Hemin hemin

With the curfew and lock down restrictions enforced since March 20 considerably relaxed last week, the country is hopefully returning to a 'new normal.' It is obviously impossible to return to normal as we knew it pre-pandemic. While there has been a lot of laudatory comment about how well the country, under the leadership of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, handled the Emergency, there is no room yet for self-congratulation. The crisis is far from over and many hurdles lie ahead to be cleared. "Hemin hemin" (slowly, slowly) must be the name of the game. Going too fast too soon can mean that all the sacrifices made over the last couple of months risk being flushed down the drain. Whatever the pressure, both economic and social, that will be a constant factor in the weeks ahead, must be resisted with the public health safety accorded the topmost priority.

We have all observed that when the Colombo and Gampaha districts, where the restrictions were tigtest, were given some respite early last week, the normally horrendous traffic which our country is being increasingly burdened with, became much less burdensome than before. Although the roads were no longer deserted as during the previous weeks when blanket restrictions applied, there was traffic flow instead of the gridlocks of the past. The reduction of the number of vehicles on the streets may be partly attributable to many sectors of the economy, be they offices, shops or industries, working well below capacity and the number of people asked to report for duty was a fraction of normal. Importantly public transport, both road and rail, were not working at full capacity. The reduction of buses on city roads as a result particularly helped ease the flow of traffic.

How soon we can reach the 'new normal' is a question that is wide open and nobody will be able to provide an answer at least at this point of time. Nevertheless, the relaxation has given much respite to people whose livelihoods depended on the informal economy. Daily paid workers, unlike those who are paid salaries, were left high and dry when the lock down was imposed. While those employed in the formal sector had to often endure salary cuts, they at least got something whereas the daily paid workers got nothing. Undoubtedly the extended social system that we enjoy in this country, as well as the generosity of some 'haves' and even a segment of the 'have nots,' helped with people assisting their neighbours and paying handymen and domestics who could not report for work due to the restrictions at least a part of their normal wages. People like three-wheeler drivers who make up a considerable segment of the workforce were savagely hit though a few, were able to find work as deliverymen whose services became essential under the conditions that prevailed.

While not labouring the obvious, it must be said that it will be difficult for much (if not most) of the economy to regain an even keel in the short or even medium term. One of the country's leading hoteliers/travel operators, Hiran Cooray of Jetwing, was quoted on Friday saying that the hotel industry was grappling with zero revenue. He acknowledged that they have been substantially assisted by the state with a moratorium on repayment of loans and interest and help with working capital. Given that the vast majority of the country demand a government bailout from their pandemic-hit plight, it is refreshing that in this context a business leader has gone public saying that they can't expect everything from the state. Self-help must be the name of the game wherever possible. The government, like most of the people and businesses is resource-strapped, and is looking for external assistance. But we must live with the reality that most countries of the world are also grappling with their own post-pandemic problems and will be hard pressed to help others.

Our stablemate, The Island, on Wednesday published a letter from a regular correspondent complaining that he observed a number of people without face masks, including the leader of a political party and a group of young police women in the Independence Square area while out on his daily constitutional. While the vast majority of those out on the streets wear masks, a few do not. We see all the bigwigs including the president and the prime minister wearing their face masks at televised meetings and discussions. Sometimes (though seldom) that does not happen. Also social distancing cannot be always observed. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was caught on camera hugging the late Mr. Arumugam Thondaman's son when he called on the bereaved family. Focus on such incidents can be easily damned as nit-picking. Absolutes are very hard to live by but leaders who are spotlighted

on television screens during the news bulletins must be mindful that not only big brother but the whole country is watching.

The Health Ministry must be congratulated for publishing safety guidelines various sectors must observe as the opening-up proceeds. Hopefully, businesses, including industries, shops and offices etc. inform themselves of the rules, and more importantly, observe them. That, of course, is easier said than done as enforcement is well nigh impossible. It is all a matter of discipline and the realization by individuals that if they do not conform to the norms required at this time, they are not only hurting themselves but other people also.


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