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Splashes of New Normal

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Even we oldies and betters in this laid back country are now well and truly into the phenomenon of ‘new normal’. We assumed this new manner of mostly social integration in our behaviour, and work pattern, as we emerged from the lockdown and scary four month shut-in caused by that dread Covid 19 pest that whizzed across the entire globe and is still devastating in many countries.

‘New Normal’ is defined by Wikipedia as “a state to which an economy, society etc settles following a crisis, when this differs from the situation that prevailed prior to the start of the crisis. The term has been used in relation to the financial crisis of 2007-08, the aftermath of the 2008-12 global recession and the Covid 19 pandemic. The term was used in 2005 by Peter M Sandman and Jody Larnard in relation to methods of manipulation of public attitude towards avian influenza…”

The worst hit country – USA with India catching up fast – soon grabbed the term and used it freely. Its saner population is following stringent measures of keeping safe from the infection, in spite of laissez faire advocated by its President. A couple who entertained freely where people invited would sit from 1.00 pm to 5.00 at the lunch table had to stem all invitations. “Too hot a summer to eat out ” since eating in open spaces – gardens – is the new norm. With autumn setting in, this duo too would place tables out and serve food probably in disposable packets with disposable cutlery. Another single living man first had a meal away from home in late August since freedom in the US was curtailed (unofficially; with Trump more concerned with the economy than lives of Americans) in March. Selected are restaurants that have outside tables and disposable cutlery. Work on line from home is still the norm all across the States.

 

Local acquiescence to New Normal

Just as we Sri Lankans observed lockdowns and shut ourselves in our homes, barring minor karachchals in densely populated patches in Colombo and among druggies, we are much in new normal.

First our dress has changed; we are now all face-masked. A habit now so that exiting the home door is hardly ever executed with the face uncovered. Returning home from office or a jaunt, first was hugs to the children; touching with affection stay-at-home parents or a flop in a sofa to flick slipper/chappals/shoes off one’s feet. No longer. It’s first to the washbasin and a thorough hand scrub with many throwing worn clothes to the wash or at least sunning them. The sun is Covid 19’s greatest enemy, even its only, unfortunately, so far

A major breakthrough is tripping. Many are the loaded cars, hired vans, even buses that are on the roads carrying people on holiday/ pilgrimage/sight-seeing. No such luck in the States.

 

Personal experiences

Not even a week elapsed after the official lockdown was lifted when a friend and his wife invited me and two others to dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Only just emerging from being all masked and gloved even to buy stuff from door to door vendors (bless them!) my involuntary question:”Myee, will there be Chinese?” This restaurent was invariably full with luxury busloads of tourists from the Land of the Great Wall, now set on its Belt and Road Initiative and neo- colonialism that is enriching its state controlled population. Servers all masked and gloved with no serving by them. Dishes were placed on the table and we had to help ourselves.

Then a meal at a many starred hotel where very politely a manager advised us to don our face masks whenever we arose from our table. The sumptuous brunch buffet dishes were safely behind glass screens. One pointed out choices and it was served on a plate and handed over.

No common touching of serving spoons. Hence my son’s first admonition when I said I was having guests for lunch: equal number of spoons to guests for each dish – no common touching. My retort: you will have to buy me more cutlery! This, along with the most prominent item on display: paper serviettes and a hand sanitizer.

It was good experience staying over in hotels. The Tissawewa resthouse, now the Sanctuary at Tissawewa needed not much precaution since clientele was small during our visit. I wrote in an earlier article in this column the observance of face masks by the throng of pilgrims with however, scant attention paid to social distancing at the two most sacred Buddhist sites.

On a later date we stayed at EKHO Lake boutique hotel in Polonnaruwa. Excellent service! It is the old resthouse that sat on the bund of the Parakrama Samudra which had an extension built into the wewa to accommodate the young Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1953. It underwent three complete refurbishments to emerge an excellent place of R&R with the magnificent view of the wewa, claimed to be largest man-made lake in the world. Peace, beauty and appreciation of my good fortune to visit a place such as this in one of the most ancient and highly civilized cities of ancient Lanka, enveloped me. Appreciated also was the best of Sri Lankan hospitality given by the courteous, hardworking Udesh Sasanka and his team. Again not much need of new normal as the sun shone strong and the winds blew across miles of water to be inhaled by us. I realized with a start that it was the first time I really sat near a nephew as he showed me photographs in his sophisticated cell phone. Earlier, we were so conscious of proximity.

Lunch at that most gracious, spacious, orderly Bawa designed Heritance, Dambulla, was a disaster, I am loath to say but needs be truthful. The hotel was crowded, a discount in price being offered as is the new normal practice of most hotels. We were asked to wait for our lunch until the full dining room was vacated. When we went in, social distancing seemed to be thrown to the winds. The hotel management was keen to maintain this restraint, but not the hungry, rather the greedy lunch seekers. They pushed with plates or their bodies those in front in queues forming at the various food points; broke queues and barged in to spaces left by conscientious persons and showed themselves to be salivating more severely than Pavlov’s mice. Hotels should limit the number of their clientele. Income raking should not compromise safety measures and the public really have to pay more attention to decent behaviour.

 

Benefits of New Normal

True some, particularly the younger persons who love their freedom and adore going about in pairs or groups, are stymied and chafe at restrictions. But we older people really do appreciate the constraints which to us have benefits.

It is accepted and almost proven beyond doubt that common infections like colds, coughs and slight rises in body temperatures are much less frequent than in pre-Covid 19 times. Of course a sore throat is not to be even considered, worse than the plague!

Temperature checking at most entrances is just taken in one’s stride. Only a pause in one’s progress forwards. I heard it said that nearing the gadget to the forehead is being replaced by arm temperature taking as some radiation enters and may be injurious to the brain. I often wonder as I pause with the gadget at forehead or arm, what the reaction would be if my temperature was higher than normal, me being an extra warm-blooded creature. Telephone hastily shouted into; sirens blasting as an ambulance approaches and me whisked to Angoda to the IDH. The other home in Angoda preferred, thank you, in these rapidly infecting Covid times!

We in this beautiful, thrice blessed island, when Kuveni’s curses do not prevail, thank our good fortune and the vigilance and self sacrificial performance of duties by the Presidential Task Force to monitor, trace and track down those affected with the wicked flu; for the ease with which we transmitted from severe lockdown to easy freedom, albeit masked and punctuated with officialdom. We have slipped quietly into the new normal. We don’t, or at least, should not gather in numbers in public places nor in restaurants and clubs. Social gatherings are gaining momentum. People are travelling around. Our dignified old way of greeting is now universal. Queues though, are still body to body lines. Why ever cannot our people realize a queue does not call for breathing on the person in front so that he feels the hot breath touch his ears and bare arms and will certainly creep into his nose! That is a custom of New Normal often broken in our country’s impatience and lack of good comportment.

May this new normal become customary and continue long since a newer normal would mean another crisis. The world has been devastated more than enough for centuries to come!


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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