergency COVID-19 Laws May Become Permanent Features of the Security Landscape, 8 April 2020 at https://truthout.org/articles/emergency-covid-19-laws-may-become-permanent-features-of-the-security-landscape/,

[16] Ibid.

[17]Supra n.6.

[18]Arundhati Roy, ‘The pandemic is a portal’, Financial Times,3 April 2020at https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca,.

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