Highlighting the extent of the crisis former Minister of Economic Reforms, Dr Harsha de Silva has written, “Out of the 8 million people employed in Sri Lanka, only 3 million get a monthly paycheck. 1.7 million people rely on daily wages and 2.5 million people are self-employed. They are struggling to survive with the Covid-19 curfew and no savings to help them in this dire situation. Absolute poverty line is Rs 5000 a week for a family of four. We need cash transfers between Rs 8 billion- 20 billion per week urgently.”
During the relaxation of the curfew last week for eight hours, the government saw that half measures can be self-defeating especially in the big cities. The moment the curfew was relaxed, tens of thousands of people poured out on to the streets. They did so to purchase the groceries, medicine and other basic necessities to face the coming round of curfew days. But as a result the condition of social distancing that is required to prevent the spread of the Covid virus was breached. When hundreds of people have to stand in line for hours that stretched to five and six to get into a supermarket, they invariably began to jostle with each other.
With the passage of time the system of direct delivery of essential foodstuffs and medicines has improved significantly. The government has been efficient in ensuring that traders to do not take undue advantage of the prevailing market scarcities following upon the movement restrictions. Those who obtain curfew passes to engage in direct door to door sales have to subscribe to police regulations. The police have discouraged the uncontrolled sale of vegetables and fruit and have compelled the traders to put their produce into standard bags to be sold at uniform prices. While this restricts variety, it enables families to obtain the essentials for their meals at reasonable prices.
In addition to mobilizing the private sector, the government has also reached out to social service organisations to ensure that those who are marginalized and vulnerable, and might be missed, are also supported during these days of lockdown and curfew. A Presidential Task Force has been set up which has identified vulnerable groups that need to be specifically looked after. These are children’s homes, elders’ homes, rehabilitation centres, probation centres, safe houses for women and centres for people with disabilities. In a time of crisis, these are the groups that could fall between the cracks.
While many of these institutions run with state support they also depend on the people living in nearby communities to support them on a charitable basis. In Sri Lanka, where sharing is a part of the traditional culture, and almsgivings in memory of the dear departed are a key feature of social life, a significant proportion of costs of meals can be met through donations under normal circumstances. In addition, people of goodwill often make generous donations to such institutions to mark birthdays, the beginning of a new job and other special occurrences. However, with the lockdown these donations are less forthcoming.
It is in this context that the Presidential Task Force has proposed to convene a consortium of civil society representatives to coordinate a humanitarian response where social service organisations will coordinate with the government’s divisional secretariats and other government officials. The purpose is to respond to the emergency health, nutrition and medical needs of the people in those vulnerable sectors. Civil society organisations whose mandate is educational and training-oriented have been trying to switch their work on the ground to delivering humanitarian aid utilizing the networks of partner organisations and grassroots groups they have been engaging with.
The coronavirus crisis is providing civil society organisations with the need to engage positively with the government to assist the people. Civil society has been defined to occupy the space that is not covered by the government and the private sector. The examples of space that needs to be filled would be the institutions that the Presidential Task Force has identified as needing special assistance in this time of crisis. Although the government has its own children’s homes, elders’ homes and other homes for vulnerable sections of the population, there are more people who need to be assisted than the government can cope with.
But along with its role in supporting the state, civil society also acts as a monitor and critic of the use of state power. The recent presidential pardon given to an army officer convicted by the courts of killing eight civilians including a child as young as five in the north of the country during a time of ceasefire has come as a shock. It has also been subjected to severe criticism by civil society organisations that focus on human rights issues. It is unfortunate that this controversial decision should have been made at a time when the coronavirus pandemic, devastating as it is, has presented an opportunity for the country to rally together against a common enemy that does not distinguish between religion, ethnicity or social class. The opportunity and need to work together must not be lost.
The post-Covid world will be a very different one that will compel us to rethink notions of the common good, social welfare and the role of the state in protecting and nurturing all its citizens. The lesson of the coronavirus is that none of us can be secure if all of us are not secure. The government, the private sector, civil society and the polity as a whole would do well to consider this time to be one in which to forge bonds across religion, ethnicity and class divides. In these times of terrific stress and fear worldwide where thousands are falling prey daily to this deadly disease, there is a need to generate hope for the future and Sri Lanka can play its part.