Hiding behind the virus By M S M Ayub

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Despite the health warning, the main opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) supporters gathered in Colombo in large numbers to protest against many decisions of the incumbent government

Can the main Opposition, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) give an assurance to the country that its demonstrations on Wednesday in Colombo and several other parts of the country against the rising cost of living did not at all contribute to the spread of COVID 19?  

Supporters of the SJB travelled from faraway places to Colombo for the protest which they had titled “Enough of the Curse,” but police prevented some of them from proceeding in many places. However, the party managed to muster a considerable crowd to Colombo despite the restraining orders by several courts. Some courts had refused to issue orders sought by the police against the SJB leaders. 

Police action against the demonstrators in some areas seemed questionable as they acted without any orders from the courts in the respective areas. They seemed to have got the orders from their Headquarters in Colombo which in turn might have got it from the government leaders. They even checked the ordinary buses for possible SJB supporters.  

“A debate is on going on over the propriety of protests during the pandemic in general and the Wednesday’s protest in particular, with the Opposition parties underscoring the rights of the people to express their views while the ruling party promoting a blanket abstention from such gatherings”

Now, a debate is on going on over the propriety of protests during the pandemic in general and the Wednesday’s protest in particular, with the Opposition parties underscoring the rights of the people to express their views while the ruling party promoting a blanket abstention from such gatherings. 

The Opposition parties including the SJB complained that government’s irresponsibility in not imposing restrictions against picnic goers during the Sinhala and Hindu New Year period, allowing the second wave of the pandemic to outbreak. The ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) cannot deny this allegation if they recall the warnings by the health officials prior to the New Year and compare the numbers of coronavirus infected people at the beginning and end of April. 

The Opposition politicians also accused the government when large crowds were allowed to attend the funeral of Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) leader Arumugan Thondaman who died on May 26, last year. The distribution of government sponsored “Dammika Peniya” to thousands of people in Kegalle in December last year which later turned out to be a laughing stock had also drawn flack from the Opposition as well as the health authorities. The Opposition also cited the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Gama Samaga Pilisandara (Discussion with the village) programmes where large crowds were made to attend without adhering to the health guidelines. It was only days ago, on November 2 the SLPP held its fifth convention at the Nelum Pokuna. 

“The Opposition also cited the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Gama Samaga Pilisandara (Discussion with the village) programmes where large crowds were made to attend without adhering to the health guidelines. It was only days ago, on November 2 the SLPP held its fifth convention at the Nelum Pokuna”

If the social distancing is really contributes to the containment of the pandemic, it is justifiable and correct to blame these gatherings where thousands (sometimes hundreds) of people ignored health guidelines and instructions. Yet, the Opposition must be intelligent enough to understand the maxim “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” when dealing with an epidemic which has already claimed lives of over five million people across the world and over 14,000 in Sri Lanka alone. The Opposition could capitalize on the damage done by the coronavirus to the economy but not to the education of the children.

In spite of the government leaders arguing in this same line, indeed they are using the pandemic to suppress dissent and protests against its current misadministration. Their selectivity in dealing with large gatherings and even protests make plain of this, despite surely, the government having to and having the right to prevent such large crowds, in the face of the current pandemic situation. 

Apart from the Dammika Peniya distribution and former minister Arumugan Thondaman’s funeral, the government in a ludicrous manner and with an evil intention of blaming the principals and teachers for spreading COVID-19 ignored the months-long demonstrations by them. Their intention was clear as they turned a blind eye to the demonstrations interestingly after cracking down on the first of it on August 8. However, fortunately for the people of the country, and especially for the principals and teachers, the pandemic did not take an upward turn during those demonstrations, though it was not an assurance for future large gatherings. Despite the images of overcrowded buses and trains being occasionally carried in the media no action has been taken to rectify the situation.

“Both the government and the Opposition parties no doubt are in a fix in this regard and also taking advantage of the situation. The coronavirus has created a plethora of issues making the government rapidly unpopular day in and day out which the Opposition can use for its political ends”

Both the government and the Opposition parties no doubt are in a fix in this regard and also taking advantage of the situation. The coronavirus has created a plethora of issues making the government rapidly unpopular day in and day out which the Opposition can use for its political ends. And the same situation has offered a strong defence for the government leaders who attribute all problems faced by the people to the pandemic and hide behind the virus when the Opposition protests. Successive governments during the war in the same way questioned the Opposition action citing the economic problems and the dangers created by the war.  

Needless to say that Opposition cannot mark time, as the government leaders suggest, until the last COVID 19 patient recovered to protest against a government that creates issue after issue. The authorities prior to the last year’s Parliamentary election announced huge unsolicited tax relief which deprived the public coffers of more than Rs. 650 billion annually and now are printing money to offset the loss, They unscientifically banned the burial of cadavers of those who died of COVID 19, and also banned agrochemicals without having any plan to supply organic fertilizer sufficiently to farmers, paving the way for an imminent food crisis. 

The government wittingly or unwittingly allowed a huge fraud running into Rs. 90 billion, according to some Opposition leaders, through the reduction of import tax on sugar in November last year. And last month, the President appointed a Task Force to implement the “One Country, One Law concept, with the potential to rouse communal tensions. These are in fact political fodder for an Opposition party. Any party would make use of such situations. 

People have won many rights only through struggles. The best latest case in point was the successful three months long trade union action by the principals and the teachers for the removal of anomalies in their salaries Nevertheless, the Opposition cannot put the lives of the people in danger either, despite it being well acquainted with the government’s attempts to hide behind the virus when confronted with the economic issues and protests. Industries Minister Wimal Weerawansa recently called on the Opposition to find while speaking in Parliament this week called on the Opposition parties to find innovative methods to fight for the rights of the people in the light of the pandemic. Although he was attempting to prevent the Opposition from demonstrating against the government, it is food for thought. 

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Disclaimer: Hiding behind the virus By M S M Ayub - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view

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