South Asia

How to Dissent During a Pandemic: Reflections From Sri Lanka

Dissent in such a context should target the state and non-state actors who are manipulating the discourse around the pandemic to achieve sectarian goals.

The world is in the middle of a pandemic. The young and the old are dying without proper medical care. People across the world are losing their jobs. There is already a food crisis in many countries.

What we are witnessing is as much a socio-economic crisis as a medical crisis.

The virus cannot attack us indiscriminately, for the world it has entered into is a world where some enjoy stronger economic and political immunity than the others. This immunity generated by nation-states, neoliberal globalisation and societal exclusions shields from the wrath of the virus the powerful, the haves and the ones who worship the right god/s, speak the right languages and live in the right territories. Therefore, our medical response to this crisis cannot be isolated from the social alternatives that this crisis has made us search for.

Dissenting against structural inequalities that exacerbate this pandemic for marginalised populations is an important exercise in this regard. A virus should not deter us from asking vital questions about democracy, coexistence and social justice because it is our failure to uphold these values in earnest ways in the past that have aggravated this crisis for the marginalised in all our countries.

Dissent here is a form of political inquiry that can help us understand the ways in which structural exclusions organise the trajectories of the pandemic in specific geographies and the kinds of alternatives that communities need to envisage. This is reason enough to bring dissent to the centre stage, even as we follow the reasonable instructions issued by states to control the pandemic.

An idea on the kind of dissent that is necessary during these gruelling times can be found in some of the socio-political developments I have seen in Sri Lanka since the onset of the pandemic.

Although each country or each region is affected differently by this crisis depending on its socio-political makeup, and therefore the dissent in each context may take a specific character, I write this piece in the hope that bringing the experiences of people from different parts of the world to common platforms will allow us to learn from one another’s situation and explore the kinds of alliances that we need to build in order to address the current crisis and the deep structural fissures amidst which it is unfolding.

Firstly, our dissent should study the impact of the medical and legal regulations that those who claim to manage the pandemic, the state, in particular, have issued. These regulations do not operate in a vacuum; instead, their impact is felt unevenly by the citizens correlating to their socio-economic location.

Also read: Explainer: As COVID-19 Numbers Rise, Why Is Pakistan Reluctant to Call a Lockdown?

In the case of Sri Lanka, there are pre-virus factors like the lack of investment by the state in public health, the disempowerment of local, small-scale businesses, negligence of rural economy, and precariousness surrounding the lives of the workers that make any medical or legal regulation implemented by the state in a putatively uniform manner all over its territories uneven and lop-sided.

From a medical point of view, recent writings on the pandemic emphasise that more testing centres should be set up to halt the virus in its tracks. In Sri Lanka, there is a requirement for more testing centres so that more people can be protected from this disease and prevented from transmitting the virus to others. There is also a need to run more testing centres in rural areas so that people from rural areas do not have to travel long distances to get themselves tested for the virus.

The economic fallout from the pandemic has hit the poor and the working classes in Sri Lanka disproportionately. Due to the closure of factories, workers from free trade zones are returning to their homes in the hinterland with little or no money to support their families. Many of them are women. Plantation workers have been left without any solid economic support.

Domestic workers and those who act as the driving engines of the rural economy are also finding it difficult to meet their daily expenses either due to short-term unemployment, social-distancing or lack of opportunities resulting from the lock-downs, as in the case of farmers, to sell their produce at reasonable prices. The state cannot fail these groups during this acute crisis. Our dissent should first and foremost be a clarion call for the state’s robust intervention in these areas.

The pandemic landed in Sri Lanka nearly four months into the presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. His image as a leader of the Sinhala-Buddhists and unwavering defender of the country’s armed forces contributed significantly to his victory last November in the Sinhala-majority districts of the country in the context of growing disillusionment amongst people over the economic policies of the previous regime.

Since the inauguration of his presidency, the new regime has taken strident steps to further militarise Sri Lanka. Taking advantage of the pandemic, the regime has tried to expand the military’s role into sectors that do not generally come under its purview. The military today plays a key role in monitoring the movement and interactions of those who recently returned to Sri Lanka from overseas, providing relief to the people and administering law and order.

A man and a boy look out from the windows of their home during a curfew imposed by the government amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 3, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte/File Photo

Exploiting the ongoing crisis, the president granted a special pardon to a former army Sergeant convicted by the country’s judicial system for the murder of eight Tamil civilians. The mechanisms of surveillance newly introduced or expanded following the outbreak of the pandemic may well outlast the pandemic itself and be used by the state to crush any opposition to it in the future. A dissident critique of these developments is necessary to sustain democracy (or at least the idea of democracy) during this pandemic. Even as some of these emergency mechanisms may be necessary to control the spread of the pandemic, the state must be held accountable as to its immediate and future roles.

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Sinhala nationalist forces in Southern Sri Lanka and Hindu reactionary elements in the North have set in motion vitriolic campaigns against Muslims and Christians, portraying these minority communities as complicit in the spread of the coronavirus. In violation of the guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation, a Muslim man who died of COVID-19 was denied burial rights by the state. The state has issued a circular which requires the remains of all those who die of the disease be cremated regardless of their religious beliefs.

There have been complaints from areas where minority communities live in large numbers that the relief provided by the state has not reached them at all or is woefully insufficient. In the multi-ethnic North, one strand of response to the failures of the state is presented in Tamil nationalist terms, prioritising the needs of the Tamils while alienating the numerically smaller non-Tamil populations in the region that have also been affected by the crisis. These majoritarian trends produce the pandemic as a communally inflected crisis in Sri Lanka. Dissent in such a context should target the state and non-state actors who are manipulating the discourse around the pandemic to achieve sectarian goals.

Dissent is also important to imagine alternative futures that will better prepare us for facing crises like the one caused by the pandemic. Neoliberal globalisation and xenophobic citizenship laws have made economically marginalised populations, workers, and undocumented immigrants in countries like the US susceptible to the coronavirus.

In Sri Lanka and in many other countries, anything that is seen as global is treated with scepticism and fear today and there is a growing eagerness among many towards going local. Economic self-sufficiency has emerged as a key frame to envision futures that contrast with those of globalised economies responsible for the dispossession faced by downtrodden populations.

While there is much to gain from prioritising local production and reviving agriculture-based economies, self-sufficiency may easily degenerate into an exclusionary frame, unless we imagine selfhood as non-sovereign, culturally pluralistic and irreducible to ahistorical purities. If the self in self-sufficiency generates anti-immigrant, anti-minority and anti-labour sentiments, as it does in many parts of the world during this pandemic, then it is already a failed narrative.

A dissident alternative must rupture both existent transnational capitalist systems and xenophobic, narrowly nativist alternatives floated in the garb of self-sufficiency. What the virus has taught us is that despite the inequalities that characterise our world, we are in many ways dependent on one another as individuals and communities for our survival. The inter-state solidarities that we have witnessed during this crisis as, for instance, in the case of Cuban doctors reaching out to support Italy’s health care system are examples that we need to cherish.

Also read: The Post-COVID World: Dragging the State Back Into Public Services

A rallying cry that has emerged from many countries during this pandemic is that we need free, universal health care systems. It is noteworthy that Sri Lanka’s free health care system has helped its people and medical professionals face the early stages of the pandemic with confidence and hope. But speculation that the country’s medical system will be confronted with grave challenges if there is a spike in the number of patients tells us that there is much more the state needs to do in terms of improving its health sector.

For the health and happiness of the planet, we have to act in the direction of re-distributing our resources and wealth in ways that benefit those on the margins. That is, in essence, building a new world order that celebrates collective acts of caring, sharing and re-distributing. We need healthy dissent to craft this alternative even as we face a pandemic raging across our planet.

Mahendran Thiruvarangan teaches English at the University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka