Thus, Basil Rajapaksa was brought by PM Rajapaksa to head the Taskforce for Essentials. Basil spoke about feeding Colombo without shortages. He told the meeting held at the Presidential Secretariat attended by District Secretaries, Bank officials, State and private sector representatives on 25 March, while the curfew will continue to arrest the spread of COVID-19, there will be an efficient delivery network established immediately in partnership with the private sector to provide food and essentials to the doorsteps. He told this meeting there is no shortage of rice, coconut, eggs and vegetables. It was decided at this meeting to deliver medicine at their homes, to regular patients registered with hospitals with assistance from MOH, Divisional Secretaries and the army. Thereafter, in a TV discussion detailing the facilities and assistance the government would provide for the poor and the deprived, Basil Rajapaksa said, they have decided on financial packages that include 5,000 rupee allowances, debt deductions, waivers and other benefits. He also said the army will provide transport from home and back to senior citizens to collect their monthly pension from the banks.
These economic benefits were announced in a free market economy that is in the grips of severe debts, both foreign and domestic. During the past month, all economic activities have virtually come to a grinding halt. Even before COVID-19 erupted in Wuhan in December last year, the SL government was seeking moratoriums on servicing foreign debt. Two weeks into a serious lockdown with curfew, the CB Governor has with cabinet approval made a desperate plea for foreign remittances from the Sri Lankan Diaspora and also from resident Sri Lankans with foreign reserves to bring them back, with no questions asked and no conditions laid. In short, money can now be officially laundered too.
In such serious and uncertain context, opposition political leaders are not asking how BR’s financial benefits announced could be implemented. Pundits in social media, in face book, twitter, whatsapp and other platforms are more interested in memes making fun than serious and critical review of measures announced. After more than a week since BR chaired the meeting at the Presidential Secretariat, there is no regular delivery network in operation in Colombo and suburbs. Police are issuing curfew permits to small time vendors on wheels to sell vegetables, eggs, bread and other bakery stuff and also fish within local areas. This has no guarantee who comes down the lane next. Seemingly systematic deliveries undertaken by the Corporate sector supermarket chains have also failed in keeping up to promised levels of efficiency. Shortages of food and essentials are on the increase no doubt.
There are apparently 02 very conspicuous reasons, each playing into the other, for failure in establishing a regular delivery network as promised by BR and in failing to take total control of flattening the COVID-19 curve with indefinite and continuing curfews island wide.
First, is the breakdown in rural supplies. Rural economy was never taken seriously during the past 40 years. This free market economy was wholly city centred patronised by the affluent urban middleclass. Rural economy could only be a peripheral supplier to the few mega cities with vegetables, plantains, papaya, coconut, king coconut, rice, eggs, fish, broiler chicken and the like, at most. Before COVID-19 broke down social life, most rural products had imported substitutes in Super markets. Seasonal short falls in rural supply therefore was not felt in the city and needed no answers.
In such situation, continued curfew broke down primary collection at village level. Individuals who played the role of “collectors” were unable to bring their supplies to small peripheral towns. Nor were the next phase of the supply chain operated by “Mudalalis” that brought bulk supplies to main centres possible, due to curfew. Explanations given by major buyers and suppliers one week ago at Dambulla was that they have constraints in transporting with no guarantee the wholesale buyers in Pettah would accept what they transport. They also cannot afford to bring their lorries back empty, from Colombo. This explains how prices of eggs dropped to ten rupees an egg and men who wanted to earn some daily income went around selling them in semi urban areas. Small time broiler farmers are far worse affected, with those reaching 45 days dying in whole lots. Small time vegetable farmers are also facing the same sad fate. These villagers are now being denied the cash they earned before COVID-19 outbreak. Villages are kept isolated and without any cash flow making them poorer.
Though Basil thought they could, the government cannot replace this supply chain with State agencies and political networking. Most difficult phase to replace is primary collection at village level, where the farmer needs cash immediately when selling his products. Often, they are taken care of by the primary collector through the “Mudalali” with loans, fertiliser and agri-inputs. With many rules and regulations on finance holding the hand of State agencies, this primary collection cannot be replaced by the State. Nor can the security forces, as they don’t have any organised and standing presence in villages.
Corporate sector that initially promised to accept orders online for regular efficient delivery to homes, has not been able to get them off the ground as efficiently as promised. They are stuck with no large stocks rolling in and with wholly inadequate logistics. They never had their own delivery service. They thought they could outsource home delivery to companies running tuk-tuks and cabs. Little did they realise that tuk-tuk and cab service companies were providing services through hires arranged on their app, for which a commission was collected. Large majority of these tuk-tuk and cab drivers were domestic migrants. They rented beds and had their meals on the run from wayside small eating-houses. Curfew closed down all that compelling them to leave Colombo in an exodus.
All in all, most of Colombo is being fed through unorganised, ad hoc private interventions looking for incomes hard to come, more than organised State and Corporate sector networks. All island curfew with Western Province (WP) under an indefinite curfew for the last 10 plus days from 24 March afternoon and continuing, has not been what Wuhan had been under a complete lockdown. With the GMOA, a trade union demanding a “total lockdown” island wide joined by affluent middleclass sections, the government has only been giving in to them without using the term “lockdown” itself. The end result is yet in the making. COVID-19 affected numbers are gradually climbing from 65 Sri Lankans on 20 March when the all island curfew was first slammed to 176 now, at the time of writing this on Monday 06 April.
Promising the all island curfew in operation with an indefinite curfew for WP would continue to control and mitigate COVID-19 outbreak while essentials and food will be made available at the doorstep (for urban middleclass), BR’s efforts have failed in establishing the network promised. Nor have the COVID-19 affected numbers remained static. There is definitely something that Sri Lanka and Basil cannot achieve what Wuhan achieved under Xi Jinping.
Understanding what “lockdown” meant for Wuhan with over 11 million people and then how it was possible in China is important to know why we cannot have a “lockdown”. Wuhan “lockdown” a decision never taken by any government at any time in modern history in response to any type of epidemic, began on 23 January. Wuhan would open for normal life on Wednesday 08 April. The lockdown began with all schools and universities closed and all transport taken off the roads. Grocery shops and pharmacies were allowed to keep open. People were not allowed outside their homes, except one from a household to walk to a grocery or pharmacy.
The lockdown in real terms began after the first week of February. No one was allowed to leave their homes for any reason. The district party “apparat” took total control of people and their needs decided by them. Residents were not allowed to leave homes. Food was rationed and distributed to every household. Party security guards visited every household every day to check health conditions of residents. Anyone showing any symptoms of COVID-19 were immediately removed and sent to hospitals.
This sort of controlling and monitoring was possible due to 02 main factors. One, in China they have massive centrally planned apartment complexes in cities and suburbs. Between the years 2003 to 2014, China had built 5.5 million apartments in their cities. These apartment complexes have a single main entrance and exit for all and that can be controlled anytime. Two, they are all provided security by the party “apparat” in the district. Therefore, all 11 million people in the 13 districts in Wuhan under the lockdown were totally under the party “apparat” controlled and monitored daily by their own party cadres and guards.
This Chinese apparat is unique. It evolved to what it is today from 1968 during the “Cultural Revolution” of Mao Zedong. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was structured as a massive bureaucracy right down to the local party branch. Its bureaucracy at every level was fused with the “State” to take over the State during the “cultural revolution”. When the Cultural Revolution came to an end after almost a decade that saw many political upheavals, rebellions and millions of deaths; persecuted and killed, massacred in large numbers and driven to commit suicide, the governing CCP in fact had become the Chinese State as well. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as a politically organised army had also come under the CCP. In China therefore, the “Government” and the “State” have no clear demarcations of power as we know. This powerful party apparat continued to assume unprecedented power even after economic reforms were enforced in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping. Economic reforms were in fact carried through by the same CCP apparat and to this day under President Xi Jinping as well.
It is that party apparat which completely locked down Wuhan and controlled every aspect of life there. It is this same party apparat that controlled hospital resources and needs in Wuhan and built new hospitals, moved human and material resources from unaffected distant provinces to Wuhan to bridge whatever deficit there emerged in meeting the COVID-19 threat.
There is also another aspect that adds to it. Today, after Mao’s “Cultural Revolution”, the Chinese society knows only party discipline driven into social and personal life by ruthless power. The Cultural Revolution instilled in youth of then Mao’s China, the party is supreme and obeying party orders would save China from “revisionists and elite bourgeoise” for future generations. It is in such a rigid regimented society the CCP apparat was able to lockdown Wuhan.
Lockdown in Wuhan was brutal for those outside China. There are claims of deaths unreported. Wuhanese themselves wouldn’t know the size of the damage of their two and a half month lockdown. For the Chinese, that information isn’t very important. Officially China never counted the dead in Tiananmen Square (1989) beyond 291, while the world counts over 10,000 dead. It is that China with a political party apparat with the PLA that can lockdown a city with 11 million people and keep moving on.
To say it differently, a political party like the SL Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) would never be able to hold Wuhan under a lockdown. A political party that has no direct political reach to households and without any control over the total State, cannot effectively lockdown a country nor a city. It is far worse when that party cannot project itself as the legitimately elected representation in a country with no functional provincial councils and a sitting parliament. Though a curfew can be imposed, everything else within the curfew that Wuhan had, cannot be put in place with that finesse. Failure in putting into place an efficient and a regular service system for household needs and a food delivery system that could serve the poor and the deprived proves it beyond doubt.
06 April, 2020