When Dominic Cummings, the former Advisor to the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a British Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry last week, he unleashed on his former pal for nearly seven hours and lambasted him for mismanaging the Covid situation in the UK.
In Sri Lanka, the doctors and the Government have both been able to fight Covid by uniting all disparate elements. Nobody has cut the ground from under the feet of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa or his Cabinet of Ministers despite Covid, and there definitely wasn’t any Lankan equivalent of Dominic Cummings.
Pandemic management has a double-edged quality to it. Those leaders who are seen to manage and control the spread of the disease are rewarded, sometimes despite the difficulties caused to the people, curiously. Even Boris Johnson gets lucky. He was vehemently against a lockdown as Cummings, his former advisor, told the Parliamentary Committee, but he bit the bullet and locked down the nation anyway.
There are other countries in which leaders have managed Covid differently without lockdowns, and survived. It’s moot as to what the situation would be in India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s approval rating is still at a massive 69 percent, despite the Western media in particular being clear in its verdict that Modi’s popularity has plummeted and that he would not be able to recover politically from ‘Covid mismanagement’.
Modi and Johnson are able to keep their polling numbers up despite the fact that they have both been seen as having mismanaged the health crisis in their countries. Johnson’s Conservatives won the majority of the recent by-elections, as a case in point.
This underscores the double-edged nature of Covid management politics. People seem to be aware that it is a tough call. There is always the ‘damned if you are, damned if you aren’t’ nature of the managing the fallout from the pandemic, and the pandemic itself. Health Ministers in all countries are particularly vulnerable these days to various charges ranging from incompetence to negligence.
This happened in the UK where Matt Hancock, the Health Minister, was savaged by Dominic Cummings who told his inquisitors in the Committee that the gentleman should have been sacked from his post 15 or 20 times already. Even in relatively bucolic New Zealand, Health Ministers have been in trouble during the Covid period.
Dr. Rukshan Bellana who is the President of an alternate doctors’ union in this country has pitched into Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi as “the worst we have ever had.” What he did not say was that this Health Minister faced the worst health crisis any Health Minister has ever faced in this country’s history. What any of her predecessors had to face does not even come close in comparison to the magnitude of the issues she has had to struggle with in the health sector. The critics who are quick to come up with appellations such as ‘the worst’ should be by now aware that the masses are more generous in judgement than some hot-headed doctors.
Matt Hancock is still Health Minister in the UK and though the pundits are saying that he will not survive for long, the voters seem to give his boss’s Government high marks in the midst of the pandemic. The man on the street seems to have more empathy for the difficulties faced by those in charge in this crisis situation.
In Sri Lanka, it is the Opposition that seems to draw the ire of the masses. That is natural, considering their antics such as taking wheelbarrows to the market, in an attempt to make a political circus of a bad situation. It will be remembered that the JVP tried to paralyze the country with strike action when the then Mahinda Rajapaksa Government was contending with the last phase of the war and was about to defeat the enemy. The people never forgave the then opposition for that. Those such as Ravi Karunanayake of Alimankada Pamankada fame, and his fellow squadron of jesters, found it near impossible to recover from the mistake of vilifying the war effort at a time of crisis.
The Opposition seems to be scarcely unable to hide its collective glee at the prospect of the Government becoming unpopular due to the severity of the crisis that is being faced by the Government at the moment. It shows that these people never seem to learn from the monumental mistakes of their past. Poking fun at a regime engaged in battle — this time with an unseen enemy — was never a good idea.
Taiwan has an absolutely stellar record with Covid control and has been ranked among the best in the world in terms of Covid management. Even so, Taiwanese Health Minister Chen Shih-chung has come under a barrage of criticism from the public prompting the country’s Premier Su Tseng-chang to say about the Health Minister that “even if he were a god reborn on Earth, he cannot protect against every eventuality.”
Likewise, Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi need not worry herself too much due to attacks coming her way. If Taiwan’s Health Minister is being criticized after presiding over one of the world’s best Covid management efforts, she will know the critics will not spare her, no matter what. But she can be assured that those Health Ministers who came before her that are now making acerbic comments about the Ministry and the way it is being run, did not even face one hundredth of the problems she is facing at present.
The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led Opposition has not had the time or the inclination to realize that there is a big difference between unforced errors and other missteps in governance. Unforced error is tennis parlance for bad play due to one’s own failures rather than the skill or effort of the opponent. The UNP Government led by the current SJB types were the maestros of unforced errors such as the weeks-long fuel shortages due to delays in shipments, the indifference to security and intelligence warnings that led to the devastating Easter Sunday attacks, etc.
People do not forgive unforced errors. But if there are missteps in the face of adversity people are not only willing to excuse them sometimes — they also reward the tenacity of politicians that persisted despite the severity of the crisis, as the re-election of the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government with a substantial majority in 2010 indicated. No Government either here or in Taiwan or New Zealand could expect to get everything right during a time of extreme crisis, and some missteps are inevitable when policymaking happens under fluid, high pressure circumstances. That is why even UK Premier Boris Johnson is being rewarded perhaps; people seemed to recognize the fact that he did not want to damage the economy despite the enormity of the Covid fight.
The experts and the critics including his own former advisors seem to find fault with him for this stance, but the people are more forgiving, if the polls and the recent by-election results are anything to go by.
The Governing Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) leadership should be happy as long as the SJB keeps scoring own goals such as the recent wheelbarrow stunt. There are also the political analysts who are assessing the Government’s record entirely on its China policy and its economic performance, as if Covid did not exist at all. Just imagine trying to make an assessment of the first Mahinda Rajapaksa regime without factoring in the war victory.
Though no lunatic would dare do that, some critics these days barely mention Covid when critiquing this Government’s record.
That is in fact a back handed compliment, as it appears the alarmists would rather avoid the Covid issue because the Government is handling a bad brief rather well. Calling out the so- called China policy, they find, is rather more convenient under the circumstances, but this gambit would not fly because there is no point whatsoever critiquing the Government’s record without factoring in the pandemic. By trying to do so nevertheless, they are aiming a dud missile at the regime, and that calls their bluff. People know that no political analyst can be serious these days if he attacks the President and his administration, while conveniently ignoring the fact that there is a pandemic raging in the background.
A security checkpoint during the current travel restrictions