With all due respect to those who have been afflicted by it, of course I am. While the desolation of the loss of a loved one to the deadly disease cannot be quantified, my position can be qualified by an argument which one hopes would not be interpreted as sophistry.
In days of yore, our citizenry had a plethora of issues over which to take up cudgels against government – if, in fact, it was possible to mount any kind of opposition or dissent to an authoritarian antidemocratic regime grown fat on the spoils of corruption and corpulent by dint of sitting on its war-won laurels and not lose one’s sense of peace – or one’s life. Chilaw, Katunayake, Rathupaswela, Lasantha, Ekneligoda – need I say it?
But today the least – the most – we can do is grumble and grouse (and, in the case of dengue deaths, grieve) that this Government is sitting on its garbage heap and expecting praise for its economic prowess (or, for the moment, simply its acumen – until actual dividends are reaped). No white van is going to drive silently by your neighbourhood as you nag any powerful bureaucrat grown bigger than his boots – although one wishes that reps of the State would actually drive by dengue-breeding grounds more systematically … and with no face-masks on. You know what I mean.
There are governments, and then there are governments. Some are bungling bureaucratic administrations hamstrung by inefficiency and ineffectuality, strangely contrasted at times by the strength of their technocratic approach to governance – if only in theory. Others are (in parts at least, especially key spheres as in the recent past such as defence and urban development – a chimerical machine) a potent concoction of power, authority, and arrogance.
In times of war or natural disaster, one may wish for the latter. On the converse, in times of peace, perhaps bureaucratic bungling is par for the course for a generation of people used to state apathy and government ignorance. However it is in the in-between times – the type of national crisis caused by municipal disasters and seasonal exigencies – that one wishes for a sensible hybrid between the iron fist and the velvet glove.
If this Government can’t get the job done – garbage collection and disposal, a contingency plan for entirely predictable big-picture weather patterns, far more proactive measures to curb and stymie the spread of dengue with a devastating death toll – that other kind of government (warts and all) may well be seen as assertive enough to be attractive again.
The State sector has squarely pinned the responsibility of curbing the spiralling epidemic on the Government that drives its policies. In an irony not lost on members of the public struck a body blow by striking medicos, the GMOA has urged the incumbent administration to bolster the strength of medicos at Government hospitals in dengue-stricken areas.
The GMOA’s claim that a shortage of doctors has exacerbated the crisis is not in any way ameliorated by its protests, demos, and striking work in opposition to the Government’s stance on the SAITM (privatising of medical education and health-care) issue. This is adding insult to injury, and paradoxically perhaps, the protestations of the GMOA and ongoing strike action boost the pro-SAITM lobby’s case while further alienating the public vis-à-vis State-sector health-care.
The political party with arguably the closest affiliations with these very strikers has not been soft on the Government’s ostensible lack of concrete action. The JVP leadership has been at pains to point out that if not for its ‘relief-service brigade’ – which has apparently an island-wide scope of operations – the people of the country would be far worse off under the Health Ministry’s alleged bungling. The President – a former health minister – is perceived as more deceived by his officials than deceiving, while the Minister of Health has been lampooned as more deceitful than deceived. The ‘Red Star’ brigade’s champions have labelled the Head of State a lame leader and his Health Minister a lackadaisical liar.
Faced with the reality that the promised importation of a dengue-killing bacteria from Australia has demonstrably failed to deliver the land ‘Down Under’ from dengue’s deadly ravages, both national leader and his health-care mandarin have suffered loss of face with an attendant loss of confidence in the probity as much as proactivity of the State as well as the Government.
In a milieu where State hospitals are inundated by those afflicted and morgues recording an alarming rate of fatalities – of the hundred thousand reported cases to date, half a percent have succumbed – the onus on the State and the concomitant indictment of Government bear down heavily on this coalition Government’s credibility.
Several critics of the State sector’s approach to controlling (let alone eradicating) dengue have suggested in no uncertain terms that the Government has tipped the people from the frying pan into the fire. Lumping this republican administration with that previous authoritarian regime, the likes of firebrand revolutionaries turned peacetime media leaders have critiqued the coalition Government’s national programme of dengue on the grounds that it, like that of its predecessors, only takes baby-steps to eliminate dangerous mosquito-breeding grounds. Likely arriving at a reasonably logical conclusion, they have adduced that the State sector’s strategy to contain the proliferation of breeding grounds – over and above a proactive strategy to identify and destroy the larvae of dengue-infected mosquitoes is fated to inevitably worsen the crisis.
Looks like the President and his Health Minister will continue to take the brunt of critical engagement, with the latter’s much-hyped proposals – especially the bacteria from Oz, as well as a previous proposal: the introduction of a breed of mosquito to eliminate the dengue strain – becoming grim jokes in the public and social media domains.
Politics aside, isolated pockets of nationally-minded sentiments have resonated with the public in select media. The incumbency of State agency and Government instrumentality to address the rapidly-burgeoning crisis sans recourse to petty or partisan politics has fallen on deaf ears as far as those who thump their respective tubs in the House and on street corner or online soapboxes go. That the epidemic is a national issue – in which the hypertension and haemorrhagic fever spare no citizen or their offspring with respect to creed, social status, economic power – is past proving. As with the tsunami of 13 years ago or the civil war of 30 years running, dengue is potentially a great unifier of people, while on the flipside a great divider of the politically minded. An imperative for collective action rather than apportioning selective blame has struggled to coalesce in the body politic as much as in public appointed political bodies.
The less than salutary response of former national leaders perhaps best (or worst) exemplifies this myopia and mediocre battle-axe-manship. With a marked tendency to omit mentioning his own administration’s failure to curb the dengue menace during its tenure – despite its remarkable success in eliminating far greater flying terrors in its time – an ex-president has opted to take his political opponents to task in no uncertain terms. Maybe only his pointed remark that State mechanisms geared to provide health-care services have been hampered by the Government’s alleged vendetta against its enemies via the FCID betrays the true tenor of the former Head of State’s laments. Perhaps the remainder of his lopsided critique – the inactivity and incompetence of the Government in general and the lack of instrumentality of the local Government institutions in particular – bear some examination by the powers that be.
However lopsided and lamentable politics may be, the tone and timbre of a civilisation are often tested not by policies but by a whole people’s resolution. With even far more advanced technologically-oriented countries reportedly struggling with dengue raising its ugly head after a hiatus of decades, our tiny island nation – under-resourced and ill-equipped – is no worse (or better) off. Therefore a clearer, sharper, lighter, approach – heightened public and official awareness, coupled with heavier fines for offenders whose negligence is tantamount to culpable homicide – may be the requisite modus operandi.
A more stringent and systematic identification and elimination of dengue-mosquito breeding sites in tandem with strategic control (policy) and tactical containment (street-level) of infected parasites may well be the desired twin helix to deliver us from the plague, which has all the DNA of a nation-crippling pandemic.
No one needs to remind common or garden citizens that the vexed issue of garbage collection and disposal is closely related to the dengue crisis. Yet no less than our plebeian President – a former health minister, to boot – has opted to remind us that everyone under his aegis should engage with body, mind, soul, all our heart and strength, to control if not end this devastator of national resources and public morale. Well may he recall the words of a far more controversial president in a richer healthier nation-state, who essayed the lamentable truth that a national leader’s job is like that of a cemetery-keeper: lots of folks under one, but nobody’s listening!
Maybe the people it represents need to begin doing the job that Government was elected to do. Rather than raise laments over petty human beings’ partisan politics, it is time past for a powerful combine of street-level citizenry and corporate bodies in the private sector to form a chain-gang of sorts to pass solutions along. Perhaps by the time Government gets its act together or science and technology kick in, it will be time to elect another set of clowns and suddenly a shadier circus than the current lot might look like it’s breeding nefarious plagues all over again?