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Of Mayors, Favours and Privilege

By Harini Amarasuriya

A trending story during the last couple of weeks has been the arrest of the rambunctious Mayor of Moratuwa, Saman Lal Fernando on charges of obstructing the work of a public official. The arrest was precipitated by scenes of the Mayor clashing with health personnel at a COVID vaccination centre where he insisted that only those who possessed a Mayor’s ‘chit’ should be vaccinated. Health officers refused to comply and insisted that the ‘chit’ system introduced by the Mayor was invalid. Images from this incident were circulated widely on social media and outraged messages calling for the arrest of the Mayor and congratulating the health officials for standing their ground circulated widely on social media. There were also images of the Mayor’s supporters crowding around the Court house when he was produced in Court, violating all lockdown and quarantine regulations.

In the meantime, there are reports from many parts of the country of the involvement of local politicians in the vaccination programme. Images of banners with photographs of politicians at vaccination centres have also been circulating. Reportedly, the GMOA had a scheme whereby family members of doctors could be vaccinated. Universities arranged vaccination programmes for university staff. Presumably, other professions and sectors also tried to organise special programmes. Yet, workers in the FTZ (which has been declared an essential service) are clamouring for help – with vaccination, with quarantine facilities and support during lockdown to no avail. The bottom line being that a vaccination programme that should have been rolled out according to evidence-based prioritisation for controlling COVID, has turned into one based on privilege, status and connections.

It is unfortunate that both the media and the public directed their (justifiable) anger at individuals such as Mayor Saman Lal Fernando and saw this simply as a problem of a rogue Mayor, known for his brashness. Focussing on individuals, distracts from the much deeper problem we need to confront and lead us to the false belief that if we find ‘better’ people (more educated, professional, from ‘good’ families etc.) to fill these positions the situation will improve. If we truly want to understand and change this way of doing things, then we need to dig a little deeper.

What we are seeing today is a total and utter breakdown of any kind of system and the lack of even a trace of a proper plan for the vaccination programme. This is all the more shocking in a country that has earned recognition for its public health programmes. Neither do we have a proper plan to manage the lockdown or the socio-economic impact of the pandemic. For instance, how do we ensure an uninterrupted supply for food and other essentials? How do we take care of those dependant on a daily wage or whose incomes have been affected by the lockdown? How do we support children to continue their education? What do we need to have in place to look after the mental health of people under lockdown conditions? What systems do we need to have to be able to respond to domestic violence which is on the rise during such times? Today, there are no clear lines of authority and decision-making and the basis on which decisions are made appear arbitrary and purely self-interested. When some decisions are clearly bad (such as allowing one day for people to leave their homes for obtaining essential goods or using all the vaccines at hand to give more people the first dose without a proper plan for obtaining the second dose), there is a mad scramble to either reverse the decision or take other decisions to respond to the fallout from the first decision. Such a situation can only be described as chaotic at best and criminally incompetent at worst.

And in times of chaos, humans revert to survival mode – and that means survival even at the expense of others. Relationships of care, collaboration and cooperation – or even kindness are not purely instinctive – they must be nurtured and the right conditions be created to encourage collaboration and cooperation. The exhausted PHI who refuses to answer yet another late night call; the nurse who ignores the despairing cries of a scared patient; the shopper who hoards as much of the limited produce in the shop as possible; professionals who insist that their union leaders negotiate preferential treatment; the ambitious politician who strategizes how to use this pandemic to gain an advantage at the next election – they are all products of the chaotic conditions within which we are forced to figure out our daily lives. And these conditions were not created overnight. For years, no, decades, we steadily chipped away at the systems and infrastructure that held our society together. Our education systems, entertainment industry and media kept telling us that humans perform best when motivated by self-interest and competition. Anyone who doesn’t survive in such a society are weaklings we were told. If necessary, such weaklings can be looked after through philanthropic acts or even better Corporate Social Responsibility projects. Systems must be built not to support the ‘losers’ but the ‘winners’.

And here we are today. Many of us are scared and unsure about our wellbeing and that of our loved ones. Even those of us who thought we were well-connected or connected enough to live a privileged life, are gradually realising that we require even better connections to survive this pandemic. Each of us has a story to tell – of a friend, a relative, a loved one, who has been affected. Each one of us has worked all the connections we have to try and mobilise help for someone we know. And each time, as it has become harder and harder to mobilise those connections we are coming to the realisation that perhaps we are not as well connected or as safe as we thought we were. The network of the truly privileged seems to be tighter and smaller and more distant from us than ever before.

In such a situation can we be surprised at Saman Lal Fernando and his chit system? There are many Saman Lal Fernandos in our midst today – each one operating at their level; each one setting up their own system of patronage and favours. And they are not to be found only among politicians – they are everywhere. How many of us can say with any assurance that there isn’t a bit of Saman Lal Fernando within each one of us or that we haven’t called upon a Saman Lal Fernando when we have needed something? Many of us take virtuous stands against lowly public officials for minor misdemeanours, but how many of us are willing to stand up against the large-scale abuse of power and corruption, especially if we have a school tie, or other connection with those involved in such crimes?

While talking to someone who lost a loved one to COVID recently, I was told: “Make sure that his death was not in vain”. I was told, “Remember he didn’t die a natural death – he was killed”. Yes, he was killed by an under-resourced and over-stretched system and by a leadership that didn’t have a plan in place. I could understand the anger and the anguish.

Standing in line in a vaccination queue, I sensed the anxiety among people: would there be enough vaccines to go around; did they have the right documentation to prove that they were eligible for the vaccine; will they get the second vaccine on time? I noticed how tense they were when luxury vehicles drew up and when ‘important’ looking people stepped out, anxiety that somehow those people would be afforded a privilege while those of us in the queue would be denied our right. How obscene is it that citizens have to experience such anxiety over what should be a basic right?

If change is to come – and it MUST come – remember we all have a role to play. Most importantly we have to look beyond the individuals and support the establishment of systems that work for all and not a few. We must realise that the more civilised we become, the less we should rely on instinct and the more we should rely on systems that work. That each one of us is safer when we can collectively be safer, together. Let us learn the bitter lessons COVID is teaching us. We have already had one death too many due to COVID. Let none of those deaths have been in vain.