Dr. Jehan Perera addresses Sri Lanka’s politicised decision-making process

When President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected, there were high expectations that the country’s decision making would be depoliticised with a new era ending politicians’ role in the process.

This would reverse the downside of the 1972 constitutional change that elevated elected politicians’ power over the state bureaucracy’s to make decision making more accountable to the people.

In its first month in power, the government called for applications for top jobs from the general public – in particular, qualified professionals. There was hope of change until the appointees were found to be more of the same.

Even under the administration of a president of whom much is expected, Sri Lanka runs the risk of becoming the laggard of South Asia on account of unwise decisions even as it borrows dollars from India and now Bangladesh.

Politicised decision making has visibly cost the country heavily in tackling the coronavirus.

Sri Lanka enjoyed initial success due to tough measures such as a two month curfew last year, which was implemented primarily by the security forces. They also performed their intelligence function with skill, tracing those who were infected and their close contacts.

This success seems to have given rise to the misperception that Sri Lanka was secure in controlling the pandemic to prioritise the economy’s revival at the cost of other values.

There appears to have been a large information gap between appearance and reality, swaying government decision makers. In retrospect, some decisions to revive the economy appear to have been unnecessarily risky.

One was the partial reopening of the tourism industry, which led to an influx of visitors from countries with poor track records in containing the pandemic. These tourists were meant to arrive in a ‘bubble’ and depart after touring the island in this condition; but even with these stringent precautions, it seems to have paved the way for new COVID-19 variants to take root.

More recently, there have been reports of ‘quarantine tourism’ from severely affected countries from which wealthier people wished to temporarily take refuge. In the midst of a lockdown, the airport was opened with the promise of tourists.

Focussing on boosting incomes by bringing in tourists, continuing with mega highway projects or even the Port City (a.k.a. Colombo International Financial City or CIFC) are no substitutes for saving lives. For the sake of a miniscule number of tourists and profits for a small section of the hotel sector, the country and its economy have been jeopardised by the spread of new COVID-19 strains.

It must be kept in mind that these are fraught times in which most people are struggling to make ends meet. Due to the economic downturn, many have lost their jobs or are receiving only part of their salaries.

The World Bank notes that “with jobs lost and earnings reduced – especially in urban areas, and among private sector employees and informal workers – the US$ 3.20 poverty rate is projected to have increased from 9.2 percent in 2019 to 11.7 percent in 2020.”

Daily wage labourers find it harder to find work as potential employers do not wish to hire them for fear of infection. Those who are fortunate enough to have their children attending school online must meet additional expenses such as data charges. In these circumstances, there may be pent up anger in society that suddenly comes to the fore.

The government needs to take these tensions into account when designing responses to the unfolding crisis. Instead of demonstrating the state machinery’s punitive powers, there could be an emphasis on messages of care to the people.

So the administration could take the people into its confidence, and educate them about the true situation and what can be done in partnership to mitigate the spread of the virus. It needs to establish economic support schemes that will enable people to withstand the lockdowns, and pick themselves up to rebuild their lives and the economy.

It’s unfortunate that the government appears to be repeating and even multi-plying mistakes made by previous administrations with its inability to adopt a consistent approach to governance. Ever less edu-cated politicians have been given authority to direct public services and second grade professionals who are loyal to them to override nonpartisan professionals.

There is a danger that blighted hopes and expectations will create bitterness in people’s minds, which could fuel conflict in an unpredictable direction. Cry, the beloved country.