The government is coming under increasing pressure to extend the current lockdown as the pandemic continues to snuff out lives at an alarming rate, and infections are mounting. The cost of living is soaring and some essential commodities are in short supply due to panic buying, hoarding and a shortage of dollars for imports. The ruling SLPP is struggling on all fronts so much so that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to declare what has come to be dubbed a food emergency to prevent the hoarding of rice, sugar and other essentials. The government stands accused of trying to rule the country under Emergency laws on the pretext of tackling hoarders.

The yahapalana government (2015-19), doomed from the start, began digging its own political grave soon after its formation, but it was the Easter Sunday bombings that sealed its fate. Following those acts of terror, people lived in fear, and a pall of uncertainty descended on the country. The UNP’s political enemies, especially the SLPP, made the most of the situation and captured power by promising to protect national security and save lives, among other things, and may have thought it would be plain sailing.

Karmic forces are apparently at work in Sri Lankan politics. There have been no incidents of terrorism since 2019, but those who exploited the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks to engineer a regime change are in trouble because of a virulent bug whichhas proved to be as formidable and destructive as terrorism. The boot is now on the other foot; the Opposition has gone on the offensive, accusing the government of having ignored medical experts’ warnings and endangered people’s lives!

The yahapalana government got into trouble because it ignored warnings of bomb explosions, and the present administration is up a creek because it has disregarded doctors’ warnings of an explosive spread of Covid-19 and their calls for lockdowns in April 2021. If the country had been closed for the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, in April, the pandemic would not have gone out of control in this manner. The government, in its wisdom, decided to keep the country open for political reasons. There has been no stopping the virus ever since.

The SLPP administration is not alone in this predicament. All governments that took pandemic control lightly and refused to adopt stringent preventive measures at the right time have invited trouble, the world over. Some Presidents and Prime Ministers have even had to resign over their poor handling of the pandemic.

Bug topples governments

There were many reasons for the fall of the Donald Trump administration in the US, its mishandling of the Covid-19 prevention, and the staggering death toll resulting from the inordinate delay in the vaccine rollout being prominent among them. Trump’s contender, Joe Biden, had as a main plank of his election platform the national vaccination programme, which has yielded the desired results.

In January 2021, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had to step down due to a split in the ruling coalition over pandemic control and the staggering death toll. Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovic resigned in March 2021 amidst heavy criticism of his overall mishandling of Covid-19. In the same month,Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez was compelled to order all his Cabinet ministers to resign due to protests against his government’s failure to manage the coronavirus crisis. He thus saved his own skin.

In Thailand, thousands of protesters have been calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha for numerous transgressions, including his government’s poorhandling of the pandemic. Brazilian President Jair Bolsona is also facing trouble on the political front due to his failure to tackle the health crisis. Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader of Belarus also sought to downplay the severity of the pandemic, and has incurred the wrath of the public, as a result. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has also earned notoriety for refusing to listen to medical experts and keeping his country open, causing many people to die of Covid19. Indian Narendra Modi has also had his approval ratings plummeting due to an upsurge in the infections and the death toll, which led to the corpses of Covid-19 victims being cremated in parks or dumped into rivers. The situation has somewhat improved much to his relief.

Lost between rock and hard place

Sri Lanka would have faced the same fate as the US, the UK, Italy, India, etc., if the government had continued to dilly-dally on imposing the latest lockdown, which has been extended due to pressure from the World Health Organization as well asthe Sri Lankan medical fraternity. There has been resistance to the lockdown from within the government ranks for economic reasons and at the same time some SLPP politicians are calling for another extension of it. The government is lost between a rock and a hard place.

The only hope for the government is its successful vaccination programme, which is proceeding apace. If it can fully inoculate about 60% of the population with steps taken to administer booster shots to ward off new variants of the virus, it may be able to emulate the UK and reopen the country fully. It will be lucky if the countries like Austria, troubled by lockdown fatigue, reopen before Sri Lanka so that it could learn from their experience and avoid mistakes.

As if the economic problems caused by the pandemic were not enough, the government has had to cough up funds to prevent the teachers’ trade unions from resuming their protest campaign. In so doing, it has chosen to bite off more than it can chew. It has undertaken to grant an interim allowance of Rs. 5,000 to teachers until their salary anomalies are rectified through the next budget. The outcome of interfering with the public sector salary structures could be as chaotic as upsetting an apple cart. A solution to the teachers’ salary issue could become a problem for other services even if teaching is turned into a closed service. Protests are as contagious as viruses. If teachers win a salary hike, there will be more strikes with other state employees also agitating for better pay.  

The government, which exploited the difficulties of the yahapalana government to win elections, two years ago, is now accusing the Opposition of instigating protests. It is only getting a taste of its own medicine. Even if the government succeeds in containing the pandemic, and straightening up the economy to some extent, it is likely to face serious problems on other fronts. There are signs of a wave of protests.

Ironically, the SLPP leaders who endeared themselves to the Catholic Church, in 2019, by condemning the yahapalanagovernment for its failure to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks, and pledging to bring the perpetrators of the heinous crimes to justice expeditiously, is under fire for the delay in fulfilling their promise. They have drawn the ire of the Church leaders.

It is said that paying off karmic debt is not easy.


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