11 April 2020

Vulnerability, fear and the legitimizing of prejudice


Sudat Pasqual, former Sri Lankan cricketer now resident in Canada, recently wrote to Rachel Notley, Leader of the Opposition and former Prime Minister of Alberta, in response to the ‘stay home, stay safe’ meme she had posted.

‘I understand the science behind staying at home and social distancing but I am very concerned about our obsessiveness and the passive-aggressive manner the concepts are promoted. I say this because I see the confusion in the faces of many who get on my bus. They are uncertain whether to agree me, smile or ignore me when they board the bus. The seniors who get on are the most troubled. It’s obvious that they are aware that they are at most risk but they also need to get about like everyone else. Last week some were chatty but not this week. I also hear fellow drivers saying that they don’t want to allow people who maybe homeless, not because they are coughing, sneezing and/or blowing their noses but simply because they look disheveled or unkempt. It makes me so sad and angry when I hear such prejudice because our vulnerabilities and fears are legitimizing their prejudice.’

Situations vary from country to country. There are no buses plying the streets. People need to get about but most stay at home, the ‘straying’ if at all being limited to a stroll around the village or up and down a lane in the case of those in urban areas. Distribution of essentials is getting streamlined. The low income earners are getting handouts. People take care of each other to the extent possible.

There are probably lots of gaps and the country is yet to be tested because Covid-19 hasn’t really ‘taken off’ in Sri Lanka. That said, Sri Lanka is doing quite well in terms of making sure people are ok.

And yet, there are vulnerabilities and fears. Daily wage earners are at risk. Take for example the barber in our village, Kudamaduwa. Now he’s all about community and solidarity. The man mobilized the entire village to turn an abandoned paddy field into a playground. The young people who make up the membership of the sports club collected money to buy the property. Then they leveled it, planted grass and also fruit trees in the perimeter. They organized kite competitions to raise money for all this. The annual avurudu uthsavaya is held at this ground now.

That’s background. Sujee Doloswala, as mentioned, is a barber. A good one. An enterprising young man, he saved money and modernized his shop, adding an extra kada kaamaraya the rent from which adds to his income. He has also obtained loans to build his house. With Corvid-19, he’s lost his business.

‘I have to draw from what I saved to pay off my loans. Everyday I would set aside a part of my earnings to pay the loan. Now that’s not possible. If some random person passes through the village in search of people who need to be helped, they won’t stop at my house.’

Appearances can deceive, in other words. The state machinery is not ignorant however. There’s data. There are officials at the top and at the village-level we have the Grama Niladhari. If patronage-politics and pilfering does not happen, things will be ok. Not amazing, not great even, but good enough. Vulnerability is usually accompanied by fear, but as Sujee said, ‘ape game kavruvath badaginne nehe, badagini venne ida thiyanneth naha (no one in our village starves and we will not let anyone starve either).’

As mentioned above, we are yet to be tested. Let that be a note of caution and a caveat. It is not that there are no prejudices in our society. There’s a reason why in certain circles terms such as ‘godaya’ and ‘yakkho’ are derogatory.  We know also that capitalism is a system that breeds a political class which favors the rich and neglects the poor. Indeed, it is a miracle that we still have a public service that comes through with shining colors each and every time there is a crisis. However, we did see in the early days of curfew how the focus was on the upper middle and upper classes. The efforts were aimed mostly at dealing with their vulnerabilities and fears. That’s prejudice too.

There is also the palpable prejudices pertaining to religion and race. Some sections of the Muslim community believe there’s persecution. They believe that in the matter of disposing the dead, the dictates of their faith (or at least their reading of the relevant texts — yes, it’s all subjective and human-read by the humanly-frail) were ignored. That’s prejudice they say.  So there’s fear and there’s vulnerability. In this instance however it is a double-edged thing. There have been instances where certain Muslims have flouted the rules regarding gathering. It’s faith, they say. It’s stupid, insensitive and absolutely dangerous, others will say. That kind of faith-assertion feeds fears and vulnerabilities. That kind of dogmatism is also about prejudice.

Fortunately, these are exceptions and not the rule. We have seen over the past few weeks behavioral change among the people. The threat is recognized. The precautions are understood and by and large taken. There is less complaining of things people have had to forego.

And yet, we haven’t been really tested yet. Hopefully we won’t be tested but this is not the hour of the crystal-gazer. Best to be prepared. Best to expect the worst. Best to do what we can. For ourselves and each other. And, when fear and vulnerability raise their heads, it’s also best that we retire prejudices. In short, we need not make things worse than they are.

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