Coronavirus taught us issues | Sunday Observer

Coronavirus taught us issues

20 June, 2021

The most hackneyed question concerning post-independence Sri Lanka’s growth trajectory is the comparison to Singapore coupled with the query “how come Lee modelled the country on Sri Lanka and got ahead of us so fast.”

It shouldn’t have been a difficult question to answer if the people had their antennas up — crude ones even. Singapore didn’t have a divisive ethnic issue that morphed into a full blown war that lasted years, keeping the economy underperforming for decades.

Singapore didn’t have two youth uprisings one of which almost capsised the ship of state. Singapore didn’t have an acrimonious two party system that had politicians at their throats with impeachment dramas and endless political tugs-o-war being enacted every time the economy was aching for direction and special attention because that aspect of governance had been neglected for years anyway.

That’s the story of how Sri Lanka became the Singapore that South Asia never had. That story can be seen strangely with greater clarity now more than ever when we are dealing with this pandemic that has the country focused on this single issue health crisis.

Notice how all other issues that deal with ethnicity or language, or race and gender and class is no longer important because people have one thing in mind — seeing some light at the end of this tunnel.


This is no respite. Dealing with the pandemic has been almost as daunting as facing the challenges of war and political infighting put together.

But it has proven what we could have never learnt with a lab experiment —- which is that our so-called struggles are petty entanglements that kept us preoccupied at the cost of making our economy grow while keeping our country functional.

The pandemic has made some issues so irrelevant that the usual agent provocateurs have holed themselves up because they are too shy to show their faces and open their mouths. They are dumbstruck that a mere virus has made them mere spectators in the national drama.

Race baiting, lunging for each others throats over issues of land, language and score settling is not a spectator sport these days as there is no audience.

People are worried about how and when they would be vaccinated, or which doctor’s family would steal their vaccines from right under their noses.

Nobody wants to stir the pot these days and even if they do the media wouldn’t bring their issues to the front burner because that slot has been taken over by the virus. But there is no tearing of hair over devolution and minority issues.

Essentially, these are created divisions that are then often fed and nurtured by external elements. But they are not issues that are imbued with any real urgency. But, if there was no coronavirus any number of issues would have been prioritised and presented as if the sky would fall down if there was no resolution to these issues tomorrow.

The only issue that got equal publicity to the virus recently was the X-Press Pearl calamity, and that was not a political crisis. There were and are various interested parties attempting to eke out a partisan advantage from that issue, but that’s not getting any attraction either.

There were trumped up narratives about the Port City as well, but none of these could be agitated on any sustained basis as these wedge issues that are calculated to cause fissures and obstructions are not important to people who are focused on making a living and getting by during a pandemic.


Race and language based divisions are generally fodder for external actors but they don’t seem to need anything new to obstruct the economy of this country because the pandemic is doing that job these days.

That should bring us to the issue of whether certain aspects of this contagion are trumped up as well — as it’s not impossible for various elements to manipulate a crisis of this nature to cause disruption that then could be used to their advantage. For the first time since reasonably reliable records of GDP began to be computed after World War II, the emerging market economies will contract, states the Foreign Policy Magazine.

The industrialised economies of the West are badly hit no doubt, but when emerging market economies are hit, the bigger economies generally could prey on that collapse. Such predatory behaviour could be engineered as well. There could be economic hit-men lurking everywhere attempting to fish in our troubled waters.

If external actors had to engineer various crises such as sectarian strife in the past, there is a ready made crisis they can use to the maximum advantage these days and it’s called the pandemic.

Compared to 2019, global poverty in 2020 could rise by 120 million people. Compared to the baseline path for poverty, the 2020 figure is 144 million people higher. That’s according to Brookings Institution figures. Imagine that.

One hundred and forty four million people slid below the poverty line due to the pandemic and most of these folk are in the developing world. The farther the destructive effects of the pandemic and the restrictions extend, the easier it becomes for lending agency loan sharks and other external predatory elements to take mean advantage.

When there is sectarian division and strife in the country it’s easy to drive wedges but eventually these become visible, but the pandemic doesn’t create that kind of strife — it brings about the collapse of substantial swathes of the economy and then there is a resultant weakening of institutions.

Preying on these situations can be done by stealth and it is time for the Covid hit economies of the world to guard against predatory behaviour whether they come in the form of good tidings — financial assistance — or otherwise.

This is also the time to neutralise the elements in this society that are responsible for sectarian unrest. Their bluff has been called. The people are not invested in their schemes — if they were, the pandemic would not have stopped them from raising issues about race and language based concerns, and a myriad of other so called pressing national issues.


There is no sound of any discontent on these counts, and the only concern people have these days is how to be rid of the spread of coronavirus.

Mischief makers have been unmasked by the virus — they were the virus before, and a real virus has usurped their place.

This would be fodder for a comprehensive academic study in the future — and could be titled “How the pandemic exposed the basis for sectarian disruption in Sri Lanka.” People would no doubt go on record about how they were not fed bad news, during the pandemic, about other encroaching ethnic groups, and disruptive religious practices of other religionists.

Public broadcast television had no time for these issues, because people cared more about their health than anything the NGOs would tell them about how they are being discriminated against.

They could also interview the usual culprits that sow discord. Where were they hiding during the pandemic? How was it like to be made totally irrelevant? Some gems could be unearthed about how such people feel demotivated — and such information could be used in the future to demobilise this rabble when there is no pandemic, and they emerge from the woodwork to do their dirty work once more after the dust settles.

A part of that research should be about how the media felt it necessary to keep toxic topics off the airwaves. The TV executives would probably talk about ratings and tell their interlocutors about how the people were not inclined to hear about peripheral things when it came to matters pertaining to their health.

The downside of this is that people’s health concerns — or their hypochondria in some instances — could also be exploited. That’s why when there is silence on other fronts and the country is faced with negative economic portends due to the pandemic, the general observer of events should try to make the connection.

Who is exploiting us this time, and over what, should be a legitimate poser in these circumstances.