March 12, 2020
By a special correspondent
On 31st January, 33 Sri Lankans stranded at Wuhan, China, the epi-center of the COVID-19 outbreak were charted back to the island through the national airline. Among the 33 individuals, most of them were reading for their post-graduate and doctoral degrees whilst the rest included family members who had accompanied them. What was unique and exceptional of this group of 33 individuals, including children was the extent of cooperation and willingness to undergo the quarantine measures stipulated by the Sri Lankan health authorities.
Despite being in the spot light and even at times being indiscriminately targeted by interest groups, these 33 individuals shed aside all surrounding pessimism and willingly cooperated with officials in the pre and post quarantine process. I still remember, during a phone conversation with an individual of this group, he said, “I think it is our ‘Yuthukama’ to unconditionally cooperate alongside with the authorities in this (the quarantine process). If this disease spreads and if we play meek in taking preventative measures, it would plague the entire nation within days”. He was spot on, in his statement. Being an island nation, we do lack a hinterland or defence in depth in withering the spread of such a pandemic.
Given Tuesday’s (March 10), controversy surrounding 164 Sri Lankan migrant workers returning from South Korea and the string of demands dished out at the health and military officials; the entire episode underscores the existing social realities of this island nation.
The Sinhalese word ‘Yuthukama’ (not aware of the precise word in the English lexicon) seems alien to some.
Surely, we are a divided country on social values and ethics. Those who yearn a society of values, ethics and decorum are undoubtedly a minority here. As with the case mentioned, the hue and cry staged by some of the returnees from South Korea was an unexpected response which took the aviation, health and military officials by surprise.
Most complaints were over a payment of some Rs. 7,500 mentioned in a form. In addition, facilities arranged including transportation, accommodation and many more came under harsh criticism by some individuals, who even had taken to social media expressing their contempt and dissatisfaction with the quarantine initiative. These individuals demonstrated abject denial of collective responsibility, altruism and common sense required at a time of uncertainty.
Collective responsibility and altruism at a time of a crisis
These demonstrators were acutely unaware how the officials, health workers and soldiers were exposing themselves to be at potential risk in the quarantine process, when they do not have to. They might have skipped over the heroic story of the UL 1422 Sri Lankan Airline crew who volunteered to charter the stranded Sri Lanka students from Wuhan.
They might have been ill informed of how the Sri Lankan administration including health authorities and military reached out, when they necessarily did not have to. It was at a time when most of the governments were resorting to a strategy of alienating their citizens residing in China. The decision involved high risk but the entire operation highlighted that it was our ‘Yuthukama’ or ‘righteous deed’. It was a response in understanding our collective responsibility as a nation in times of crisis.
“If we are proud of our country as a nation of patriots, this is the time that such qualities should be in abundance. Hence, if some individual is putting their personal freedom over and above the wellbeing of their loved ones, families and own communities that is a question about their humanity”, Chair of the Colombo Institute of Research and Psychology Dr. Darshan Perera said.
He said that those were the times which demand every discerning citizen realizing their collective responsibilities and showcase altruism.
“Our so called traditions and values would come into question if we are not willing to go through a bit of a difficulty for the wellbeing of the masses. It’s normal for people to panic and think about themselves first, but we are in a collective culture, a society and had been brought-up in a way where collectivism precedes individualism. This is the best time to come out and say that we care; we care for the collective good” he asserted.
Raising concerns in the event of a potential rise in individualistic behaviours in crisis or uncertainty, Dr. Perera stated that certain push factors would come into play, eventually creating a paradox similar to what we were witnessing right now in Italy; as certain districts are undergoing quarantine.
“Such aggressive and forceful national postures would be uncomfortable for the people”, he said “Meanwhile, I think the government should need to spell-out the figures, costs, especially the unit costs involved in the delivery of this national quarantine program,”.
According to Dr. Perera, this would be ideal for people in appreciating the social costs and benefits associated with the pandemic preventive measures holistically.
International Responses and lessons
So far, the ‘Coronavirus’ has spread in over to 118 countries with over 121,206 reported cases and resulting a death toll of 4,369 persons. While there is an apparent slowdown in the spread of the virus from its initial epi-centre, the pandemic has crossed borders and shutting communities across the Korean peninsula, Middle East and Europe. Many countries are considering drastic steps including mandatory social distancing even reducing large scale activities.
At the time of writing, there are over 1,000 confirmed ‘Coronavirus’ cases reported in the United States. These figures include 31 deaths in which over half were reportedly from Washington, the state’s political nerve centre.
The former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb during an interview with the ‘CBS News’ agency, held recently, emphasized the need to implement a ‘broad mitigation strategy’ in the United States.
“The next two weeks are really going to change the complexion of the country (USA). It’s going to be a hard period, probably 2 months” he was on record as stating.
As panic is setting across the Americas, South Korea is among the nations that is paying the price for delayed containment. So far it has witnessed over a 15-fold increase in infections reported mainly in the regions of Seoul and Daegu. The situation in South Korea as experts’ assert, is due to the lax response initiated downplaying the seriousness of the virus.
Given these scenarios, we need to consider ourselves lucky as whatsoever, the administration, did not take the alarm signals lightly. We are far away from been locked down and our situation might have a twist if we downplay the seriousness and hesitate in cooperating with the preventive and quarantine measures initiated.
One phrase in the Sinhala lexicon might work in us realizing our collective responsibility, whether it’s ‘Corona or No-Corona’ – that is ‘Ape Yuthukama’.