An Election in the Time of Pandemic
By Nabiya Vaffoor
Sri Lanka’s General Election, held once every five years, see the nation’s politicians vying for 196 of the 225 seats in Parliament, as voters exercise their mandate through a polling system that has remained mostly unchanged over the past 36 years.
Next week, however, might pose new challenges, as citizens contend with the ongoing pandemic and try to avoid the threat of a second wave. Adapting to the situation, health authorities issued a set of guidelines for voters and officials to ensure the Elections can be held safely.
Following these guidelines will be vital if the country wants to prevent a crisis, and so Ceylon Today spoke to common voters to see if they are aware of what they need to do.
Dwindling faith in politicians
Roshini, a 36-year-old mother of three who makes a living selling toys in Borella, stated she did not feel the upcoming Election was even necessary. When asked why, she flatly replied that she had been voting since she was 20, but had yet to see any Government uplift the poor like herself.
“We are low-class people; the higher authorities will not consider our opinion. If we ask them to stop this Election, they will not consider that. They don’t care what the current situation of the country is; all they want to do is to hold the Election to seize power. After this, they will probably impose curfew, which will lead people like us to starve for more than two or three months. I had to pawn all the gold jewellery I had, to feed my kids during the lockdown. Now I have been caught in that debt, while I have to earn to feed my three children,” she lamented.
Roshini noted that though political rallies were conducted near her residence, none of the politicians had visited or informed her regarding the voter guidelines; she is only aware that she has to wear a mask and maintain social distancing in the queue because the electronic media has been reporting it repeatedly.
Under the morning glare, and amidst Borella’s bustle of people, each seemingly rushing after their personal mirages, we managed to stop and consult 55-year-old Wimalasiri – although his views were far less sunny.
“There won’t be any difference whether or not the Election is held. The people aren’t constantly wearing masks or taking the situation seriously. The Government and ruling party will cover up the real situation regarding COVID-19 until they get a chance to hold the Election and confirm their victory. As far as I know, the majority of the public aren’t aware of any voter guidelines.”
Like Roshini, he had little faith in campaign promises. “No ruling party has ever been concerned about us – they removed all the pavement shops and only gave those business vans to their supporters. Now we have to stand on the pavement to find a penny to live,” complained the widower.
Silva, a 51-year-old working in an office in Borella, claimed, “For as long we know, the rulers have not been sensible enough to understand the country’s situation from the public’s side; by now we as the public should be vigilant enough to understand this reality and safeguard ourselves without depending on them.”
He added, since the country has been on pause for so long, holding this Election would allow the President, who has proven a capable leader in his opinion, to be supported by a better team to move forward.
“No one has informed us about the voter guidelines yet, but we can’t palm that responsibility onto the Government. We should learn to manage our own safety. Take the issue of wearing face masks, for example: one set of doctors’ claim it is unnecessary, whereas another group of doctors advise it to be compulsory, leading the public into utter confusion.
“Even regarding social distancing, although everyone is concerned whether those guidelines were followed in political meetings and in the polling booth, what about the buses, and trains? People run for buses and trains in a rush to be at work on time, or to avoid missing the last bus home, but nobody thinks of the health guidelines then,” he pointed out.
Imraan, a mobile parts shop owner from Galle, claims he is uninterested in politics and will choose his candidate on Election Day, saying, “None of it matters in day-to-day life, it is only my hard-earned money that will help at the end of the day.” He further claimed to be unaware of any guidelines – except for wearing a mask, because the Police urge him to do so.
When asked about the lack of youth involvement in politics that some candidates have pointed out, Imraan noted that the current politicians aren’t providing the youth with good examples to draw their attention. “The politicians of this country have given the false picture that only money and corruption can survive in politics, that’s why the youth is no longer concerned and that’s why there aren’t any young leaders.”
No clear idea
Sarath, a 55-year-old lottery seller at a stall near Lady Ridgeway Hospital, noted he was unaware of any voter guidelines.
“There weren’t any awareness programmes, but at a couple of meetings around my residence, a majority of the supporters of these meetings were wearing masks – but no social distancing was in practice. I usually wear a mask to protect myself, since my wife has lung cancer and she is vulnerable,” said Sarath.
Shantha, a three-wheel driver noted he wasn’t aware of any specific guidelines either, except for wearing a mask and taking his own pen to the polling booth as the Election Commissioner noted in the Media.
“There is no point taking the risk to vote, since none of these leaders consider the issues of the low-class when they get in power. None of these candidates cares about us; they only act up a drama during the campaign period and work for their own agenda. As a citizen, I know the worth of holding an Election, but whether the results really bring any advantage to people like us, is still questionable,” shared Shantha.
Judging by the above statements, it would appear that many are largely unaware of the published health guidelines for the voting process. With a few days left until the Election, authorities will need to spread awareness and ensure these guidelines are adhered to, or the threat of us facing a dreaded second wave could become very real.
(Pix by Udesh Ranasinha)