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The WHO, ‘Civil Society’ and the parameters of sanity

This government is crazy. Not just this government, but all governments are crazy. All governments past and present as well as those yet to be formed are insane.  Alright.  Strong words. Frequently used words. Here’s the question: are the finger-pointers sane?

Harsha Wickramasinghe, engineer and a perceptive if infrequent commentator on things related to policy and politics, at least in social media, had an interesting take.  Here’s the translation:

‘According to some on Facebook the country should have been shut down the moment the first person infected with Corvid-19 was found. Are face masks necessary or not? Is intermittent curfew wise or not? We’ve seen a lot of debates on matters such as these, but we must keep in mind that this is the very first time that all of us are facing a pandemic.

‘It is also a first-time experience for doctors when it comes to responding and treating the disease. Many errors and highly successful treatments are invariably tied to these very experiences. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) first declared that the virus cannot be transmitted through air. However, with more knowledge/experience they quickly corrected themselves.

‘We must understand that the avenue of successfully responding to the pandemic is neither a straight line nor an expressway. Other countries have shown us that it is an arduous road with deadly twists and turns. As the public, the way we can ensure that the journey is undertaken with care is to support the driver who uses brakes and steering wheel in accordance with the nature of the road and not by complaining  that the signal was wrong, that brakes were applied without warning etc.’

Now there’s been a hue and cry about disposal of cadavers over the past week.  Not surprisingly a bunch of people who have appropriated the term ‘civil society’ have done the usual. They’ve petitioned one and all.  ‘Follow WHO guidelines!’ That’s their cry and if you google that whine with ‘Sri Lanka’ you’ll find a copy of the petition on multiple sites [or you can read it here].

Of course, they can’t say ‘follow our guidelines,’ because they are not a body of epidemiologists. Fortunately, they had the WHO ‘guidelines.’  Otherwise they’d be stuck with ‘cultural preferences’ or ‘faith edicts.’ Those of Muslims, in this case.

Now these are not happy times. Death is certainly not something to celebrate. In such times religion does offer much succor. No argument there. And we must acknowledge that even in less traumatic times, there are people who will be loathe to veer from prescribed religious path for whatever reason. It’s belief. It’s faith. And yet, in unprecedented situations, governments err on the side of caution, however ‘sensitive’ or fixated they are with a warped sense of the secular that insists on religious freedoms should override the law.

And yet, not surprisingly, the petitioners shed copious tears about persecution. Yes, Muslims, in their book are persecuted. So who does the persecution? They don’t say it, but say without saying it.  Let’s keep it that way.

There are linguists, writers and anthropologists in this collective. They know a lot about words and about absences. They were after all, roundly silenced a year ago when a bunch of terrorists subscribing to the Islamic faith detonated multiple bombs. They quickly shifted gears to footnote or erase this particular religious community. They spoke of violence (which was nothing compared to what was unleashed on Easter Sunday by National Thowheeth Jama’ath, a group of ISLAMIC  fundamentalists) that took place ‘in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks.’  So, ‘Easter Sunday’ happened. No one ‘did’ it. But, dear, oh dear, ‘in the aftermath’ there were victims WITH an identity. Yes, Muslims. And yes, they were subjected to violence. Absolutely wrong and despicable. However, slicing narrative to whitewash some and vilify others never helps. But then that’s bread and butter for our rent-a-signature worthies.

In this petition, they do mention ‘Easter Sunday’ along with ‘Muslim’.  However, it’s an ‘ISIS inspired group of Muslims’. It’s almost as though no Muslim in Sri Lanka could ever on his or her own volition harbor fundamentalist/terrorist intent. And get this: they talk of negative stereotypes of Muslims that prevailed before Easter Sunday 2019. In other words, Muslims were in any case persecuted and were utterly and absolutely blameless. That’s impression. That’s cute. In other words, whatever heinous crimes any Muslim would commit against any other community is somehow ‘reaction.’ 

But then, they have to draw on all that argumentative toilet wash as preamble. That’s what makes the ‘plight of the Muslims’ so dreadful. So while deferring to the WHO the last word on medicine, pandemic and science, the rent-a-signature worthies put on the mantle of Islamic scholars. They believe that the country’s ‘greatly distressed Muslims’ (yes, Christians who suffered the wrath of the most fervent of the Islamic faith  —and others too —cannot be as ‘distressed’ as the Muslims, we are supposed to infer) will feel they are being punished or that the country has little respect for their concerns if any Muslim who succumbs to Corvid-19 is not buried. Not surprisingly they are part of a chorus which includes Amnesty International and Al Jazeera (which uses the word ‘anguish’ related to the issue)

Why? Well, that’s what Islam says! They know, let’s assume.

Fine. Are these people saying that in situations such as this practices should be state-determined or faith-determined? They are on balance favoring the state because they probably know that going the other way is opening a Pandora’s Box or a can of worms given their long history of demanding an ‘absolutely secular state’ (without Article 9 but WITH Articles 10 and 14 and of course with the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act intact!). This is why they’ve brought in the WHO guidelines.

Harsha’s comment needs to be revisited. The WHO got it wrong about transmission. They said it couldn’t be transmitted through the air. The WHO found this was wrong. The WHO changed its position. The WHO also said that face masks weren’t necessary. The WHO later realized that face masks could help contain the spread of the disease. The WHO changed its stance.

We are all on trial-and-error. Countries have to find their own ways of dealing with the situation that unfolds very fast and in quite unexpected ways. Guidelines are useful, but one would expect at least a few of the petitioners to know the meaning of the word. It’s not a law. It’s not some kind of multilateral covenant. Guidelines refer to general rules, principles, or pieces of advice. Discretion reverts to implementing authority, in this case the Government.

This is a global issue but it has to be resolved at all levels, ‘The Nation’ included. That’s ‘Sri Lanka’ and the Government of Sri Lanka, whether one likes it or not. The petitioners would do well to check out how countries with an overwhelming majority of Muslims are dealing with after-death. Iran, an Islamic state no less, has abandoned Islamic burial rituals. Sure, they’ve not okayed cremation, but if we are talking about religious practices to the last letter then it is about an entire ritual, an entire process, all elements included.

Sri Lanka hasn’t got to where Iran is right now. One could argue that drastic measures should be considered only if the situation gets really out of hand. On the other hand, we are back to the basic and incontrovertible truth: NO ONE KNOWS.  And thus to the time-tested adage, ‘BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY.’

If tomorrow the WHO says ‘cremate,’ what then? Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But we know that the WHO is on a learning curve. The 164 Civil Society (sic) activists and 17 organizations that have signed the petition, on the other hand, are acting as though they know what’s what, what needs to be done, and what should be avoided. Well, the WHO hasn’t given any guidelines as to how citizens should respond to quacks, but I can speak for myself and say ‘I am thrilled you lot are not making decisions right now.’



Let’s not stop singing in the lifeboats  
When the Welikada Prison was razed to the ground

This article was first published in the DAILY MIRROR [April 9, 2020]

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