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The fight for free education should not end with the KNDU Bill

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Having shot itself in the foot, the government seems to be picking up. It may well be too little too late, but this is a silver lining: after dithering for too long on the vaccination front, we are leading the world with 300,000 jabs a day. If critics of this regime aren’t wholly taken in by the speed at which it’s inoculating the country, they are impressed. Its supporters, on the other hand, are jubilant. They have reason to be. For the first time in a long while, there’s evidence of clear leadership: not the sort that rants and rails, that brags and brawls, but that actually delivers, that gives the country what it needs. And right now, we need the jab. Every vaccine we can get, we have got. The jabs keeps coming.

Health experts warned of a third wave. That’s what we got in April. They are now warning of a fourth: imminent according to some, already here according to others. Of course, the risk of Delta spreading is no longer a risk, nor is it incipient: it’s already out there, on its way to become the dominant variant. If we ignore or tone down the hysterical overtones of most of our newspaper headlines, one must admit that hospitals are running out of beds and oxygen supplies, worrying as it may be and is. While some officials dismiss the possibility of a fourth wave on the scale of India’s second wave, others are less optimistic.

Delta is unlike any variant we’ve come across until now. Panagiotis Arkoumaneas, president of the National Organisation for Public Health in Greece, calls the Delta strain the “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Recent studies reveal mutation rises of about 10 percentage points a week, 60% more transmissible than the Kent mutation, twice as infectious as the original coronavirus strain, it’s making its way to every corner of the planet. A Yale epidemiologist, F. Perry Wilson, has noted that what’s unique about the variant is “how quickly it is spreading” compared to other strains and viruses. What’s most worrying about the variant is not that it infects more rapidly within shorter time frames, but that there’s much we don’t know: some studies conclude it’s more severe, but others are not so sure.

Given Sri Lanka’s diminishing prospects, then, vaccination is the way to go. We have been doing little else since last April. In late March, we got 600,000 Sinopharm doses; since then the Chinese government has donated more than 7.1 million doses. July has been kind, with more than 800,000 Pfizer and 1.5 million Moderna doses. This is not the time to be thinking of geopolitical preferences: getting those shipments is the way to go. By December, we will receive more than five million Pfizer doses through the COVAX facility, while more doses of Sinopharm are to arrive from China, and of Sputnik from Russia as well.

As refreshing as these developments may be, they are a sobering reminder of what the government should have done. There is little excuse for the dithering we saw for over half a year: this administration is the most powerful to come to power since J. R. Jayewardene’s in 1977. It enjoys a two-thirds majority in parliament and is led by a man who did away with an ambitious but flawed anti-presidential act of legislation. Derided and divided, the opposition poses much less of a threat to him than did the unofficial opposition led by his brother when the country was run by the

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brigade. Ambitious to the last detail, the vaccination drive confirms almost every hope everyone had, and maybe in a way still has, about the man calling the shots. The tragedy is in taking this much time to prove one’s mettle.

The drive makes clear three very important points the government must note. The first lies in the domain of international relations. As anyone with a modicum of knowledge of world affairs will agree, we did not source vaccines from one part of the world: owing to soaring case numbers and mortalities, we sourced them from every corner of the planet. This means that we had to rely on every geopolitical power, taking in whatever shipments were sold or gifted us. The government must understand that this is the direction its foreign policy ought to take. It must not turn to one friend in need, less so a fair-weather friend. It must identify what friends helped it in times of crisis and, without alienating the rest of the world, ensure it maintains ties with those friends. This is a mistake the UNP has committed over and over again, a mistake the SJB is trying not to repeat. The vaccination drive, put simply, has helped us all realise the pitfalls of hanging on to one bloc over others.

To remain friends with the world as a whole, it is imperative that we understand who our friends are. It is also imperative that we look for other friends. The West is not some magic antidote to everything; nor, indeed, is the anti-Western front. What are our interests? How should we ensure meeting and achieving them? Which countries can help us achieve them? Most importantly, how can we get their help without alienating the rest? In the 1950s, the then ruling UNP, or at least a considerable section in it, thought that it could wade through economic difficulties by relying on Whitehall and Washington, to a point where it alienated two of the world’s key players, China and the USSR. It paid a price for its ideological idiocy in the long term. Given these inescapable facts, neither the SLPP nor the SJB must emulate the UNP. Sri Lanka’s interests are Sri Lanka’s. It cannot afford to be selective.

The second point has to do with allegations of militarisation levelled at, and against, the administration. These allegations are not entirely unfair. The anti-KDU protests have made a very convincing case against the regime. In a country where a major war was won without resort to conscription, militarisation does not exactly sound welcoming to civilian ears. This is not because we are opposed to the military, but because we are so close to it: as Dr Dayan Jayatilleka correctly pointed out once, the greatest asset the army has is not its ammunition and stock of weapons, but the love it enjoys of the people. In Switzerland, South Korea, and Israel, forced militarisation has not generated opposition to the military. Sri Lanka enjoys, in that sense, a triple advantage: it has a popular army, it does not conscript, and unlike the US the army remain servants of the State rather than of private contractors.

The present vaccination drive shows us just how much can be achieved by a much appreciated army. Contrary to the prognostications of the critics, the army is preferred by a great many people to bureaucratic officials. A distinction can, and must, be drawn here between those who (rightly) deplore the intrusion of the military in public and private affairs and those who rail against the military because of their antipathy towards government intervention. For all their good intents and purposes, the latter group, which opposed the war when things were not going the LTTE’s way, does not seem to comprehend ground realities. The army can be, and indeed is, used in times of crisis, especially at a time when public opinion of officials and representatives has sunk quite low. This is not militarisation in any classically fascist sense. It is common sense. It is a resort used by other countries. Why not Sri Lanka?

The third point is perhaps the most important. It is an open secret that the government has, at least since the second wave hit last September, committed one blunder after another and given enough raison d’etre for future electoral losses. Its prospects are diminishing, fast. The people are angry, not so much because the leadership is too strong as because for them it is not strong enough. Not all the PR cosmetics from Washington and Beijing can or will salvage the administration unless it shows it is doing something with anything, projecting the kind of leadership both supporters and critics expected of it in 2019. The vaccination drive provides one opportunity, among others, for it to reset and course correct. To an extent the drive has raised hopes among people again; while it is nowhere near the hopes they had in 2019, they see in the president’s vaccination campaign an opportunity for reversal.

As things stand, both the government and the opposition (the SJB, not the JVP, the TNA, or the UNP) stand to gain a lot and lose very little if they depart from their respective legacies. The government has ample time to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, while the SJB, which its critics have tragically misinterpreted and are badmouthing for no rational rhyme or reason, must consolidate its position as a populist alternative to a populist government. The problem with critics of the government is that they are not aware that what is needed is not some vague outfit that questions democratically elected regimes and democratically elected oppositions, but rather a state of affairs that consolidates the best of ruling and oppositional alliances and responds to the people. Sri Lanka does not need another 2015.