22 November 2021

Covid-19 and responses: notes for doctoral theses

The Political Economy of Covid-19 and Responses to it. That would be an excellent topic for  doctoral dissertation. Of course ‘Combating Covid-19’ would also be an interesting and important study. We are still in the middle of the pandemic and therefore such exercises would be works in progress. The latter, admittedly, would be best taken on if and when we are out of the Covid-19 woods. The former can be studied at any time. In any event, keeping notes would be useful.

The earliest days were marked by trepidation bordering on panic. The world did hit the panic button soon enough. Countries showed varying degrees of caution and chaos. There was a sense of helplessness followed by hope and then back again to panic stations.  

One could put it down to the obvious and incontrovertible truth that knowledge of the virus, its mutations and related behaviour was sparse. The experts were stumped for a while. The more disciplined among them, went to the basics and approached the issue with fact and method, the more cavalier among them covered up ignorance and sloth with pronouncements that veered towards sloganeering, one way or another.

People and groups endowed with a sense of social responsibility resisted the temptation to self-advertise and make capital of one kind or another. The funds, medicines and medical as well as other urgently required equipment channeled to the health sector by well-meaning individuals and groups alone indicate vibrancy of philanthropy and solidarity. That’s another study for scholars,  students of sociology, for example. Such efforts go under the radar for the most part; there are those that like to advertise largesse of course but by and large such exercises have been devoid of any kind of profit motive.  

Politics. That’s where we find the down and dirty. For those in power, here and elsewhere, Covid-19 offers opportunities to cover up sloth and incompetence. All things considered Sri Lanka’s performance in combating the virus has been exemplary. Critics with other agenda will of course find fault, but what the health sector has done with the support of the security forces have done wonders. Yes, people have died. Did anyone believe that given the country’s resource complement we could have avoided it? On the other hand have the critics or the groups they cheer on directly or indirectly strictly adhered to the basic safety protocols? Are they guilt-free, in other words? A quick example: are those who pooh-poohed the vaccination program un-jabbed as of now? As for ‘experts’ who hold weekly media conferences, do they speak in one voice? If the experts can’t agree, can they say with absolute confidence that this (as opposed to that or another) course of action is non-negotiable?

Economy. That too, for there are bucks being made hand over fist so to speak, globally and locally. Desperation and panic produce great opportunities for exploitation. Life-and-death situations often prompt people to retire reason, embrace ‘gut-feelings’ and fall prey to those who are excellently positioned to create perceptions that push potential customers to their products and services. A crude but highly prevalent example would be of retailers who jack up prices willy nilly citing ‘Covid-19’ or ‘scarcity.’  At the high end we have certain countries which insist that visitors who haven’t been jabbed with particular vaccine brands need to be quarantined for a particular period of time. So there’s business for ‘quarantine hotels.’ Covid-19 has not put big hotels out of business, here in Sri Lanka. It’s the smaller establishments that have got hit and/or gone under.

Political economy, however, is the correct term of course. It’s about bucks and power, the capital monetary and otherwise that’s out there to be secured. Those who keep notes would be amused and those who do not might be persuaded to try it. Here’s a word that operates like a window into the political economy of Covid-19: lockdown. Yes, frequently used by never once defined by its ardent advocates (ever asked why?).

Think back on all the lockdowns we’ve had so far. Remember speculation about when each lockdown would end? Remember how, when the date approached, the usual coterie of experts (union leaders and leaders of political parties) insisted, ‘extend the lockdown!’? Yes, they never defined the parameters of restrictions, we need to repeat. Yes, there were experts too, but as mentioned above they were never in agreement about remedies or remedial measures outside of basic safety protocols. Remember that some of them, when lockdowns were proposed, talked of fundamental rights being violated and wept copious tears about the impact on daily wage earners? Remember how almost all of them said nothing about the effect on the economy and resultant repercussions for one and all as well as the country?

Now. What has happened to those who uttered the ‘lockdown mantra’ with fanatical religious fervour? There’s talk of the lockdown being lifted at the end of the month. There’s no talk of the fact that we have had restrictions of one kind or another since March 2020, but that’s an aside. What’s important is to ask why when we are days away (according to all reports) from restriction-lifting there’s no one saying ‘more of the same medicine!’

Is that some kind of grudging acknowledgment that the government’s ‘vaccination + restrictions’ strategy has worked? Is it that those who saw opportunity for advancement (political or economic)  have made the relevant bucks or have streamlined their affairs for sustained enhancement? Have they, should we dare say, been afflicted by some kind of shame for being self-seeking and pernicious in a time of crisis?

Months ago, there were ‘experts’ saying ‘this is the worst we’ve had.’  Even a child capable of comparing numbers could have concluded the same considering say the number of people infected and the number of deaths. Months ago, there were ‘experts’ saying ‘we will see the beginning of the next wave soon.’ Soothsayers, is that what they are? All this, based on knowledge that’s little more than a speck of dust compared with the universe of information yet to be obtained regarding the virus, its mutations and spread.

Here’s a repeat of a question posed a week ago: how does one account for the fact that the number of deaths (per week, per month) in 2021 has essentially remained the same as the averages over the previous five years? Why won’t ‘experts’ check the details? Are they scared they might encounter some devil that might give them nightmares thereafter?

Politics. Economics. Political economy. These are frames that help us unmask those whose intentions are not as benevolent as they might want us to believe.

malindasenevi@gmail.com. www.malindasenevi@gmail.com
[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views.]