24 June 2020

New Zealand and Sri Lanka: Two narratives of ‘the compassionate exemption’

‘Compassionate Exemption’ is a term that has been used mostly in relation to cancer treatment. It refers to someone receiving a drug even though he/she does not meet the eligibility criteria of a clinical trial in which the said drug is being studied.

COVID-19 gave the term an additional meaning, referring to those who were excused from mandatory quarantine procedures on compassionate grounds. We don’t know if ‘compassion’ was a factor in the exemption accorded to a US Embassy official who refused to take a PCR test at the airport recently, but in New Zealand it was an integral part of the national policy to combat COVID-19. Until a few days ago, that is. New Zealand suspended the policy after two beneficiaries were found to be COVID-19 positive.

Now New Zealand has been hailed as a COVID-19 success story. And those who did the hailing more or less ignored Sri Lanka’s story. Good news from non-white nations typically aren’t detected by media radar for reasons that need no elaboration. It’s the bad that’s newsworthy. Indeed if it is convenient, ‘bad’ is created, not so much as news-sell but to buttress narratives carefully crafted to secure political objectives. Typically too this is a formula used by ‘natives’ co-opted easily into political projects due to convergence of short-term outcome preferences such as getting rid of a less friendly regime or protecting a friendly one. And so we have these narratives  knowingly or unknowingly uttered and regurgitated by the co-opted (read ‘Born Again Democrats, Funded Voices, Candlelight Ladies, Rent-a-Signature Protestors and other Colombots and Wannabe Colombots). In a nutshell, ‘NZ is great,’ and ‘SL sucks,’ either by direct mention or implication.

The Western media has gone ga-ga over New Zealand and her charismatic Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for making that country Coronavirus-free. No such accolades for Sri Lanka and her president Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Indeed, if there was any mention it was noise about dictatorial measures, cries of horror about deploying the military apparatus and even imposing measures such as curfew. The noise was naturally echoed by the Colombot twitterati.

Things have taken an unexpected turn, but before we get to that let’s caveat here. Sri Lanka is not out of the COVID-19 woods. Neither is New Zealand. The same goes for the world in general. We don’t know when we will get out of the woods or indeed if we will be condemned to be in the relevant wilds forever. That said, since this is about the here and now, let’s compare and contrast.

Supposedly Covid-free New Zealand suddenly discovered that two arrivals from Britain who had left managed isolation without being tested were in fact infected. Health officials are now tracing 320 people regarded as ‘close contacts’ of the infected. What’s interesting is Ardern’s reactions.

She said that the quarantine process will be audited. She said that the compassionate exemption under which the two persons were released from quarantine early would be suspended. She said defense force would now oversee the quarantine of new arrivals. And she insists that New Zealand remains ‘Covid-free’ because its ‘definition always assumed there would be cases at the border.’

So the military is going to oversee stuff in New Zealand. No one is using words and terms such as ‘draconian’ and ‘militarization’. No one is crying out in horror about freedoms being compromised.  No one is saying something along the following lines: ‘All reported cases in Sri Lanka over the past several weeks are from quarantine facilities with most of them being “cases at the border” and as such Sri Lanka should be declared “Covid-free”!’

Forget compassion or even realistic assessment — Sri Lanka continues to get vilification treatment over measures taken based on principles of caution that take into account the obvious knowledge-gaps regarding the pandemic. We can just imagine the response had it all happened in Sri Lanka and not New Zealand! We would have heard ‘There you go, we told you so!’ We would have heard people berating the Government for carelessness. And we would have the recycling of the militarization narratives with appropriate wording to invoke horror.

Here are some facts, devoid of compassion and other politically charged wording: New Zealand’s population is 4.88 million, Sri Lanka’s is 21.67 million; NZ has 1156 cases and 22 deaths, SL has 1915 cases and 11 deaths; NZ’s GDP is over 200 billion USD, SL’s is less than 90 billion USD. The math is elementary but perhaps too elementary for compare-and-contrast.

Of course Sri Lanka has not tested as much as New Zealand, just 3.92 tests per 1,000 compared to the impressive 64.35 per 1,000 in New Zealand.  However, it must be acknowledged that it would be really hard for anyone infected with COVID-19 to hide. The near and dear would not let anyone with relevant symptoms remain without medical attention. And three months is long enough for the truth to come out. It could be theoretically possible that people who suspect they are infected stay(ed) at home consuming coriander and ginger-tea and so their possible infection and recovery cannot make it into official records, but that would suggest a hardy physiology among other things. What’s pertinent is tracing. Can New Zealand claim to have a tracing apparatus superior to that in Sri Lanka?

Exceptionalism. That’s the word. The ‘compassionate’ qualifier is politically charged. New Zealand get’s soft passage, Sri Lanka gets the third degree. It’s not about facts. Not only about COVID-19.  It’s about what makes political sense. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact is a case in point. US Ambassador Alaina B Teplitz said the other day that ‘a decision on the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) agreement will be taken after the Parliamentary election in August.’ She doesn’t state who is going to make this decision. Neither does she mention the fact that Sri Lanka, given ascendancy to the ‘upper middle-income’ category among nations , cannot meet the eligibility criteria for this supposedly lovely, no-risk facility. Someone’s being compassionate here, are we to believe? Well, suspend that!

New Zealand. A beautiful country ruled by white people and not the descendants of natives who lived there for millennia before the compassionate hordes from Europe descended on them. Sri Lanka. A beautiful country too, where similarly compassionate hordes left but left behind their voices and put in place mechanisms that ensured the sustained development of subjugation, with and without the support of the ideologically and politically enslaved ‘natives.’ There are differences and similarities. Compassion comes in different colors. Exceptionalism too.  There’s eligibility criteria that is not value-free or exempted from political framing. Call it a clinical trial if you wish. The results are certainly illuminating!