Taking on Covid-19: The enemy of our enemy is unity

Taking on Covid-19: The enemy of our enemy is unity

30 March 2020 07:48 pm

By Krishantha Prasad Cooray

Nations are best tested in times of crisis. This is when our humanity should rise over self-interest and when all differences should be put aside. This is when intellect, indefatigable energy, absolute resoluteness and the courage and conviction to stand up and be counted all come together.  This is when populations are united into nations. This is when an aggregate of individuals become a community. This is the moment of the team.

In other words, Covid-19 has created a crisis which has to be dealt with collectively or not at all. When an infected person conceals the fact, it is criminal. When individuals act on their own steam, even with the best of intentions, it can make matters worse. Needless to say when anyone tries to make capital out of a crisis it is absolutely disgraceful, whether it is someone trying to exploit vulnerability to make a quick buck or a politician trying to get an edge over rivals.

At times like this it is tempting for the Opposition to complain that what needs to be done is not being done, go into a prescriptive mode and even rant and rave. But this is not the time to quibble over trivialities. There's a difference between politically motivated tirades and constructive criticism. The opposition needs to remain supportive of the government until the crisis has passed.

The onus of course is on the Government. It is easy to find fault, but we need to understand that it is a challenge unlike anything any government has had to deal with. We can only hope that errors will be rectified quickly and effectively, and that the overall response is a product of the best minds and best hearts in the country, working in concert.

“We have to fight this battle together. We have to forget our differences and recognize the need to play for the same team. Unity will be our strength, diversity will be our power and discipline will be our victory. This country belongs to all of us equally so everyone must contribute equally to win this battle. Collectively there is nothing we cannot achieve. This is not the time for politics whether at a national or global level. Politics will divide us. Political parties represent groups of people. Our task is to saves the lives of all our people. We will win only when we come together. Not just our nation, but our world too must unite, overcoming our geopolitical differences to defeat Covid-19 as a community of nations.”

The above quote comes from no one. But I feel it would be wonderful for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa or other senior leaders to say something on these lines. It would be as important for all sections of the Opposition to echo these sentiments. Best of course would be for all of them to turn sentiment into words and words into action.

In the early days of the crisis, we saw a lot of ungainly politicking.  Obviously neither of the two factions of the United National Party are ready to face another major election after the November 2019 defeat. Naturally, a snap General Election would favor the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. The point however is that this is not a moment to talk of elections or any other aspect of party politics. Sanity has prevailed in this regard. This has paved the way for a head-on, determined and rational approach to the threat at hand.

It is good to outline the situation, detail the thinking and communicate with clarity the measures taken. Straying into the terrain of political repartee would be an unnecessary distraction. Thankfully, it seems Sri Lanka is moving out of that political culture, at least in this instance. Simply put, the crisis is bigger than each one of us. It is bigger than the ego of a politician and the fortunes of a political party. The President is not a career politician. Instead, he was elected on a platform of being focused on work and delivering results. He now has all the power he needs to mobilize people and resources to combat the threat. He has stated that he is the President of every citizen. It is imperative that he treats every citizen as a soldier fighting with him in this battle, those who disagree with him included. He has to show leadership here. Others, especially his opponents, need to show the humility to recognize his leadership and support all efforts in the name of the people and the greater good of the nation.

With Parliament dissolved, for better or worse and for all practical purposes, the President finds himself as the only elected representative at the national level, with immense de facto power in his hands, over and above those vested in the office of the presidency by the Constitution. As crucial is the responsibility that comes with such power. It is hard to think of any scenario where the president is called upon to demonstrate utmost sincerity. Today, thankfully, we have a political ceasefire of sorts. It seems that everyone is fast realizing that there’s nothing to gain through bickering. Such criticisms should be shelved for another day. In this day and age, there are innumerable ways of expressing concerns. The president could solicit comment and the Opposition should demonstrate sincerity in return by being constructive.  

The party leaders’ confab is probably a positive sign in this regard. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya’s initiative to bring our country’s disparate political parties together to combat the virus, and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa rising to the occasion and hosting the meeting at Temple Trees are two decisions that deserve acclaim. Two leaders from across the political divide put their bitter differences aside and agreed to  bring everyone together. In short, to use a common adage, we sink or swim together. If we prevail it will be because we worked as a team. We would triumph because we put nation above all.

Clearly, governments and the state apparatus have a tough job to do. Our public service has always risen to the occasion in times of utmost stress. We saw this in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, during various natural calamities and during the war. The entire citizenry owes much to those operating at the frontlines of this struggle. We have to salute the medical teams, the military and police, our farmers who make sure we don’t run short of food, those who design delivery mechanisms and those who deliver. They are all heroes.

It was the members of the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA), who raced to and remain at the frontlines of the national battle against Covid-19, and when they felt that the government was falling short of what was needed to prevail, they cast aside their political preferences. They publicly and repeatedly called upon the government to do what was necessary.

This, while the army transformed itself into a humanitarian quarantine force overnight and showed the highest standards of hospitality for the hundreds of civilians placed in their care. Single men and women were separated into different accommodations and made to feel safe, comfortable and cared for by the highest standards of Sri Lankan hospitality.

Their efforts however can only bear fruit if the citizens play their part. But even a single irresponsible citizen can still send dozens or more to their deaths. This is not the moment to play Lone Ranger. A good-hearted fool who breaks basic rules can endanger an entire community. We have seen this happening in many countries. It has happened in Sri Lanka too. Yes, our freedoms have been curbed. Put it down to the price that we as a species have to pay for mindless indulgences. Put it down to anything. The point is, right now that’s the least of our headaches.

Covid-19 has sent a clear message to the entire world. We have to look at things very differently. We have to correct glaring errors which we didn’t have the eyes to see or were unable to see because we were blinded by ignorance and arrogance. We might have to rebuild our societies from scratch, but this need not be a bad thing. If we get through this together, we might realize the value of thinking as a community, focusing on things that are in the end most important and retiring for good the ethic of overconsumption and mindless consumerism that is destroying our planet and has blunted our capacity to deal with crises such as this.

Such things we can debate later. Perhaps we will evolve into a more responsible and humble species eventually. That eventuality will not come out of the blue. It is ours to bring about, failing which we will perish. All of us or most of us. This crisis gives us an opportunity to search our souls, reflect on materialistic lifestyles and realize what is most important to us.

Covid-19 does not recognize party color, ethnicity, race, ideology, age, gender, sexual preferences or religious faith. There’s only one relationship between Covid-19 and us: it is out to kill us and we trying to avoid being killed. We may have some differences with one another, but there are outweighed by our commonalities. We have nothing common with Covid-19. Covid-19 is our COMMON ENEMY. We must close ranks against it, and seize this opportunity to rethink some of the choices that have brought us here.