26 March 2020

Prioritize the poor and vulnerable!

Ignorance breeds fear. Fear nudges emotion to trump reason. The world didn’t know about Corvid-19 a few months ago. The world still knows very little. The little that is known is scary.

I can’t speak for others, but I can speak of my ignorances.  I am not an epidemiologist or a virologist. I am not a relief-deliverer or a quarantine-supervisor. I am not an expert in fields relevant to combating the spread of the virus. I don’t wear lots of hats and I have absolutely no idea of what the Government should do down to the very last detail. I do not have the training to study deeply all relevant demographic information. I do not have any sense of available resources. I am not a wizard at handling logistics in the worst of conditions. I am not a world-renowned nutritionist either.

Governments are not perfect but in this crisis, at this moment, given resources, ability to deploy and coordinate state sector personnel, the authority to design a comprehensive policy regime on all related matters etc., it’s the best bet we have. Things can collapse as they have in Italy for example. Collapse can be arrested, as happened in China. There are lessons that can be learned and there is a thing called a learning curve. Sure, the death-rate is less than in the case of other diseases, but then again the rate of spread is relatively much higher. An unprecedented situation certainly. We can pretend not to appreciate this and play pundit and/or god of course, but I doubt that’s going to help. Good intention is a good thing, but there’s also aggregate ill-intention that’s made worse by quackery. Good to remember this.

There is fear, of this there can be no doubt. We could, if we want, resolve to adhere to some basic principles. For example, as someone said, it is best to assume one is infected and change one’s behavior rather than thinking of changing one’s behavior to avoid being infected. It’s not the same, the former is about social responsibility as well as self-protection whereas the latter sentiment is all about self.

The entire world is in trial-and-error mode, but the more we know the better we will be able to cope. What we do know beyond a shadow of doubt is the fact that we are all victims of one kind or another and that this victimhood can range from restrictions (self-imposed or otherwise) to death. And yet, as in all calamities of this order it is the most vulnerable who are hit the hardest and the quickest. It’s easy to say ‘stay at home.’ It is easy to resolve ‘I will stay at home.’ However, if you are a daily wage earner, for example (and a sizable percentage of the population fall into this category), and do not have assets that can supplement food requirement, things can go from ok to bad and from bad to worse and worse to desparate and beyond very quickly.

Alicia Swords, a friend in the USA who has just recovered from the disease, captured the ‘US moment’ thus:

‘We’ve got to build a movement that can force governments to put people first. Get enough tests, masks, ventilators and hospitals. Provide healthcare for everybody. Care for people with disabilities, pre-existing conditions, respiratory conditions, any kind of vulnerability. Pay people so we can stay home from work if we’re sick or caring for somebody. Open up homes for people who need them. We might have to do it all on Zoom, but we’ve got to set the world right for everybody.’

That’s the United States of America, folks, where public health is non-existent when it comes to the vulnerable. Alicia is not talking as though this situation was caused by the virus spread, but of entrenched anomalies and vulnerabilities. We are ahead in this regard, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have poor or vulnerable citizens. We do. Those have the bucks and the credit lines will be ok; the more bucks the longer the ‘ok’. How about the others, though?

We urgently need to set in place a system that ensure that everyone gets a basic complement of food and medicine. The state sector can do much. The Grama Niladhari knows or is required to know enough about all households under his/her jurisdiction. The most vulnerable are easily identified. There are village level community organizations like SANASA and Sarvodaya (the true civil society, by the way) that can support the relevant authorities in distribution exercises. Rationing too, if it comes to that.

Maybe all this is happening at some level, I have no way of knowing. Maybe things can be fine-tuned, if that’s the case. There are (probably more than possibly) mechanisms in place and things happening which we are unaware of. Not everything needs to be told or can be told either. This is something we need to understand in these kinds of situations where things can change very fast and where doubt can move to worry, anxiety, fear and absolutely irresponsible behavior.

And yet, the basics can and should be communicated effectively, first and foremost to make sure that the people know what’s being done, what to expect and what’s not possible. Secondly, it is the only way to counter the rumor mill which, in situations like this, fed by ignorance, fear and pernicious intent or some combination of these and related factors can subvert entire systems of coping.

There will be a time to learn lessons about the way we’ve behaved as individuals, communities, nations and as a species. We will debate and we must debate the worth of things we were taught were good and wholesome like ‘development,’ ‘capitalism,’ ‘modernism’ and ‘markets.’ Not right now.

Today, right now, it’s about coordinated systems and effective communication. The experts are already working on these things, no doubt. Let their voices be heard.

In all this, let us not forget the vulnerable. Ignore or neglect them and that’s where collapse could very well begin. If it were only the current political economic system, I would not worry too much, but we are talking about the possibility of an absolute tragedy.

Let me repeat. The poor. The vulnerable. Make sure they have food. That’s the bottom line. I hope President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will keep this foremost in his mind.

This article was first published in the DAILY MIRROR [March 26, 2020]