Constructing reality: COVID & economy messaging in Sri Lanka

Prior to reading this, it may help to read my page on Constructing Reality, which gives some basic theoretical background to this blog post.

I’ve had a long-standing interest in how reality can be constructed, especially in a political context. Currently, it’s possible to observe this happening in Sri Lanka in a very instructive manner.

As background, these are important to know:

1) Sri Lanka has had a confused approach to COVID-19 management, which included a premature self-congratulatory tone last year by the Government. This video from August 2020 is a good example of that.

The current policy approach now seems to be a mass vaccination program, and a half-hearted lockdown that appears to have very little support from the Government.

2) Due to decades of mismanagement, compounded by the pandemic, Sri Lanka’s economy is in a very poor state, with ordinary citizens facing high prices and shortages for basic food items.

In terms of constructing reality, the Government is adopting a blame transference model that absolves themselves of responsibility.

This initially began with pandemic management and was then extended to the economy.

As I rather acerbically pointed out on Twitter, in terms of the approach to COVID-19, the premature celebratory messages have been filed away, and instead the focus has shifted to vaccination numbers.

Meanwhile, Government messaging (which includes the appointment of a former media minister as health minister) on the poorly implemented lockdown is another exercise in blame transference. It’s intended to both mitigate the negative economic impact of a lockdown in a nation that has a large percentage of daily wageworkers, and the failure to stop rising COVID infections and deaths.

To deal with the aspects of the economic crisis that immediately impacts citizens, the Government has declared a “food emergency”. Associated with this is the appointment of a retired military officer to oversee food distribution and rhetoric that transfers the blame for the crisis to black marketers and hoarders.

This messaging is supported by government and government friendly media outlets. Joining in the propaganda barrage are members of the entrepreneurial class who are favourably disposed to those in power.

In summary, what we can see being constructed is the following:

Sri Lanka has world-class pandemic management with record-breaking vaccinations, economic issues that are the fault of saboteurs & a lockdown that the government has reluctantly agreed to, but is rendered ineffective due to a lack of public discipline.

At this stage, and given the lack of polling in Sri Lanka, it is not possible to assess the effectiveness of creating this reality. It is important to stress that much of this rhetoric contains signifiers that will remind the government’s electoral base (and many outside it) of the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009. Then, a reality was constructed where traitors and saboteurs were undermining the “good fight”, and broad consensus was developed in favour of a very hard line by the Government.

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