BY RAJPAL ABEYNAYAKE
The problem in this part of the world is that we have had enough coronavirus, but not enough ‘Karuna-virus’. Karuna or everyday acts of compassion were called for, in an economic climate that didn’t have much room for Governmental intervention.
The State can’t step in and pay private sector salaries when there is a virus induced slump, as it happens in Denmark. Our coffers are not so flush as to afford generous handouts or direct cash payments to bolster the economy. Cash rich countries have resorted to these methods, that go under broad rubric of ‘stimulus’.
But, in the absence of such State infusions which are hard to come by in a nation without abundant income sources such as ours, the private sector should have responded to the coronavirus with ‘Karuna-virus’. There is a movement already in a certain part of the world that documents everyday acts of compassion and heroism during the pandemic — and you guessed it, it’s called ‘Karuna-virus.’
Karuna, with its Sanskrit origin, simply means compassion. It’s true that the private sector, SMEs in particular were badly hit by the pandemic and the resultant closures and the economic slump. But not so some of the large conglomerates.
Some behemoths earned more money during the pandemic than they usually do — and that’s not just Amazon, it’s also some of the giant corporates here in this country. But there was no transfer of largesse, no Chamber of industry thought it fit to initiate a fund — or a semblance of a transfer of wealth — to protect the vast mass of workers who had lost jobs, and suffered in a myriad other ways due to the pandemic.
In large part, it’s because neo-liberalism or the vestiges of it, is still with us. Post neo-liberalism is a mental construct but neo-liberal excess is everywhere except perhaps that the pandemic succeeded in making a few dents to alter its fundamental character.
‘Karuna-virus’ cannot be Government policy. It has to come voluntarily from the big business establishments.
But it didn’t. Leave alone large acts of compassion, there weren’t many small ones either. Or at least industry should have coalesced into a mission of achieving the big targets. In 2030 electricity from renewable sources would be more expensive than oil. But, though the government has set a goal for fossil fuel free power generation by 2050, there is not a murmur about this from our private sector behemoths.
Strangely, even in the ‘Karuna-virus’ department, it was the SMEs that rose to the challenge. Janik Jayasuriya of Little England cottages fame in Nuwara Eliya transported vegetables that went unused due to the cancellation of the holiday season, and distributed free veggies in Colombo. There were many such acts of kindness from the hard pressed small and medium business sector folk. But, the big conglomerates went into complain mode.
What was the lament of the big corporates in this country? Would you believe it, the most strident cry was that their PR campaigns were not in place. They feared that there would be virus ‘cluster formation’ from within their factories and premises, and they wouldn’t be prepared for it.
These companies and their managements were incapable of looking at society which had sustained them, and devise ways of salvaging what was left of their goodwill. Not a thought was spared for hundreds of thousands who were losing their jobs, especially in the hospitality sector.
These people who come around with guns blazing touting sponsorship packages for every big ticket event, went AWOL during the pandemic. Their corporate sustainability budgets so called, which generally runs into billions at least in some cases, went under moratorium until better days would come — so that they could tie up their good work so called with future big ticket events.
The obscenity of it was that in some countries — not ours — most of the external funding that came in as Covid recovery aid, went towards funding big corporations. In a survey done in eight developing countries, it was revealed that 63 percent of Covid related aid went towards funding corporate giants with just one percent going to informal sector workers. (research carried out by Financial Transparency Coalition.)
These statistics offer a pointer towards the generally avaricious attitude of big business which doesn’t raise a finger to bear the burden, but puts hands and feet up if there is a State handout that would fatten them further.
This ‘Karuna-virus’ deficit on the part of the business elite of Sri Lankan society is disgraceful but is to be expected. Generally their corporate responsibility so called is all about self aggrandisement because there is nothing that’s not tied to PR and advertising.
CVS the medical products company operating from North America filled — created rather — 50000 job vacancies, to absorb workers furloughed from the Marriott and Hilton hotel chains during the pandemic. Unfortunately, there is no big business in this country that has done anything remotely comparable.
All of this shows, that resilience never comes from the top earning blue chips. It comes from the small and medium enterprises and the daily wage earners who struggle but spread a little ‘Karuna virus’, at least by helping each other.
Here, as in some other parts of the world, large corporates got bigger during the pandemic — and small business died. Big business used its lobbying power and managed to expand during pandemic conditions, because they have the clout and the financial capacity.
But what has been absent is a second look at their customer bases — the ordinary people of this country. No set of corporate CEOs got together in Sri Lanka, to set up a fund for struggling startups and small businesses falling by the wayside. They were available however, for zoom meetings and seminars which discussed abstruse issues such as leverage, and the benefits of quantitative easing.
Not a word was spoken about the daily wage earners, or how to absorb those who have lost jobs back into the workforce. But they were experts as casting themselves as the victims. They were lamenting the fact that they had to sustain large workforces, but having found the benefits of working from home, they lost no opportunity in making that an excuse to slash salaries and allowances.
This stark lack of ‘Karuna virus’ and empathy among the moneyed elite would be a sad story written alongside the tales of ordinary heroism during the pandemic and the recovery phase. There is no more goodwill that some of these big name companies have to lose — they have lost whatever they have already, but couldn’t care less because they have essentially used the pandemic to wipe out small business competition.
In this situation of monopoly they continue to call the shots, and of course shame on the business sector interlocutors who continue to give these compassion-free elements a spotlight. There is a symbiotic relationship between the business related advertising and PR adjuncts, and the big players who constantly get their oxygen to bloat their images from the PR firms.
The Karuna virus has spread among the ordinary folk who have opened faceboook pages and helped each other’s businesses and generally managed to spread some karuna — sometimes making their compassion go viral in a media world that is captivated by corporate gloss, and corporate pomp.
Neo-liberalism certainly is not dead and there is a particularly virulent strain among the large corporate sector in this country. They ask for retrenchment, for greater pandemic related subsidies, but in a free market, suppress their competition and squash small business underfoot. But the small timer has an answer — his ‘Karuna virus’ he hopes will be a glittering example one day, even though at the moment all that the corporates are doing is to laugh all the way to the bank.