COVID-19’s economic fallout has to be fought on a war-footing | Sunday Observer

COVID-19’s economic fallout has to be fought on a war-footing

Remember those times the foreign media reported on curfews in Sri Lanka in startled tones, in stories that seemed calculated to frighten? Remember the time we lived anxious but relatively normal lives despite the ‘war’ but the foreign media depicted the country as one burning cauldron?

Not this time. This is when the world knows what Sri Lanka is going through because the world is going through worse.

There are more COVID-19 cases in the US today than in China, and we thought China was having it bad. Italy and Spain are reeling. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in self quarantine, having tested positive for COVID-19. Prince Charles of the U.K also caught the coronavirus and is now locked down in his castle.

It’s an idle pastime in these closed-down days to imagine how the world media would have reported the curfews in Sri Lanka if these closures were limited to this country. The headlines would have probably screamed about an ‘entrapped people’, waiting for redemption, through paroxysms of hunger and anger.

Not this time, though. Now, Sri Lanka hardly causes a blip in the global news radar, because there is bigger fish to fry in terms of the angst in New York, the market collapse in London, and how funerals are fast-tracked in Italy.

With no prying media eyes, Sri Lankans are left to their own devices to address this crisis, and that’s a rare advantage. No fake news, no fake love or concern.

So, while the world is closed Sri Lanka gets about its business largely cut away from the world too, at least definitely in a physical sense. Just as an aside though, I take objection to the view that the world is shuttered. The world is not on lockdown, or closed for business. Human beings are closed for business, period. Animal life thrives. Rivers flow, and in an abundance of pure unpolluted air, trees grow these days with unchecked abandon. The world is closed? Hardly. Human life is at a standstill, that’s all.

WRITTEN IN STONE

Having got that off the chest, we can ask ourselves how Sri Lanka is faring. The consensus is that Sri Lanka is doing extremely well without  the Parliament we had. That simple fact seems to have sent some of its now home-based and locked down former members such as Mangala Samaraweera to ask for the old Parliament to be reconvened. Doesn’t he know that the people would do anything to avoid that lot play a second innings, or a third innings come to think of it, after a previous dissolution as well. That Parliament is not the feline that has nine lives. It has been dissolved one too many times, once in 2018, and once this year, but this last dissolution was final — written in stone.

So, let’s face it. Sri Lanka has the benefit of one party rule or essentially Presidential fiat and is now closest to the Singapore governance experience as we can get. The redundancy of Parliament is so glaringly obvious when rule by Presidential fiat has been able to get the COVID-19 situation essentially under control, even though there is a long way to go in terms of total containment.

It’s benevolent rule, almost close to a soft military takeover in one sense, what with Gotabaya Rajapaksa a former army man and Defence Secretary at the helm of affairs.

It’s an experiment whose time has come, considering that many Sri Lankans were openly clamouring for a soft dictatorship after five years of gridlocked chaos.

But it cannot be called a dictatorship, military or civilian, because it isn’t one if the people voted for it and wanted it, and the current arrangement is of course accidental as the interim rule was supposed to be temporary until elections were held.

Drastic measures are called for in this period of extreme economic asphyxiation to coin a phrase. The world has caught a cold at least, but the Lankan economy is, as it happens when the world catches cold, close to pneumonia, with the double blow of a pandemic shutdown now after five years of wasteful economic mismanagement.

A calamity for the daily wage earner and the cash starved middle class professional could be averted if the Government is able to afford an economic stimulus that consists of direct cash grants to citizens for consumption, i.e driving production and growth up by keeping the wheels of the economy moving through civilian consumer spending.

NO ALTERNATIVE

The problem is that the Government is cash strapped with sluggish growth in the last five years, and not enough time after that for a recovery.

But often a nadir of this sort has had the effect of restructuring the system, with the economy being reordered as a survival story for the fittest.

But any of that would take time and the Government in the meantime would be judged on how the poorest and the middle classes are buffeted from the whiplash of this economic tsunami. At the moment, the people are stoic, and they can grin and bear it even though the continued curfew has caused some households to run out of rations.

People’s reaction to crises is not entirely predictable, and the curfew breakers are one example. Pharmacies which were open had to be closed down with some elements abusing the facility by purchasing non essential items from some pharmacies with prescriptions that had been written months ago for people who are now dead.

It appears however that for the moment at least the Sri Lankan COVID-19 curve is generally under control.

This success so far has been achieved at tremendous cost to the economy with disruption of regular civic life. But that price has to be paid, and there is no alternative.

Undoubtedly, the containment effort compared to most other countries is quite good but it may be a different matter, having to deal with the economic fallout. Tourism is now non existent.

The country would have to be placed on the equivalent of an economic war footing to shoulder the damage resultant from the COVID-19 fallout.

That’s assuming that the crisis blows over soon. In all probability that should happen relatively soon, but there is no guarantee on that score either.

WIPED CLEAN

There would probably have to be a greater transfer of wealth from the very rich to the poorer sections of society in most parts of the world if social cohesion is to be maintained when economies collapse and the poorest are the hardest hit.

Not all areas of the economy will be equally hard hit in a global recession that is expected. But with exports down, jobs are expected to be scarce, and with employment numbers going south, the government will have its hands full restructuring the economy. Innovation and an economic stimulus are the viable choices open when the slate has been wiped clean with the Government having to start virtually from scratch.

Our economic recovery cannot be made dependent on the fortunes of other countries, and with traditional allies having their own issues  as well, self-reliance sounds like the best idea.

But it would be fatal to look inward. Sri Lanka could emerge as a force to reckon with in a global recovery, if the country eschews business as usual, and harnesses the talents of the best brains.

A Government firmly in charge is good but it wouldn’t be enough. Innovation is not age specific, or skill specific. The potential of game changers can be judged on one criteria alone and that’s delivery of results.

We are good fighters at a time of crisis, especially when there is backing from a disciplined military properly led by a civilian administration that commands respect. But, the resolve we have at times of crisis seems to dissipate at times of normalcy.

On the long run we must not only be able to rise to the occasion — we must continue to rise at routine times that are bound to follow, whenever this crisis ends. 

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