Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Ceylon Today

Sri Lanka and the Pandemic Part Two

This article was published in Ceylon Today on June 3 2020. Unfortunately, there was a ten-day delay between submission and publication and they did not take account of my updates.

 

https://ceylontoday.lk/print-more/57728

 

Lack of Recognition

 

I hope you don’t get bored with me repeating this. Sri Lanka has a population of 21.4 million. There have been eleven deaths from the virus. I have been pressing this point not because I expect other nations to copy Sri Lanka but purely out of bemusement that the Sri Lanka situation has been totally blanked out.

International Comparisons Are Odious

Ireland is often held up as a good example. The death toll there is now (June 2) 1,651, out of a population of 4.9 million. A virtual Irish friend, a former diplomat, tentatively suggested that Ireland might have special circumstances which made it more difficult to cope with the pandemic than it is for Sri Lanka. “Small or medium-sized highly globalised countries located within the main highway of the globalised economy and with high volumes of diverse migrant and visitor population flows (Ireland, Sweden, UK) may have a greater exposure”.

Globalisation

Sri Lanka is not exempt from globalisation. Sri Lanka’s land mass is roughly the same as the island of Ireland but the population is 5.25 times that of the Republic. Like Ireland, Sri Lanka does not have huge cities and there is a lot of open nature and mountains. Ireland has long had a problem with rural depopulation. However, it is obvious that Sri Lanka has a greater density of urban population than Ireland.  Ireland only started attracting immigrants in recent times but Sri Lanka has long had a very diverse ethnic mix. Even today, there are communal frictions because of the government’s insistence on cremation of Covid19 victims.

Sri Lanka’s geographical position makes it a global hub for maritime traffic. It has attracted a vast amount of Chinese investment and personnel. Chinese collaborative projects with Sri Lanka developed a working population of Chinese and Sri Lankans that moved between the two countries.

Migrant Labour

Among the many factors severely damaging the Sri Lankan economy during the pandemic is the effect on migrant labour. Way back in 2008, I wrote: “remittances from migrant workers represent more than nine per cent of GDP. Sri Lanka receives US$ 526 million more in remittances than it does from foreign aid and foreign direct investment combined.”   Some of the clusters of confirmed cases arose because migrant workers returning from Italy were disappearing into their local communities without registering with the police or being tested.

Early Measures

Sri Lankan National Health Services, headed by Director General Anil Jasinghe, established 46 quarantine centres.  In the early stages, repatriated migrant workers from Italy and South Korea, were placed in quarantine facilities close to their hometowns They were transported by Government and military to prevent contact between family members, and all vehicles and contaminants were duly sanitized.  The military provided beds and bedding for the quarantine units.

Sri Lanka is fortunate in that it is an island nation which accepts most of its visitors through one international airport, Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA). In January, (when the UK was doing nothing) travellers reported that they were subjected to thermal screening at BIA.  Quarantine facilities were quickly established and expanded. Facilities for treating Corona patients were quickly made available in 16 major hospitals with IDH (Infectious Diseases Hospital) at Angoda as the key institution.

Well-Established Health Service

One of the advantages that Sri Lanka enjoys is a free healthcare network of state hospitals nationwide supplemented by a thriving well-equipped private system. Sri Lanka’s state-funded universal health care service has considerable experience in managing deadly diseases.  Malaria and polio were eliminated and AIDS, SARS, H1N1, Chikungunya and MERS were successfully tackled. In 2005, Sri Lanka did not suffer the much-anticipated epidemics following the Indian Ocean tsunami.  In the IDP camps at the end of the war against the LTTE in 2009, there was not the predicted outbreak of deadly disease.

MOH (Medical Officer of Health) geographical areas were established across the island in 1926 to provide preventive health services at a community level, through a team of medical officers, public health nurses, health inspectors and midwives.

Dr. Anil Jasinghe, Director General of Health Services in Sri Lanka said: “We have been able to minimize the number of patients and even with the present-day clusters, we believe that with our strong public health system, we will soon be able to curtail the numbers.”

Lockdown

All flights to BIA were stopped from March 19. High-risk areas in the Negombo and Puttalam districts were locked down. Schools closed indefinitely. Government offices closed and working from home was encouraged.  Large gatherings were banned and the planned parliamentary election was postponed. An island-wide curfew was monitored by the police and the armed forces. To date (June 2 ) over 60, 000 people have been arrested for curfew violation and will be prosecuted. Over 13,500 vehicles have been impounded.

The garment export industry stepped in to retool and provide PPE supplies for medical personnel and the general public. The state-owned Sugar Corporation and the private distillery companies provided alcohol-based sanitizers.

Tracing

Systems were set up at an early stage to facilitate the exchange of medical information. Police were involved at an early stage in tracking down people likely to have been exposed to the virus. Sri Lanka’s defence secretary, Major General Kamal Gunaratne, announced on April 19 that army intelligence officers would obtain the assistance of telecommunication service providers to trace contacts and places visited by COVID-19 patients.

As soon as the Epidemiology Unit of the Ministry of Health hears from a designated laboratory of a positive case, its staff activate “case search” among the infected person’s close contacts. The “activation” essentially involves informing the military and State Intelligence Service immediately, who then proceed to trace those who had been in contact with the patient, and direct them to quarantine.

Armed Forces

The army, navy and air force have played a huge role in the success of Sri Lanka’s anti-Covid programme. My Irish friend is correct in saying that it would be unlikely that the Irish defence forces could play as prominent a role as the Sri Lankan Tri-Forces.

There are many who are worried about militarization. “Placing an army General at the helm of the campaign against the epidemic is as inane as asking a medical doctor with zero-military training to lead a war,” wrote columnist Tisaranee Gunasekara. She describes the deployment of sailors as inept. During the current crisis, the Navy handled shipments of food supplies from ports and delivered them to the public.  Sailors were deployed to hunt down a group of drug addicts who had contact with a COVID-19 patient and were evading quarantine. New cases of infection seem to be sailors who have been involved in front-line activities on our behalf. This phenomenon is being described as the ‘Navy cluster’.

Democracy in Doubt

Critics argue that the president is ruling by task force without a parliament. The Electoral Commission has declared than an election cannot take place in the foreseeable future. There are calls to reconvene the parliament that was dissolved on March 3. That parliament, elected five years ago, is no longer representative. It has 106 UNP seats but since then the UNP has lost ground to the SLPP and the SLFP barely exists. In the much-delayed local elections of February 2018, the UNP were only able to secure 34 councils out of 340, whereas the SLPP won 231.

The authority of the Irish Cabinet is diminished by the fact that three of its members were voted out of the Dáil (parliament) in the general election on February 8 but remain in Government. It could be argued that Sinn Féin won the election, but they are being kept out of power by the two parties who normally take to turns to govern. The Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar is getting good world press for the way he is handling the crisis (and working one day a week as doctor – medical, not political science) but his party was defeated in the election. The Dáil hardly exists at present and its committees are in abeyance.

The argument about militarization could be turned on its head. The military has been civilized to make an effective contribution to civilian well-being. Ordinary people who do not write for newspapers or work for NGOs appreciate this. I have been given permission by the commenter to quote this from Facebook. “Our President is forging ahead in brilliance, with innovative decisions, gaining the confidence of more and more people. This is the very reason for all the Opposition bull shit every day! They have no credibility after yahapalana period!”

Sri Lanka and the Pandemic

Go Home

One reads a lot in the western press about how badly the UK and US governments are coping with the Covid19 pandemic. One of the UK’s diplomatic strengths has long been its international advocacy for global health, and its current poor domestic performance may cause other nations to think again about the prestige accorded to Britain. Britain’s embarrassing failures undermine its soft power in the international arena and ‘less-developed’ nations may be even less willing to listen to British ‘advice’ on health and, indeed, other matters.

A few weeks ago, Sarah Hulton OBE, UK High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, went on Facebook to advise any British citizens still loitering about in Sr Lanka to hie them hence smartish. She noted that some British passport holders were in Sri Lanka visiting family. She reiterated the UK Government advice that all British nationals who normally live in the UK should return to the UK now. She wrote: “Serious outbreaks of coronavirus are placing a significant strain on health services globally. In the event of a serious outbreak in Sri Lanka, consular services and flights out of the country could be seriously affected. We cannot guarantee what flight options might be available if people choose to leave at a later date.” I well remember that after the tsunami, UK “consular services” were as helpful as the proverbial chocolate teapot.  If these lingerers, who probably see themselves as Sri Lankans, want to stay with their families in Sri Lanka in this difficult time, why tell them to go to the UK to add to the UK’s burden? One person wryly asked why the High Commissioner was sending fellow citizens to the UK to a death sentence.

 

Imperial Arrogance

Was the High Commissioner really saying “get back to Blighty soon because when it really hits the fan these damned colonials won’t be able to cope with it”? It should be noted that many of those doing their best to cope with the crisis in the UK are immigrants. Most of the NHS staff who have died, including a Sri Lankan, Dr Anton Sebastianpillai, were immigrants, immigrants who survived the “hostile environment” created by Theresa May but perished trying to save others. One nurse who died had been photographed with Boris Johnson. He has been highly irresponsible in spreading the virus and has the Galle Face to praise the NHS for saving his life.

Exploitation of Immigrants

Foreign staff working for the NHS actually have to pay the UK government for the privilege of working. This surcharge is £400 a year and was due to increase to £624 until Keir Starmer raised the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions on May 20. NHS and care staff already ‘contribute’ to the cost of the NHS through their taxes, and this surcharge effectively taxes them twice. According to Paul Waugh of Huffington Post, some NHS trusts are so incensed by the iniquity of the surcharge that they actually pay it on behalf of their staff. Johnson bumblingly admitted at PMQs that foreign NHS staff saved his life but insisted that the £900 million the surcharge brings in was indispensable to the nation. A spokesman admitted to Huffington Post that he didn’t know how much NHS and care workers actually do pay, let alone the healthcare costs of foreign worker. A spokesman later said: “The PM has asked the Home Office and Department of Health and Social Care to remove NHS and care workers from the NHS surcharge as soon as possible”.

Confusion Rule the Waves

As I write (May 22) people in the UK are totally confused by the government’s latest guidance. Boris Johnson is coming under increasing criticism for the missteps he has taken in dealing with the crisis from the outset. He now has a formidable opponent in the new leader of the opposition Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer. Starmer has had a distinguished career as a human rights barrister and served five years as the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions. He brings incisive forensic skills to his questioning of inept government ministers who have never done a proper job in their lives. Johnson and his possible successor, Gove, were journalists (not very good ones). It is depressing to contemplate what a better job Starmer would be doing as prime minister, depressing to contemplate the missed opportunities, the lives needlessly lost.

Despite the difficulties, the situation in Sri Lanka is encouraging. Health Review Global did a thorough analysis and concluded: “We have studied the responses of many countries to the coronavirus pandemic. We at healthreviewglobal.com decided to select Sri Lanka for its swift and impressive response to the global epidemic despite being a second world economy. On top of it, we learned the importance of investing in public health”.

Lack of Recognition

Nevertheless, it is surprising how little coverage there is world-wide of Sri Lanka’s battle against the virus. The London Sunday Times published an article entitled Lifting Lockdown: What Britain can learn from the rest of the world. The article draws on a report by the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University. Readers are invited to: “Select any of the 109 countries tracked to see their lockdown journey.” I scrolled down the list and discovered a strange gap between Spain and Sudan. Shouldn’t Sri Lanka be in there?

The London Times: “by early March, it was clear that transmission was being restricted in parts of Asia through testing and tracing. South Korea has yet to have a single day with more than nine deaths, and has kept offices, restaurants and shops open.” Sri Lanka has locked down and there have only been nine deaths IN TOTAL.

On May 21, the New York Times published a map of the global spread of the virus. Sri Lanka was not on the map but our junior neighbours, the Maldive Islands, were. The Maldives has a population of 540,544 and there have been four deaths

New Zealand, which locked down before it had a single death, has seen its stringency score fall by nearly ten points. New Zealand and its prime minister have justly been praised for a successful approach to the crisis. New Zealand’s population is 4.88 million; there have been 21 deaths.

I hope you don’t get bored with me repeating this. Sri Lanka has a population of 21.4 million. There have been nine deaths from the virus.

Nepal reported its what was claimed to be its first coronavirus death on May 16 — a 29-year-old woman had who recently given birth — as the total number of people infected in the country reached 281. Nepal’s population is 28 million. In January, Nepal was the first south Asian country to report a case of coronavirus. The country has been under lockdown since March 24 after a second case was confirmed. Epidemiologist Lhamo Sherpa said, “I don’t think this is the first death. There have been cases of deaths where similar symptoms were seen, but the cause was unclear”.

Sri Lanka’s Action

 

The Sri Lankan government deserves praise for the way it has handled the crisis. Sri Lanka reacted rapidly to early warnings while most Western countries complacently carried on as normal. The world was put on notice on 31 December 2019, when the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported an unusual cluster of cases of pneumonia. Our president, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, elected by a decisive majority last November, followed up his advice to people to stay at home and keep a safe social distance by imposing a curfew from Friday 20 March at 6.00 p.m. The first reported case involving a Sri Lankan national, a 52-year-old tour guide, was declared recovered and released from quarantine on March 26. On 28 March, the first death from the virus was announced. The victim was 60-year-old diabetic who had had a heart transplant. As of May 16, the total number of confirmed cases is 935 and 477 patients have completely recovered so far. There have been nine deaths.

Odious Comparisons

When I initially compared the total number of deaths in Sri Lanka and UK, I was told such comparisons could not be made. The UK government is also arguing that international comparisons are odious. Odious to them, perhaps, because deaths in the UK are, at 36,550 (May 23) the worst in Europe (According to the Financial Times, it’s probably nearer 63,000). The UK population is 67.83 million. Sri Lanka’s population is 21.67 million. The UK accounts for less than one per cent of the global population but accounts for 12 per cent of reported Covid deaths.

It is very strange that Sri Lanka is never mentioned when comparative responses to the virus are being discussed. Ireland is held up as a good example. The population of the Republic of Ireland is 4.94 million. As of 23 May, the Irish Department of Health has confirmed a total of 1,592 deaths. Sri Lanka’s population is 21.4 million and there have been nine deaths. There is of course the danger of complacency but let’s give ourselves a little encouragement in these dark days.

A well-informed Irish friend, a former diplomat, tentatively suggested that Ireland might have special circumstances which made it more difficult for it to cope with the pandemic than it is for Sri Lanka. “Small or medium-sized highly globalised countries located within the main highway of the globalised economy and with high volumes of diverse migrant and visitor population flows (Ireland, Sweden, UK) may have a greater exposure”.

Sri Lanka is not exempt from globalisation. Sri Lanka’s land mass is roughly the same as the island of Ireland but the population is 5.25 times that of the Republic. Like Ireland, Sri Lanka does not have huge cities and there is a lot of open nature and mountains. Ireland has long had a problem with rural depopulation. However, it is obvious that Sri Lanka has a greater density of population in urban areas than Ireland.  Ireland only started attracting immigrants in recent times but Sri Lanka has long had a very diverse ethnic mix. Even today, there are communal frictions because of the government’s insistence on cremation of Covid victims.

Sri Lanka’s geographical position makes it a global hub for maritime traffic. It has attracted a vast amount of Chinese investment and personnel which makes India take a keen geopolitical interest. Chinese collaborative projects with Sri Lanka developed a working population of Chinese and Sri Lankans that moved between the two countries. The Department of Immigration and Emigration informed all construction sites to restrict their Chinese employees to their respective workplaces and lodgings

Migrant Labour

Among the many factors severely damaging the Sri Lankan economy during the pandemic is the effect on migrant labour. Way back in 2008, I wrote: “remittances from migrant workers represent more than nine per cent of GDP. Sri Lanka receives US$ 526 million more in remittances than it does from foreign aid and foreign direct investment combined. These remittances are now a greater source of revenue than our tea exports.”  It long ago became the norm for remittances from migrant workers to bear the main burden of containing Sri Lanka’s fiscal deficit. According to the 2012 Annual Statistics of the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, approximately 1.8 million Sri Lankans were working abroad of which 51% were men and 49% were women. These people are having to come home. A considerable number of returnees are from badly affected countries and this causes problems. Some of the clusters of confirmed cases arose because migrant workers returning from Italy were disappearing into their local communities without registering with the police or being tested.

Sri Lankan National Health Services, headed by Director General Anil Jasinghe, established 46 quarantine centres.  In the early stages, repatriated migrant workers from Italy and South Korea, were placed in quarantine facilities close to their hometowns They were transported by Government and military to prevent contact between family members, and all vehicles and contaminants were duly sanitized.  The military provided beds and bedding for the quarantine units.

Sri Lanka is fortunate in that it is an island nation which accepts most of its visitors through one international airport, Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA). In January, (when the UK was doing nothing) travellers reported that they were subjected to thermal screening at BIA.  Quarantine facilities were quickly established and expanded. Facilities for treating Corona patients were quickly made available in 16 major hospitals with IDH (Infectious Diseases Hospital) at Angoda as the key institution. Foreign tourists from 14 countries were among those quarantined.  When they were released many of them applauded in the media the efficient and courteous treatment they received.

Well-Established Health Service

One of the advantages that Sri Lanka enjoys is a free healthcare network of state hospitals nationwide supplemented by a thriving well-equipped private system. Sri Lanka’s state-funded universal health care service has considerable experience in managing deadly diseases.  Malaria and polio were eliminated and AIDS, SARS, H1N1, Chikungunya and MERS were successfully tackled. In 2005, Sri Lanka did not suffer the much-anticipated epidemics following the Indian Ocean tsunami.  In the IDP camps at the end of the war against the LTTE in 2009, there was not the predicted outbreak of deadly disease.

MOH (Medical Officer of Health) geographical areas were established across the island in 1926 to provide preventive health services at a community level, through a team of medical officers, public health nurses, health inspectors and midwives.

Dr. Anil Jasinghe, Director General of Health Services in Sri Lanka said: ““We have no issue whatsoever with our treatment capacities. We have been incrementally strengthening capacities. We don’t want to say how many ICU beds or how many hospitals are available, but I assure you we are ready for any number of cases”. The objective is mainly to minimize the number of patients at the outset, instead of allowing the disease to progress and having to treat patients at hospitals. Contrast this with the UK’s early flirtation with herd immunity. “We have been able to minimize the number of patients and even with the present-day clusters, we believe that with our strong public health system, we will soon be able to curtail the numbers.”

“Beggars have also been taken to certain residential facilities where they are taken care of. Notwithstanding the socio-economic level, I think they have been treated well and they are given clothes and meals, their requirements have been well looked after. Even the special segments of society are well looked after.”

Lockdown

All flights to BIA were stopped from March 19. High risk areas in the Negombo and Puttalam districts were locked down. Schools closed indefinitely. Government offices closed and working from home was encouraged.  Large gatherings were banned and the planned parliamentary election was postponed. An island-wide curfew was monitored by the police and the armed forces. To date (May 20) over 60,000 people have been arrested for curfew violation and will be prosecuted. Over 13,500 vehicles have been impounded.

Industry

The garment export industry stepped in to retool and provide PPE supplies for medical personnel and the general public. The state-owned Sugar Corporation and the private distillery companies provided alcohol-based sanitizers.

Industries with the ability to change their production lines and retool supported the government with making Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including gowns and masks for medical personnel and other needs as required.

Religious organizations are donating to keep people and the front-line workers supported.  The Government is helping with financial and other relief for those who have lost earnings.

Tracing

Systems were set up to facilitate the exchange of medical information. Police were involved at an early stage in tracking down people likely to have been exposed to the virus and to deal with those who were uncooperative in following government guidelines. the Police Media Commissioner Ajith Rohana is an important member of the team.

Sri Lanka’s defence secretary, Major General Kamal Gunaratne, announced on April 19 that army intelligence officers will obtain the assistance of telecommunication service providers to trace contacts and places visited by COVID-19 patients.

As soon as the Epidemiology Unit of the Ministry of Health hears from a designated laboratory of a positive case, its staff activate “case search” among the infected person’s close contacts. The “activation” essentially involves informing the military and State Intelligence Service immediately, who then proceed to trace those who had been in contact with the patient, and direct them to quarantine.

“Contact tracing of the affected personnel remains the most important factor for containment. The intelligence services of the armed forces and the Police, with health authorities, were tasked to conduct contact tracing into first, second and third tiers of the confirmed, suspected and exposed cases. Therefore, the quarantine process and the conduct of PCR testing were followed up as and when required. “

In the UK, on 18 May, it was revealed that applicants to become contact tracers for the NHS were told recruitment was on hold while the government considered an alternative app. The shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, said: “Test, trace and isolate is fundamental to managing and controlling this virus and safely easing lockdown – yet the government’s approach has been increasingly chaotic, with misstep after misstep.” But the app is working against constraints in modern smartphones that only Google and Apple can work around, as well as arriving burdened with privacy concerns that could deter some members of the public from using it. Wide-ranging security flaws have been flagged in the Covid-19 contact-tracing app being piloted in the Isle of Wight.

Armed Forces

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa set up a ‘National Operation Center for Prevention of COVID- 19 Outbreak’ led by Army Commander Shavendra Silva.

The army, navy and air force have played a huge role in the success of Sri Lanka’s anti-Covid programme. Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidency of Sri Lanka in November 2019 by a convincing majority. He is possibly the first president of Sri Lanka to have done a proper job. He was a Colonel in the Sri Lankan Army and saw action against the JVP and the Tamil Tigers. He emigrated to the USA in 1998 but returned to Sri Lanka to support his brother Mahinda’s presidential campaign in 2005. When Mahinda decided to take on the LTTE militarily, Gotabaya became his defence secretary. The LTTE were soundly beaten in 2009 and there have been no incidents since. In a fairly short time, Gotabaya Rajapaksa turned a shambolic army into an effective and reliable force for wartime or peacetime. The army that Gotabaya Rajapaksa created is, essentially, still with us although the personnel has changed. The current Army Commander and Chief of Defence Staff, Shavendra Silva, played a crucial role in the ultimate victory over the LTTE. Although Sri Lanka has no external enemies (to fight by force, anyway), the Tri-Forces have proved their worth in peacetime.

The Navy handled shipments of food supplies from ports and delivered them to the public.  They also sanitized the streets and public places to prevent infection. Because navy personnel were engaged in front-line activities, they were vulnerable to infection. New cases of infection are being described as the ‘Navy cluster’.  All 35 cases reported on May 19 were sailors. Sailors were deployed to hunt down a group of drug addicts who had contact with a COVID-19 patient and were evading quarantine. Sailors at a Sri Lankan naval base became the biggest cluster of coronavirus infections with 480 being tested positive. The virus spread when sailors went on home leave. About 4,000 navy troops were quarantined while 242 relatives were taken to quarantine centers run by the navy. As of May 17, 151 naval personnel have recovered and discharged from hospitals.

Symposium

Professor Indika Karunathilake, President of the Sri Lanka Medical Association, chaired a discussion at Wijerama House on April 30 as part of the Asia-Pacific Academic Consortium for Public Health international webinar on Covid-19. Attending were Head of the National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak (NOCPCO), Army Commander Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva, Director General Health Services Dr Anil Jasinghe and Chief Physician at the National Infectious Diseases Institute Dr Ananda Wijewickrama discussed Sri Lanka’s unique approach to tackling the disease and made important notes on challenges ahead.

Dr Wijewickrama said. “At present, the Health Ministry’s policy is to admit all the positive cases irrespective of their symptomatology (Symptoms characteristic of a medical condition exhibited by a patient) We can do that at the moment because we only have close to 700 patients in the country. That is an incidence of about 3 per 100,000,”

Donald Trump might be interested to learn that Covid-19 positive patients in Sri Lanka are currently being treated with Hydroxychloroquine, a drug used in the successful treatment of malaria. Dr Wijewickrama said that they were aware of the controversy over the drug but had decided to use it and were “analysing the response of the patients, the physical symptoms as well as the viral clearance of the patients who were given this drug”. In three severe instances, patients were treated with convalescent plasma.

Human Rights

There are many who are worried about militarization. “Placing an army General at the helm of the campaign against the epidemic is as inane as asking a medical doctor with zero-military training to lead a war,” wrote columnist Tisaranee Gunasekara. Although many applaud the role of the navy, she thinks it was a foolish error to involve sailors and their role was mishandled when it discovered that they were the cause of most new infections.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed concern because Sri Lanka’s inspector general of police ordered police to arrest those who “criticize” officials involved in the coronavirus response, or share “fake” or “malicious” messages about the pandemic. HRW also put out a statement: “Gen. Shavendra Silva, who heads the National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak, faces credible allegations of war crimes during the final months of Sri Lanka’s long civil war. Ethnic Tamils, Muslims, and critics of the government, who have long borne the brunt of security force abuses, will be especially concerned that their civil and political rights will not be respected.”

Note those weasel words “credible allegations”. The Darusman Panel used that phrase when disseminating inflated figures about the number of civilians killed at the end of the war. The real meaning of the words soon became lost with repetition and “credible allegations’ elided into “proven fact”. On May 19 2020, most Sri Lankans celebrated the 11th anniversary of the end of the war. In that long time, the “credible allegations” have not been proved but General Silva is banned from entering the USA.

I do not have the space here to go into all the arguments about war crimes and human rights abuses that have been circulating for a dozen years without any resolution. One can find plenty of articles dealing with this on the websites of Groundviews and Colombo Telegraph. Here are a few examples:

https://groundviews.org/2020/05/12/ramzy-razeek-an-extraordinary-struggle-for-an-ordinary-life-of-service-upended-by-an-arrest/

https://groundviews.org/2020/05/10/election-against-democracy/

https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/lanka-may-cease-to-be-a-democracy-by-june-1-if-court-does-not-resolve-constitutional-deadlock-counsel-suren-fernando/

When Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in the 2015 presidential election, the victorious coalition promised yahapalanagood governance, an end to corruption and cronyism. They did not bring any miscreants to book and perpetrated their own corruption. They introduced chronic incompetence which was symbolized by the lethal inertia with which they dealt with the Easter bombings. Even opponents of the Rajapaksas rejoice that we did not have the Yahapalana crowd dealing with the pandemic.

If you read the comments on Colombo Telegraph you might think that the overwhelming majority of Sri Lankans think the government is fascist and in the process of using the military to undermine democracy. The website is run from London and none of the commenters reveal their true identity. They could be anybody, they could be nobody. Groundviews depends for its existence on foreign funding.

Democracy

Democracy has not been doing too well lately. Trump is busy wrecking the USA and its reputation and causing unnecessary deaths after winning three million votes fewer than Hillary Clinton in 2016. In the UK, Boris Johnson struggled to “get Brexit done” with a majority of minus 43 and now struggles to cope with a pandemic with a secure majority of 80. The authority of the Irish Cabinet is diminished by the fact that three of its members were voted out of the Dáil (parliament) in the general election on February 8 but remain in Government. It could be argued that Sinn Féin won the election, but they are being kept out of power by the two parties who normally take to turns to govern.The Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar is getting good world press for the way he is handling the crisis (and working one day a week as doctor – medical, not political science) but his party was defeated in the election. The Dáil hardly exists at present and its committees are in abeyance. The most influential body in the management of the crisis, is the NPHET (National Public Health Emergency Team). Neither elected representatives nor the media have access to its meetings.

In Russia, Putin was re-elected in 2018 with nearly 80 percent of the vote and faces no serious threats to his power. He has not been having a good pandemic. According to Andrew Higgins in the New York Times, “the pandemic has only highlighted what has always been Mr Putin’s biggest vulnerability: a pronounced lack of interest or success in tackling intractable domestic problems like dilapidated hospitals, pockets of entrenched poverty and years of falling real incomes.”  Putin has been sheltering at his country villa and has not been pictured in public for nearly a month. Higgins described his Orthodox Easter message to the nation as “what, me worry?” Russia has had 1,537 deaths out of a population of 144.5 million.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidential election only last November by a comfortable margin. There are calls to reconvene the parliament that he dissolved on March 3 with an expectation of a parliamentary election on April 25. Because of the pandemic, the election had been postponed indefinitely. In the parliament that was elected in 2015 the UNP had 106 seats, not a clear majority. The Sri Lankan Freedom Party, which had once been powerful enough to rule the country, in the 2015 parliament was part of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) which won 95 seats. The SLFP barely exists any more having been usurped by the SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna – Sri Lanka People’s Front) which won a landslide victory in the much-delayed local elections in February 2018. The UNP were only able to secure 34 councils out of 340, whereas the SLPP won 231.

Many people detest Gota but many more admire him and think he is doing a good job. The following comment is probably more representative than any of the opinions expressed by the anonymous sages of Colombo Telegraph. “Our President is forging ahead in brilliance, with innovative decisions, gaining the confidence of more and more people. This is the very reason for all the Opposition bull shit every day! They have no credibility after yahapalana period!”

 

 

Sri Lanka and the Pandemic Part One

This article was published in Ceylon Today on May 21 2020.

https://ceylontoday.lk/print-more/57086

 

One reads a lot in the western press about how badly the UK and US governments are coping with the Covid19 pandemic. One of the UK’s diplomatic strengths has long been its international advocacy for global health, and its poor domestic performance in this area may cause other nations to think again about the prestige accorded to Britain. Britain’s current failures undermine its soft power in the international arena and ‘less-developed’ nations may be even less willing to listen to British ‘advice’ on health and, indeed, other matters.

As I write (May 17), people in the UK are totally confused by the government’s latest guidance. Boris Johnson is coming under increasing criticism for the missteps he has taken in dealing with the crisis from the outset. He now has a formidable opponent in the new leader of the opposition Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer. Starmer has had a distinguished career as a human rights barrister and served five years as the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions. He brings incisive forensic skills to his questioning of inept government ministers who have never done a proper job in their lives. Johnson and his possible successor, Gove, were journalists (not very good ones). It is depressing to contemplate what a better job Starmer would be doing as prime minister, depressing to contemplate the missed opportunities, the lives needlessly lost.

Despite many difficulties, the situation in Sri Lanka is encouraging. Health Review Global did a thorough analysis and concluded: “We have studied the responses of many countries to the coronavirus pandemic. We at healthreviewglobal.com decided to select Sri Lanka for its swift and impressive response to the global epidemic despite being a second world economy. On top of it, we learned the importance of investing in public health”.

 

Lack of Recognition

 

It is surprising how little coverage there is world-wide of Sri Lanka’s battle against the virus. The London Sunday Times published an article entitled Lifting Lockdown: What Britain can learn from the rest of the world. The article draws on a report by the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University. Readers are invited to: “Select any of the 109 countries tracked to see their lockdown journey.” I scrolled down the list and discovered a strange gap between Spain and Sudan. Shouldn’t Sri Lanka be in there?

 

New Zealand, which locked down before it had a single death, has seen its Blavatnik stringency score fall by nearly ten points. New Zealand and its prime minister have justly been praised for a successful approach to the crisis. New Zealand’s population is 4.88 million; there have been 21 deaths.

 

Compared with Sri Lanka

 

The Sri Lankan government deserves praise for the way it has handled the crisis. Sri Lanka reacted rapidly to early warnings while most Western countries complacently carried on as if nothing were happening. The world was put on notice on 31 December 2019, when the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported an unusual cluster of cases of pneumonia. Our president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, elected by a decisive majority last November, followed up his advice to people to stay at home and keep a safe social distance by imposing a curfew from Friday 20 March at 6.00 p.m.

The first Sri Lankan to be confirmed as having the virus was a 52-year-old tour guide who was dealing with Italian tourists. He was declared recovered and released from quarantine on March 26. On 28 March, the first death from the virus was announced. The victim was a 60-year-old diabetic who had had a heart transplant. As of May 17, the total number of confirmed cases is 935 and 477 patients have completely recovered so far. There have been nine deaths.

When I initially compared the total number of deaths in Sri Lanka and UK, I was told such comparisons could not be made. Some suggested that Sri Lanka might not be recording all cases or was lax in its testing procedures. The UK government is also arguing that international comparisons are odious. Odious to them, perhaps, because deaths in the UK are, at 32,065 (May 12) the worst in Europe (It’s probably nearer 55,000). The UK population is 67.83 million. The UK accounts for less than one per cent of the global population but accounts for 12 per cent of reported Covid deaths.

It is very strange that Sri Lanka is never mentioned when comparative responses to the virus are being discussed. Ireland is held up as a good example. The population of the Republic of Ireland is 4.94 million. As of 17 May, the Irish Department of Health has confirmed a total of 1,533 deaths.

What Did Sri Lanka Do Right?

 

In Part Two, I will go into more detail about the factors that have brought about Sri Lanka’s success. One of the advantages that Sri Lanka enjoys is a free healthcare system with an integrated network of state hospitals nationwide supplemented by a thriving, modern, well-equipped private system. MOH (Medical Officer of Health) geographical areas were established across the island in 1926 to provide preventive health services at a community level, through a team of medical officers, public health nurses, health inspectors and midwives.

All flights to Bandaranaike International Airport were stopped from March 19. High risk areas in the Negombo and Puttalam districts were locked down. Schools closed indefinitely. Government offices closed and working from home was encouraged.  Large gatherings were banned and the planned parliamentary election was postponed. An island-wide curfew was monitored by the police and the armed forces. To date (May 18) over 48,000 people have been arrested and will be prosecuted. Their vehicles were impounded.

Systems were set up at an early stage to facilitate the exchange of medical information. Police were involved at an early stage in tracking down people likely to have been exposed to the virus and to deal with those who were uncooperative in following government guidelines. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa set up a ‘National Operation Center for Prevention of COVID- 19 Outbreak’ led by Army Commander Shavendra Silva. The army, navy and air force have played a huge role in the success of Sri Lanka’s anti-Covid programme, helping with tracing of contacts, setting up quarantine centres, delivering food and medicine.

There are concerns from human rights advocates about the dangers to democracy of a strong president ruling through a number of task forces with the support of the military in the absence of parliament. I will deal with those issues in another article.

 

Death, Democracy and Lexical Ambiguity

A shorter version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on May 9 2020.

https://ceylontoday.lk/print-more/56551

 

 

On a mission in Augsburg, in 1604, Sir Henry Wotton said: “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” A novel concept is an ambassador going abroad and accusing his president of lying. Is our ambassador to Russia more loyal to the president of Russia than he is to the president of Sri Lanka?

Democracy has not been doing too well lately. Trump is busy wrecking the USA and its reputation and causing unnecessary deaths after winning three million votes fewer than Hillary Clinton in 2016. In the UK, Boris Johnson struggled to “get Brexit done” with a majority of minus 43 and now struggles to cope with a pandemic with a secure majority of 80. The authority of the Irish Cabinet is diminished by the fact that three of its members were voted out of the Dáil (parliament) in the general election on February 8 but remain in Government. The Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar is getting good world press for the way he is handling the crisis (and working one day a week as doctor – medical, not political science) but his party was defeated in the election. The Dáil hardly exists at present and its committees are in abeyance. The most influential body in the management of the crisis, is the NPHET (National Public Health Emergency Team). Neither elected representatives nor the media have access to its meetings.

In Russia, Putin was re-elected in 2018 with nearly 80 percent of the vote and faces no serious threats to his power. He has not been having a good pandemic. According to Andrew Higgins in the New York Times, “the pandemic has only highlighted what has always been Mr Putin’s biggest vulnerability: a pronounced lack of interest or success in tackling intractable domestic problems like dilapidated hospitals, pockets of entrenched poverty and years of falling real incomes.”  Putin has been sheltering at his country villa and has not been pictured in public for nearly a month. Higgins described his Orthodox Easter message to the nation as “what, me worry?” Russia has had 1,537 deaths out of a population of 144.5 million.

Sri Lanka tackles the current pandemic well compared to the UK and the US and does so without a parliament. I understand the need to get back to normal for the economy as a whole and for individuals who are suffering grievously. I appreciate the risks to democracy of government by task force. I also appreciate the danger of going back to ‘normal’ too soon. Remember how ‘normal’ coped with the Easter bombings.

Dayan Jayatilleke PhD, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to the Russian Federation has taken some more time off from his ambassadorial duties to impart some wisdom on the domestic situation in the homeland. He published an article in the Daily FT on April 23. I advise you to try to read it.

http://www.ft.lk/columns/20-June-Why-any-election-is-better-than-none/4-699112

Grasping the Main Thrust

I had to read the article several times before I could get anywhere close to grasping the main thrust. One problem is the usual epic name-dropping: “My old friend and fellow doctoral student of Immanuel Wallerstein, Prof. Jan Nederveen Pieterse of the University of California, Santa Barbara” (two for the price of one, there folks!). “My late father Mervyn de Silva, who edited the Daily News, the Times of Ceylon and the Lanka Guardian, would certainly have asked…” “I must admit that the College hosts an Annual Oration in memory of my paternal uncle Dr. A.V.K.V. de Silva, Univ of Edinburgh gold medalist, top epidemiologist and WHO program coordinator on AIDS.” What has any of this got to do with the price of fish? How many readers know or care about these names?

I have noticed a tendency with Sri Lankan columnists (and academics) to favour style  over substance. Rather than laying out a clear narrative line to help the long-suffering reader to establish what the writer wants him/her to take away from the article, he (it’s usually a he) prefers to launch a piece with rhetorical flourishes and move on with curlicues and rococo grace notes rather than setting out the Gradgrindian hard facts.

Dayan posits the case for a general election on June 20 against the arguments of “liberal critics”.  I am not sure what “liberal” means in 2020 – the word seems to have been fatally flawed by lexical ambiguity. I note that on his much-muted Facebook page, Dayan describes himself as a liberal and a Catholic rather than a Marxist. He describes himself as a politician rather than a political scientist or diplomat. He brings in “neo-liberal” at one point too. Anyway, let us judge these liberals by their arguments, which are “legalistic-constitutionalist points”. Unfortunately, he does not specify these arguments but describes them as “prissy proceduralism and legalistic literalism”.

Sinister Scenarios, Unnamed Plotters

Let’s recap. Those who are opposing an election are “legalistic”. Dayan concedes that their arguments may be true but they are irrelevant “because the real-world question is what if the Executive ignores all the ‘simply can’t do’ points they make and simply does them?” Simply can’t do what? Simply does what?

“Clearly the PM does not place himself among the ‘many [who] opine that there is no need for elections AT ALL’ (my emphasis – DJ)”. ‘Opine ‘is a favourite of Sri Lankan columnists and is rarely used anywhere else. Mahinda Rajapaksa does not want to ditch democracy, apparently. Neither does his brother. “It is not that President Gotabaya has a zero-election project or extra-constitutional preference”. Let us work up a panic anyway and create a froth of hypotheticals involving sinister scenarios created by unnamed figures from “the postwar Far Right ranks”.

Dayan graciously gives the government a (dimmed) gold star for the way it has handled the Covid19 crisis so far. This faint praise is effectively withdrawn when he compares Sri Lanka (to its detriment) with Israel and South Korea. He concedes, “There are few citizens who are not thankful that it is this administration rather than the previous one, in charge at this time. The armed forces and personnel of the State machinery as a whole are going flat out, motivated and functioning as they never would have been under the decrepit, languid, lackadaisical Ranilist UNP governmental sub-culture. “

Shifting Enthusiasms

It is difficult to keep up with Dayan’s political philosophy and allegiances. He worked with Tamil separatists and the UNP. He often describes himself as a progressive (but resists defining the term) and endlessly cites men of the left like Gramsci and Castro. To my face he praised Trump’s fascist adviser, Steve Bannon and, in writing, defended Jeremy Corbyn’s Stalinist apparatchik, Seamus Milne. He has expressed his admiration for Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn as well as the grand old mass murderers, Stalin and Mao. In the Daily FT article itself he offers the apartheid state of Israel as an exemplar (is this because Mahinda Rajapaksa has long been a supporter of the Palestinian cause?)

Sri Lanka Coping Well

How does he think Trump and Johnson are coping with Covid? What would Corbyn have done? Dayan thinks Brexit is good for Britain.

I was shocked to read Dayan writing this about the government that pays his salary: “What are the ethics, values and morals of those who would put hundreds of thousands of people in harm’s way, by fudging or embellishing evidence in a severe epidemic which has dealt suffering, death and bereavement to so many around the world? “He seems to be saying that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is lying.  His heroes Trump and Johnson are widely acknowledged to be serial liars. This is a very serious charge for an ambassador to level at the government that pays him

I have no wish to make unwarranted boasts about the way Sri Lanka is dealing with the crisis. However, I do find it odd to see the western media saying this country or that country is doing better than Britain. True, Britain is among the worst for total incompetence and mendacity. At the time of writing, Britain’s official death toll was over 30,000, and climbing.  Ireland is held up as a good example. The population of the Republic of Ireland is 4.94 million. As of 7 May, the Irish Department of Health has confirmed 1,429 deaths. Sri Lanka’s population is 21.4 million and there have been nine deaths. There is of course the danger of complacency but let’s give ourselves a little encouragement in these dark days.

In the hope of establishing what the point of Dayan’s article was, I went to the last paragraph. The very last words were a bit of pointless name-dropping. Before that, this: “It is not that there is no political motivation as well, but that isn’t a simplistic one of pushing for a premature general election. It is a more complex two-pronged tactic, or more to the point, an ambush, a trap. The two prongs are on one flank, a snap election on unfavourable terrain for the Opposition and at a dangerous moment for the voter, and on the other, the project of zero-elections and open-ended rule by the President plus a “power cartel” “

Where does that leave us? I would advise readers to check out an article by DBS Jeyaraj who covers similar ground in simple prose without obfuscation.

http://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/Politics-of-Postponing-Parliamentary-Elections-Amid-a-Pandemic/172-187187

 

 

 

 

Miliband Still Has Nothing to Teach Sri Lanka

A version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on April 28 2020. As there was some hiatus between drafting and publication, I have updated some figures.

 

I have been thinking about two different themes and the two have miraculously been brought together by the appearance of an article in the New Statesman by David Miliband. David Miliband is currently the president of the International Rescue Committee. He was UK foreign secretary from 2007 until 2010. The article is called “The four contests that will shape the post-Covid-19 world”.

Miliband writes: “Here the free world needs to make its stand – in the name of morality, but also efficiency. The point is not just that democratic government is not worth trading off for state capacity to handle crisis. It is that democratic government can help state capacity rather than reduce it. There are democracies that are handling the crisis well – South Korea and Germany come to mind – and democracies handling it badly, led by the US. And there are authoritarian states handling it poorly – Iran, for example – and less than fully democratic states coping well (Singapore).”

That then, is one of the themes I have been thinking about. It is helpful to have the benefit of Miliband’s wisdom on the current pandemic.

The other theme in which I have been interested is the reaction of the “international community” to Sri Lanka’s quite astounding success in defeating the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in May 2009. Historian Michael Roberts is still, eleven years on, doggedly trying to get a fair hearing for his motherland. Every day, he disseminates material that he has found, and engages in debate with a huge variety of people. He seems undaunted by the, sometimes vile, abuse his writings attract on Groundviews and Colombo Telegraph. In order to assist myself in finding a clear narrative thread through this mass of material, I consulted a book by a British military historian, Professor Paul Moorcraft, Director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis who has also worked for the British defence establishment. His book on the Sri Lankan conflict, Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers, was published by Pen and Sword in 2013. Moorcraft visited Sri Lanka and interviewed Prabhakaran, KP, Karuna, members of the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Rajapaksas.

David Miliband makes an appearance in Moorcraft’s book. Much of what Moorcraft writes supports Michael Roberts’s argument that the Tigers’ desperate strategy was to sacrifice their own people in order to persuade the “international community” to force a cease-fire and rescue the LTTE leadership to fight another day. The Rajapaksas were having none of this. The war had dragged on for nearly 30 years wrecking the economy and wasting countless lives. Government forces had often been on the verge of victory only to be stymied by foreign interference. Western governments could not grasp that the LTTE did not do compromise and negotiation. The only solution was a military one.

David Miliband made a one-day visit to Sri Lanka in April 2009 and demanded that the fighting stop. He ruffled some feathers by acting like a colonial governor. The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, came as well but was more civil than Miliband. Moorcraft writes: “Gotabaya Rajapaksa was blunt in his meeting with them: he said the fighting would go on until Prabhakaran was dead or captured. The Defence Secretary explained that over 200,000 civilians had been freed from LTTE captivity. The Sri Lankans found Miliband ‘rude and aggressive’, especially when he complained that army shelling was killing civilians. Gotabaya Rajapaksa told the British minister that he should not believe Tamil propaganda. According to the Sri Lankans present, Kouchner tried to cool tempers and calm down his more volatile British companion.”

The rest is history. The Tigers were defeated and they have not been a problem for eleven years. The army that Gotabaya Rajapaksa created is, essentially, still with us although the personnel has changed. The current Army Commander and Chief of Defence Staff played a crucial role in the ultimate victory. Although Sri Lanka has no external enemies (to fight by force, anyway), the Tri-Forces have proved their worth in peacetime. Before the Rajapaksas decided to take on the Tigers militarily, Sri Lanka had an essentially ceremonial army of only 11,000, partly because civilian governments feared a repetition of the aborted coup of 1962. In a fairly short time, Gotabaya Rajapaksa turned a shambolic outfit into an effective and reliable force for wartime or peacetime. This would not be the case if Sri Lanka had done Miliband’s bidding in 2009.

 

Today, Sri Lanka seems to be making a success of dealing with the pandemic. The president mobilised the medical services and enlisted the armed forces to make a major contribution. The president has recognised that the media have a role to play in keeping the public informed. The previous Rajapaksa regime did not always have a happy relationship with the media and wasted a lot of money on useless PR firms.

 

Gotabaya Rajapaksa  won a convincing majority in the presidential election last November but is now ruling without a parliament. The opposition is in disarray. This is the first time that we have a president who actually had a proper job outside politics. It is a long time since the UK had any leaders who had done a proper job. Some people in Sri Lanka are concerned about democracy. Democracy seems to be ineffective in the USA and the UK.

 

The Insight team of the London Sunday Times (normally a paper that supports Conservative governments) published an astonishingly damning report showing how the UK government has been totally incompetent at dealing with the pandemic. In pursuit of Brexit, Boris Johnson had cleared out all the senior politicians who had experience and capability and replaced them with nonentities and air-heads. The prime minister himself did not present an impression of consistency and competence and was absent much of the time. An anonymous adviser said: “There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there. And what you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends. It was like working for an old-fashioned chief executive in a local authority 20 years ago. There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.” He missed five of the COBRA meetings which are vital in a crisis like this. He seemed to be distracted by events in his private life – his wife was divorcing him; his girlfriend was pregnant.

 

Miliband writes: “The holes in national and global safety nets are integral to the devastation of the disease.” Successive UK governments, including Labour, have undermined the safety nets. An incompetent government is reaping the rewards of public spending cuts, Brexit, privatisation, outsourcing, selling assets to foreigners, deregulation of finance.  The latest death figures for the UK are  21,092. Sri Lanka’s figure is still seven. Eleven years on, David Miliband still has nothing to teach us.

 

 

 

 

 

Covid 19 and the UK

This article was published in Ceylon Today on April 16 2020. It has been updated in the light of new information.

https://ceylontoday.lk/print-more/55510

 

Sarah Hulton OBE is UK High Commissioner to Sri Lanka. She recently went on Facebook to advise any British citizens still loitering about in Sr Lanka to hie them hence smartish. She noted that some British passport holders were in Sri Lanka visiting family. She reiterated the UK Government advice that all British nationals who normally live in the UK should return to the UK now. If these people, who probably see themselves as Sri Lankans, want to stay with their families in Sri Lanka in this difficult time, why tell them to go to the UK to add to the UK’s burden? One person wryly asked why she was sending them home to a death sentence. Another asked why she didn’t go home herself and help out over there because she was not much help to us.

 

I had an exchange on Facebook the other day. Someone was complaining about the heavy-handed approach of the English police in their efforts to stop people spreading the virus by gathering in groups and generally wandering aimlessly about and having virus parties. Exercise was tolerated up to a point but park benches were being made inaccessible to stop people loitering. A virtual friend who has lived in Spain said she was not allowed to go walking.

 

I responded that where we live we were not allowed to go out at all and I was happy about that because the death toll in Sri Lanka was seven, whereas the death toll in the UK was 12,868 (more about this later). I was told that this comparison was meaningless because Sri Lanka’s population is only 21.4 million and the UK’s is 66.6 million. I decided to look at another country, one that has been praised for the way it has handled the crisis so far. Ireland, like Sri Lanka, is an island and the land mass is about the same size. The population of the Republic of Ireland is 4.94 million. As of 15 April, the Department of Health has confirmed 12,547 cases and 444 deaths. The population of Northern Ireland, which is, so far, part of the UK, is 1.8 million. The death toll there so far is 140. “The daily death toll here is not reflecting the number of people dying in care homes and that is worrying,” said Dr George O’Neill, chairman of the west Belfast federation of GPs.

 

There are many factors to be taken into account but I think this conveys a simple picture: in Sri Lanka seven people have died; in the island of Ireland 584 people have died; in the UK, according to official figures, 12,868 have died.

 

Actually, many more have died in the UK. David Ottewell is head of data journalism at the New Statesman. He writes that every afternoon, “the UK government announces a grim figure: the number of new deaths connected with Covid-19. And every day epidemiologists, journalists and assorted data wranglers add that number to their spreadsheets and use it to try to plot the extent of the disease, and its likely course.”  And, of course, to plan action. The problem is, the figure is not accurate. The government’s daily count doesn’t include people who weren’t in hospital when they died, or were never formally tested. A lot of people who are dying are frail, elderly or very seriously ill, and may have died without being taken to hospital and Covid 19 may not be the cause of death on the death certificate. Deaths in care homes are not counted. The undercounting could amount to 40%.

Care home inspectors only started asking on April 9 if residents were dying from Covid 19, a month after the WHO declared a global pandemic. Until 6 April, the Care Quality Commission did not ask for information on coronavirus deaths and only started doing so when it realised the information coming back was out of line with reports of a rising death toll.

The British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka wrote: “Serious outbreaks of coronavirus are placing a significant strain on health services globally. In the event of a serious outbreak in Sri Lanka, consular services and flights out of the country could be seriously affected. We cannot guarantee what flight options might be available if people choose to leave at a later date.”

Am I being oversensitive here, or is the High Commissioner really saying “get back to Blighty soon because when it really hits the fan these damned colonials won’t be able to cope with it”? It should be noted that many of those doing their best to cope with the crisis in the UK are immigrants. Most of the NHS staff who have died, including a Sri Lankan, Dr Anton Sebastianpillai, were immigrants, immigrants who survived the “hostile environment” created by Theresa May but perished trying to save others. One nurse who died had been photographed with Boris Johnson. He has been highly irresponsible in spreading the virus and has the Galle Face to praise the NHS for saving his life.

Perhaps nobody can be blamed for a lethal virus no-one knew about before. However, the difficulties the UK government is now enduring are down to an unpreparedness and lack of responsible planning that go back many decades and are the result of misconceived policies by Labour as well as Conservative governments. Throughout the hard times of the 1970s, British citizens were exhorted by governments, both Labour and Conservative, to tighten belts and accept wages that did not keep up with inflation. There was no evidence that the austerity was being shared across all classes.

The main onus must fall on the Conservatives with the complicity of the Liberal Democrats. I wonder if David Cameron can sleep at night? He brought in austerity with a vengeance, cutting public services beyond the bone. This meant that there were not enough police to deal with the epidemic of knife crimes. There were not enough community services to prevent vulnerable children falling into the gang culture. Then he unleashed Brexit on the nation, squandering billions of pounds on propaganda and bureaucracy which could have been put to better use by the NHS. Strange how the need for austerity ended so abruptly to allow Johnson to make the promises that won him a landslide. All that suffering was for nothing. There now seem to be limitless amounts of money to throw at the virus but the infrastructure has been sold off, mainly to foreign governments. “Taking back control?” This current unpreparedness is a direct consequence of decades of kowtowing to financial institutions through privatisation, outsourcing and deregulation. The global economy may be going to hell in a handcart but hedge fund managers like Jacob Rees-Mogg are still making a tidy profit from the suffering of others.

Prof John Ashton, a former regional director of public health for north-west England, strongly criticised the UK government for a lack of preparation and openness in relation to the pandemic. Ashton said: “We have a superficial prime minister who has got no grasp of public health. Our lot are behaving like 19th-century colonialists playing a five-day game of cricket.” The prime minister’s illness revealed what a hopeless team he has. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, is often referred to as Tigger, after Winnie the Pooh’s bouncing, optimistic companion in the AA Milne stories. Some of the bounce went out of him in a recent interview during which he seemed confused and ill-prepared. Dominic Raab will be deputizing for Boris Johnson until the prime minister recovers. Raab often looks sweaty with veins bursting and on the verge of an angry outburst. Home secretary Pritti Patel is giving confusing messages to the police and is refusing to meet the Commons select committee. This is not so much a pool of talent as a very small muddy puddle.

 

John Ashton accused the government of undermining public services over the past 10 years by cuts in funding of 30% to local authorities. Ashton says: ““It’s a joke when they put up people to say they are really on top of it and if it spreads at a community level the NHS will cope, it’s always coped. The hospitals are full at the moment, A&Es are full, beds are full, intensive care is full.”

 

The results  of The GRID index are published in a paper titled GRIDTM Index: Tracking the Global Leadership Response in the COVID-19 Crisis by the Institute of Certified Management Accountants (Australia) (ICMA).The index is designed to rank how efficient and effective the leadership of each country was and the preparedness of its health system to tackle  the COVID-19 pandemic. Top of the league is New Zealand. The USA is at number 70. One would have expected the US to rank badly after watching Trump’s clownish performances. It is perhaps a little surprising that the UK fares even worse, coming in at number 89.

Sri Lanka is ranked at number 9.

 

 

I know which country I would rather be in during this crisis.

Fragments against the Ruins

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on April 4 2020

https://ceylontoday.lk/print-more/55170

Herd Immunity and Herd Stupidity

Just a few weeks ago, I wrote in this column about the dangers of isolation stemming from an addiction to smart phones and social media. Now social isolation is morally essential. Now people are being condemned for moral turpitude if they do gather together. The UK prime minister has pleaded with people to avoid social gatherings but significant numbers have defied him and flocked to pubs, national parks and beaches. Dozens of visitors to Barry Island in Wales were seen standing in close proximity as they queued to buy chips. According to the satellite navigation company Tom Tom, rush-hour traffic in London has dropped by far less than in other big cities.  Rich people are interpreting the injunction to stay at home to be permission to rush off to the second home in the country thereby placing extra strain on services in rural communities. “A national emergency shutdown of businesses and schools is not an excuse for a holiday,” said Andrew Slattery, assistant chief constable of Cumbria, whose fiefdom covers the Lake District.

Will Not Be Dictated To

The bulldog spirit means the Brits will not be dictated to just for the sake of avoiding a few thousand deaths. Analysis published by University College London found that 20 per cent of the population are in at-risk groups.  On current efforts to limit infections to 10 per cent of the UK population, 35,000 to 70,000 are likely to die.

Some are blaming the victims. Donald Trump insists on calling Covid 19 “the Chinese virus” giving permission to his supporters to assault innocent Chinese people. This brings to mind Susan Sontag’s 1978 essay “The Political Language of Disease” in which she writes: “Feelings about evil are projected onto a disease. And the disease (so enriched with meanings) is projected onto the world.”

Better in Sri Lanka

I sense that the crisis is being better managed in Sri Lanka than in the UK. There are many examples of individual cases of potentially lethal irresponsibility but not so much of the herd madness exhibited in the UK. There have been mini-riots outside liquor outlets as hundreds of men scramble to stockpile their fix. It is undoubtedly wearisome to have to stock up with essentials in the small window of opportunity provided by the lifting of the curfew. When the curfew was lifted, we ventured to the local shops and I was surprised to find very long but very orderly queues. All the people were wearing masks, standing two metres apart and quietly, patiently waiting. There have been fears that lifting the curfew for short periods will lead to panic. It does not seem to have done so far but resentment and frustration could develop.

People seem to be stoically accepting the cancelling of sporting events and other occasions for people to gather and spread the virus.  I doubt if many will be mourning the closure of one particular assembly. Parliament was dissolved and a general election announced to choose another set of pestilential rogues. The election has now been postponed indefinitely. Oh dear; how sad; never mind.

Take Stock, Don’t Stockpile

There has been a great deal of anger on social media against what some people see as smugness. Those who advocate mindfulness and mediation as a way of coping with the crisis have been roundly excoriated as being boastful about their privilege. There are heart-rending stories of people fearful of losing their livelihood and possibly homes because the virus has made employment impossible. They should not be blaming meditators for this. The virus is an “Act of God” or whatever but blame can be laid at the feet governments which over many decades cut public services to such an extent that they are too fragile to deal with such an emergency.

I recognise my own extreme good fortune in that I do not have to work for a living. I am not boasting when I just say how the crisis is affecting me. I am quite happy to impose self-quarantine without the compulsion of a curfew. The lack of opportunity to venture out leaves more space for mindfulness. I am finding that I am thinking about my actions within a concentrated and concentrating scope rather than flailing around all over the place and fooling myself that I am ‘multi-tasking’. A lot of jobs around the house are getting done after being postponed for a long time. Washing up gets done and put away in case An Inspector Calls. That pile of clothes has been ironed and put away even though I will not be going anywhere for a long time. Thoreau warned: “Beware of any enterprise that requires the purchase of new clothes”. I might adapt that and say “beware of any enterprise that requires ironed clothes”.

Make Do with What You’ve Got

There was a wartime propaganda poster that asked: “Is your journey really necessary?” One might ask today: “Is your purchase really necessary?” Before the situation became as scary as it now is, I contemplated a trip to Colombo. Then I realised that there was no real purpose to my journey. What I usually do is buy some DVDs (last time I ventured out, I noticed that my dealer was enterprising enough to have large stocks of the Steven Soderbergh movie Contagion) buy some books, have lunch. Why not stay home? I have enough books and DVDs and CDs to keep me going for several lifetimes. The curfew is giving me the opportunity to attack this backlog.

This can be transposed to a larger canvas. The god of growth has plagued the world for decades. People have worked long hours to borrow money to pay for things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like and who don’t care anyway. The dominion of the neocons brought deregulation, privatisation and outsourcing which enabled casino capitalism to bring the global economy to the edge of ruin only to be saved by renationalization and pumping in of taxpayers’ money.

Testing Positive

Anastasia Edel, writing to the New York Review of Books from Oakland: “The one thing that’s worth stockpiling is decency… Decency won’t save us, but it will make our altered lives more tolerable, come what may.” It is heartbreaking to think that as if the arbitrary suffering of a pandemic is not punishment enough there are some people who act with unreasoning malice. One English paramedic said: “Just when you thought this country couldn’t get any worse, someone comes along and drills holes in our ambulance tires. So, we’re now all off the road.” Supermarket delivery vans have been set on fire. A friend was loudly abused in a supermarket when she politely asked a man to keep the recommended distance from her. Crooks are calling on elderly people offering ‘virus testing’ so that they can steal from them. People in England are being imprisoned for spitting in the faces of police and care workers.

Against this must be balanced many acts of kindness all over the world. These are bringing the good people together in spite of the social distancing imposed by the pandemic.

Here are some inspiring and practical words by an American Buddhist priest Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi. https://youtu.be/fb–8cQovOc  “By taking care of ourselves we are performing an act of compassion and protecting others”. Maintain tranquility through sorrow and performing good deeds.

Shored against the Ruins

Time for reflection has spurred me to consider all those poems and books I have gestating within. I should have the time and space to contemplate how to leave something of permanent value. However, this may be a further futility. I am sobered by the prospect of the wine running out and by the thought that there is no future. Humans have driven the world to physical destruction. Global capitalism is struggling to cope with a globalized disease. We are all very frail against powerful forces but we must do our humble best even if it just means being careful and being kind to each other.

A prose poem by Kitty O’Meara has given hope to many.

“And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.

And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.”

 

More on Sinn Féin

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on March 5 2020

 

https://ceylontoday.lk/print-more/53506

 

In my previous article I reported that the recent general election in the Republic Ireland saw Sinn Féin winning a majority of the popular vote. Because of the vagaries found in many democracies this did not automatically give them a place in government. Let us not forget that in the US presidential election in 2016, Hillary Clinton won three million more votes than Donald Trump. The loser of the popular vote won two out of the last five US presidential elections.

Sinn Féin did not run enough candidates in the general election to secure a majority of seats in the legislature. The nature of the Irish proportional representation system is such that the government is always a coalition. Today, we have the peculiar situation that because of various obstacles in the way of forming a coalition, the self-confessed loser of the election, Fine Gael’s leader Leo Varadkar, continues to serve as prime minister. Fine Gael finished third both in seats (35) and in first-preference votes. Fianna Fáil have 37 seats. Sinn Féin received the most first-preference votes, and won 37 seats. There has been much clamour to deny any chance of either of the main parties forming a coalition with Sinn Féin.

The leader of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin, rules out any chance of his party going into government with Sinn Féin on moral grounds. He says that there has never been any contrition for the atrocities carried out by the Provisional IRA. “Sinn Féin’s justification for the IRA’s war is a continuing one… In the peace process we all had to make compromises in order to achieve the peace, but Sinn Féin need to come some distance too and they haven’t.”

Sinn Féin’s success in the election was because they attracted young people to whom the violence was not even a memory. According to 2017 data from the Central Statistics Office, Ireland has the highest number of young people in the EU and the second lowest number of old people. These young people are concerned about current issues like health, housing and homelessness rather than history.

Today’s Sinn Féin would have us believe that they have no links with the violence of the past. Part of the Provisional IRA army council strategy for making itself invisible has been to push media-friendly ladies like Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill to the fore. I have referred to this as a monstrous regiment of women; another commentator has used the term “skullduggery of skirts”.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the IRA had “gone away” and that no one directs the party other than its membership or leadership. “The IRA will not be returning. The days of conflict are past.”. Many do not believe that. Garda (police of the republic) Commissioner Drew Harris said he agreed with a 2015 report by the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) assessment that the army council still oversees the IRA and Sinn Féin. Leo Varadkar has called on the Sinn Féin leader to disband the IRA Provisional Army Council.

Newton Emerson wrote in the Irish Times “It is tempting to say, only slightly facetiously, that southerners lack experience in the nuances of the peace process but will soon acquire the necessary sophistication.” Emerson argues that the intent of the 2015 report was to save the devolved Stormont government by asserting that a murder of a prominent republican in Belfast was not the work of the Provisional IRA. Two 2015 murders have not been solved and a murder attempt took place in the same area last month. Last November a new paramilitary monitoring panel reported without mentioning the Provisional IRA at all.

In Sri Lanka, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) was mainly dependent for funding in its early days on robberies and extortion.  Trading in gold, laundering money and dealing in narcotics brought the LTTE substantial revenue to buy sophisticated weaponry. They also played a role in providing passports and other documents and also engaged in human trafficking. The Provisional IRA funded its terrorist activities with bank robberies and protection rackets. The IRA’s counterfeiting operations extended to fake football strips, designer clothes, power tools and a well-known brand of washing powder. A bottle of counterfeit perfume seized at a market was found to contain urine as a stabilizer. About half of Northern Ireland’s filling stations sold fuel smuggled from the Irish Republic, where duty was considerably lower, at a cost to the Treasury of about £200 million a year. Fuel smuggling, much of it organized by the notorious South Armagh brigade, was probably the IRA’s single largest source of income.

Martin McGuinness was the IRA Commandant for Derry. He and Gerry Adams were prominent in the labyrinthine negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement and the IRA laying down its arms. As a minister in the government of the statelet of Northern Ireland, McGuinness   visited Sri Lanka to advise us on peace and reconciliation.  Harris’s predecessor, Nóirín O’Sullivan, noted that the IRA remained heavily involved in organised crime in the Republic, with €28 million recovered from more than 50 individuals by the Criminal Assets Bureau. Like the LTTE, the Provisional IRA made a lot of money from dubious enterprises for its “noble” cause. Fiachra Gibbons, in the New Statesman, described Sinn Fein as “a kind of cross between Fianna Fáil and the Catholic Church, but with extra guns, paedophiles and front businesses.” In 2005, the Department of Justice estimated the IRA’s global assets at €400 million. Where did that go? It has been privatised, with individual IRA members holding property portfolios and businesses in Ireland, Britain, Europe and the US.

The dissident groups are also into “ordinary” crime. The Real IRA is believed to be extorting millions of Euros from targeting drug dealers — as well as business people — in Dublin and Cork. The Real IRA have taken over many of the security and protection rackets once run by the Provos. The dissidents are also believed to be selling bombs to criminal gangs including elements within the Travelling Community.

It is understandable that the ‘respectable’ parties are anxious about allowing Sinn Féin into government, whatever the voters might want, and giving them access to the internal workings of the security of the state. Fintan O’Toole writes: “What Sinn Féin has to confront, sooner rather than later, is that it can’t continue to legitimise the “armed struggle” of the Provisional IRA without giving exactly the same legitimacy to every other gang that puts a different adjective before those three sacred letters: continuity, real, new. “

Hello, Mary Lou

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on February 25 2020

https://ceylontoday.lk/print-more/52944

 

 

Sinn Féin’s monstrous regiment of women

 

After the general election of February 8, the Dáil, the lower house of Ireland’s parliament, was scheduled to reconvene on Thursday, February 20th.  As I write, the Irish prime minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar is about to hand in his resignation to President Michael D Higgins. Although Varadkar concedes that his party, Fine Gael, lost the general election and has clearly stated his wish to be opposition leader, he and his Government will continue to govern in a caretaker capacity.   Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin told a meeting of his parliamentary party that it could be two months before a new government is formed.

This kind of confusion is partly because the Irish system of proportional representation (by single transferable vote with multi-member constituencies) rarely gives one party a decisive number of seats to enable them to form a government. Politicians and voters are well-accustomed to a sometimes-unseemly haggling and deal-making to cobble together a coalition that will be able to govern.

What made this election different is that the party that came out on top was a sworn enemy of the state it was now attempting to govern and within living memory was killing civilians in an attempt to achieve a united Ireland. Elections have usually been about switching power between the two major parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. This time, Sinn Féin received the most first-preference votes, and won 37 seats. Fianna Fáil finished with 38 seats, including the Ceann Comhairle (Speaker), which brings them to level-pegging with Sinn Féin.  Fine Gael finished third both in seats (35) and in first-preference votes. The three largest parties each won a share of the vote between 20% and 25%.

CNN inaccurately described Fianna Fáil as left-wing and Fine Gael as right-wing. Both parties are centre-right and their origins lie back in the fight for independence from Britain when they both evolved out what was then called Sinn Féin. The current iteration of Sinn Féin was the political face of the Provisional IRA (much as the TNA was the political face of the LTTE). Back in 1998, the Provos and the British government finally accepted that no-one was going to win the war of attrition that had been going on for 30 years, claiming some 3,000 lives. The then president of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams, and Martin McGuinness were successful in persuading the Provisional Army Council to cease hostilities and eventually surrender their arms.

The current Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, is very different from Adams and McGuinness who maintained a stance of “constructive ambiguity” about the issue of their personal roles in Provo atrocities. She grew up in a privileged background in Rathgar and went to a fee-paying convent school, Notre Dame des Missions in Churchtown.  In 1998, Mary Lou was a promising 29-year-old member of Fianna Fáil living in the pleasant middle-class suburb of Castleknock in Dublin West. She had an MA in European Integration Studies from the University of Limerick. She was seen by some as a possible future cabinet minister or even leader of Fianna Fáil. Strange that by 2004 she was a Sinn Féin candidate for the EU Parliament and was attending the funeral of Seán Russell as chief of staff of the IRA during the second World War, who supported the idea of an armed campaign to establish a German puppet state in Ireland in direct collaboration with the Nazis. One might never know why Mary Lou switched to Sinn Féin but the funeral was clearly a test of her loyalty to her new masters., including the hard veterans of the “armed struggle” who were sceptical of her conversion. She rose so rapidly within that according to Fintan O’Toole she must have “been able to convince the old IRA cohort that she was utterly ‘sound’ on the legitimacy of the armed struggle.”

Mary Lou and Gerry

After the Good Friday Agreement, there has been a long peace in Ireland. There is still a border whose existence has been made worrisome by Brexit. We don’t have a united Ireland which was ostensibly the raison d’être of the Provisional IRA. There have been terrorist incidents but these have been the work of splinter organisations whose diehards have been condemned by Sinn Féin. It is bizarre that Sinn Féin did not mention a united Ireland in their election campaign. However, there is a good reason for this. Their surge has been a result of their taking on the issues that bother people today – affordable housing, health, homelessness and the economy. The economy recovered eventually from the 2008 downturn but people were angry with the centre-right duopoly for allowing corruption and the casino culture to get out hand in the first place and then imposing austerity on ordinary blameless individuals so that the EU troika could rescue the banks. Irish voters have noticed that Ireland has one of the most expensive health systems in the world which people cannot access when they need it. During the boom times, housing estates were built which are now empty but homelessness is increasing and people are dying on the streets.

My poet friend Simon Wood commented, “The young want somewhere to live. I mean a house, not a country. That is why they voted Sinn Féin “. Sinn Féin won almost 32 per cent of the votes of young people aged between 18 and 24 and a similar proportion of those between 25 and 34. Fine Gael won only 15.5 per cent of the votes among the age 18-24 age group and 30.2 per cent of those aged 65 and over. Fianna Fáil won 13.6 per cent among the 18- to 24-year-olds and 29.7 per cent among the over 65s.

 

The JVP murdered her husband but CBK still courted them for her coalition. Sinn Féin now have elected representatives in both parts of Ireland, Westminster (although they don’t take their seats) and the EU parliament. Sinn Féin did very badly in the local elections and were not confident enough to put up candidates in all constituencies in the general election. This meant that although they convinced 25% of the electorate to vote for them, they did not get enough seats to form a government.

 

There are many who abhor the idea of Sinn Féin having any part in the governance of the state without renouncing their past. Even before the election Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil raised a moral objection to coalition with Sinn Féin, citing IRA links, refusal to condemn violence and the malign influence of “shadowy figures”. The memory of the IRA campaign of violence was a defining experience for many older voters but housing is more important to the young.

 

It may at first sight seem abnormal for Sinn Féin to be so close to being in government but Fintan O’Toole sees it as a new normal. The duopoly of the old civil war parties was only interested in maintaining some kind of normality through continuity and absence of change.  “The terrible secret of the Irish has always been that we don’t want to be colourful, crazy, exceptional, anomalous people. We want to be ordinary. That’s why we have emigrated in our millions – to flee from our own strange and irregular circumstances. Gradually, Ireland has in fact been achieving this bliss of privileged European ordinariness. And what we are seeing now is the political system struggling to catch up with the transformation of a tragical and eccentric place into a post-Troubles, well-to-do society whose citizens expect what they perceive to be realistically achievable Western European standards.” Young people are looking to the great disruptors, Sinn Féin, to provide this.

 

 

 

 

Achtung!

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on February 14 2020

 

https://ceylontoday.lk/print-more/52031

Achtung

By

Padraig Colman

To pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself. Whenever a man so concentrates his attention – on a landscape, a poem, a geometrical problem, an idol, or the True God – that he completely forgets his own ego and desires, he is praying. The primary task of the schoolteacher is to teach children, in a secular context, the technique of prayer.

WH Auden

 

These days, nobody ever listens to anyone else. This may be the case everywhere in the world but I am particularly noticing it during my stay in London. People no longer seem to be able to communicate effectively face-to-face. I initially found it disconcerting to find a constant aural background of solo pedestrians, who appeared to be wearing hearing aids, endlessly talking in mad monologues. After a while, I realised that these apparently deaf soliloquisers were in reality talking on their mobile phones as they walked. There was somebody else on the other end but whether there was any communication is another matter. People sitting face-to-face were also soliloquising.  Jean Piaget observed that if you put several preschoolers together, they jabber away to themselves rather than to one another.

 

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.” I have observed many failed dialogues. People talk over each other. One interlocutor asks the other a question. The other attempts an answer but is quickly interrupted. Something in the answerer’s response triggers a connection with the first person’s experience and he/she embarks on a digression on that only to be interrupted by the second person. This has happened many times to me and I have developed a technique to deal with persistent interruptions.

 

I just keep ploughing on, talking and talking until the other person’s face displays utter panic when he or she realises that I am saying something and splutters to a halt. He/she still does not really take on board what I am saying and gets a distracted look in the eyes. When I try to initiate another conversational thread, she/he often says “sorry” because he/she is deafened by distraction. In Tender Is the Night, F Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “Intermittently she caught the gist of his sentences and supplied the rest from her subconscious, as one picks up the striking clock in the middle with only the rhythm of the first uncounted strokes lingering in the mind.”

 

I am not the first to notice that this kind of attention deficit and ‘conversation’ hogging has become commonplace. I have recently read a book about it – You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy. She ties in this phenomenon with the constant use of smart phones and tablets and warns about the serious consequences.  “If someone tells a story that takes longer than thirty seconds, heads bow, not in contemplation but to read texts…” There is no thought of letting a joke slowly build to a big payoff. “Think about a time when you were trying to tell a story to someone who was obviously uninterested; maybe they were sighing or their eyes were roaming around the room. What happened? Your pacing faltered, you left out details, or maybe you started babbling irrelevant information or overshared in an effort to regain their attention. You probably trailed off while the other person smiled blandly or nodded absently.” You probably felt a little humiliated, diminished. The average amount of time people devote to listening to one another during their waking hours has gone down from 42 percent to 24 percent.

 

There is indubitably a link with widespread screen addiction. The serious consequence is loneliness. In a 2018 survey of twenty thousand Americans, almost half said they did not have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend, on a daily basis. About the same proportion said they often felt lonely and left out even when others were around. Compare that to the 1980s when similar studies found only 20 percent said they felt that way. Nilli Lavie, a professor of psychology and brain sciences at UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, has established a clear link between constant phone use and depression.

 

There are ways to combat this distraction – some form of CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) using practical exercises to replace bad habits with better ones. I have always been a phone-phobe and rarely engage in telephone conversations. I resisted having a mobile phone for a long time and mainly use it now to call a cab and check the time. I have been lucky enough to resist the lures of smart phones and i-pads but I have had these devices thrust upon me by well-meaning addicts. I find smart devices useful for reading the news when I wake up and am drinking my first mug of tea. I don’t watch TV or listen to the radio. I have never used Twitter. There have been times when I have got carried away with Facebook but I reserve a special time for checking my FB interactions and I don’t do Facebook on my phone. I keep my number of ‘friends’ low so that I am not inundated with notifications. If I am eating out with friends, I keep my phone well-hidden.  There is no likelihood of an emergency that would be helped by my immediate input. A study by psychologists at the University of Essex found that the sight of a phone on the table makes those sitting around the table feel more detached and reluctant to talk about anything important. There is a spectre at the feast.

Device dependency has many of the same behavioral, psychological, and neurobiological components as substance abuse. There is even a poet addressing this issue: Charly Cox. Her book Validate Me is subtitled A life of code dependency. Another writer has suggested that one day the excessive use of mobile devices in public, which has become ‘normal’, will one day be regarded with the same distaste that smokers are today.

 

Kathy Murphy offers some advice on how to be a better listener. Listening is the simplest way to show someone you respect them. When people feel the urgency to always sell themselves, they tend to exaggerate, which lowers the level of discourse and fosters cynicism. People generally don’t want you to solve any problems they present to you; they want you to listen sympathetically. Sympathy does not mean interrupting them to say you had the same problem. Not everything needs to be said as you are feeling it. Murphy tells a story about visitors to the home of the wonderful writer Eudora Welty noting that she didn’t have a TV or radio on in the background. She did not talk on the phone. There were no distractions. The focus was on the guests and they carried away a lasting impression of her courtesy. Welty no doubt found material for her writing from listening to her guests.

 

 

Padraig Colman

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