A deserted street in Colombo on May 3, 2020. (Photo by ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

May day, May day…

A letter from Colombo

My friend and sometime colleague Dominic Hilton sent me a lockdown meme from Argentina yesterday. You’ll know the one. Mel Gibson’s talking to a bloke wearing a crown of thorns and covered in blood, and – captions to suit – implying that he’s had a tougher run of luck than Jesus did at Eastertide. The wording on this particular Mel reads: “Your friends without children explaining how difficult the lockdown is.”

I didn’t share it. For one thing, I do have a kid, and I do not need to be that guy on social media. More pertinently, though, in recent weeks I’ve found myself a little irritated by this “lockdown” terminology.

Without a pass, you’re not supposed to leave the house, on pain of arrest. Colombo’s so non-human currently I saw a peacock in the street a couple of weeks back.

In the UK, it is true, many people are genuinely isolated, trapped or even actively required to keep away from friends and family. The elderly in care homes; ICU doctors; those with long-standing respiratory illnesses. And for them I have considerable sympathy. But I see words like “isolation” and “lockdown” and I hear the gates of Shawshank cranking shut, in steely unison.

For the vast majority of Britons (and certainly the ones in my broad socio-economic bracket), the reality is considerably less severe than ‘lockdown’ would suggest. And the reason I know this is because, six weeks after it was imposed here in Sri Lanka, friends in the UK are still asking me, “Wait. What d’you mean, you don’t have any beer??”

To a great extent, of course, there’s been a social lockdown in the UK – but hardly the personal or physical incarceration that so many folks are making out. By and large, you’re still permitted (practically encouraged, even) to shop, exercise, drive, work, and, yes, drink alcohol. You can even order books off Amazon! Sure, people aren’t out at the cinema, or playing cricket (*sigh*), or eating in their favourite restaurants. But that’s a wee bit First World Problems, surely? The social media evidence alone makes it abundantly clear that what a lot of folk are doing is walking their dogs, composing virtual pub quizzes, watching the whole of Netflix, and cheerfully decorating/adding value to their homes while the government pays them 80% of their salaries not to be at work. Not exactly the zombie apocalypse, is it.

Against that scrolling background, invocations of ‘Blitz spirit’ come across as slightly inappropriate. And articles demanding easing of the ‘lockdown’ look, well… odd, when juxtaposed with photos of you picnic-ing on sunny Saturdays.

It’s not the same around the world, of course.

Sri Lanka went about this much more forcefully than the UK. No walks in the park for exercise; no markets open; no grog shops listed as ‘essential services’. The lockdown here (along the West coast, anyway, and in some other towns) is full, policed/militarised curfew, 24/7. Without a pass, you’re not supposed to leave the house, on pain of arrest. Colombo’s so non-human currently I saw a peacock in the street a couple of weeks back.

Geographical and other proximities to places such as Singapore and China had an effect, of course; as did a rather different relationship between the general populace and the authoritarian government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. But for the first 10 days or so, it was still nervily chaotic.

The initial curfew – ‘for two days’ – was imposed at less than 12 hours’ notice, on March 20th. We chose not to be dicks and do even, say, a fortnight’s worth of shopping, and of course were promptly punished for that, the curfew being extended before it was even halfway over, instantly haemorrhaging confidence in any future government assurances.

We were allowed out to buy food on the following Tuesday, and by the time the shops opened at 7 the queues already stretched for miles. I was perhaps customer no. 50 at my chosen outlet, and I picked up, I thought, a decent trolleyful. It was only really once I got home that I realised I’d found no milk, no eggs, no bread, no butter, no rice, no fruit, no vegetables. Three hours, that took. Late in the afternoon, thousands of my would-be-fellow customers were still standing in the blazing sun. The medical and other authorities said that this was simply homicidal – and so the stores were promptly ordered closed again, and a Task Force was set up under the President’s brother (not the prime minister; another one) to supply essential food items. In six weeks, we have never seen it.

Sri Lanka supermarkets do not do online shopping. So since March, ‘Colombians’ have had recourse to an extraordinary, unstable, and time-consuming combo of arrangements, including UberEats scooters ferrying fruit and veg, artisanal bread companies (if they’re not swamped and you can get them to pick up their phones), some recently reopened restaurants offering limited takeaway menus at prescribed times, and, I kid you not, a hotel-bed app that converted their website (because, y’know, they had one) to include produce from a massive supermarket chain, seemingly out of the goodness of their hearts.

The rest of the time, we wait for farmers and wholesalers to drive around the lanes, like something from the 1970s. This is actually quite handy and amenable – being part of a very limited range of human interactions – but if you can’t distinguish the Sinhala cries for ‘eggs’ or ‘pineapple’ or ‘bin men’ you will spend half your day running to the balcony each time a vehicle pulls up. This makes it difficult to get on with learning Sanskrit, taking up watercolours, getting your bikini body ready for the season, or whatever it was you thought that you might dedicate this time to. And when a tuktuk full of coconuts pulls up you have but one choice: coconuts or noconuts. If you were counting on rustling up a full fish curry, well, you’re out of luck.

For all of this, of course, you still need cash. My one trip out (permissible?) was to the nearest bank: maybe a quarter of a mile, round-trip. And just as well I didn’t need the ‘international cards’ machine, as it turned out to be behind a locked door.

We are the lucky ones, here. I don’t know what the situation’s like in far-flung villages, but from the outset there have been reports of unrest and of curfew-breaking over food supply. In the last few days I’ve started reading Facebook messages from volunteer groups, asking for cash to feed the ‘daily wage earners’ within their urban neighbourhoods.

My working life has hardly been upended by the curfew; but that is not to say the situation isn’t steadily demoralising. Without a wife and kid, I’d just be reading piles of books, and sunbathing. As it is, though… well, you’ve seen the joke about bin Laden calling in the Navy SEALs himself. It’s the hottest time of the year now, and like a lot of people in cities around the world we live in a badly-designed/ventilated apartment block, with zero greenery, with an energetic 2.5-year-old and an obscured view of the sea that we can’t take her to (the ‘beach’ is about 100 yards away, a 6ft strip of sand beyond the train line, near some unsexy outflow pipes. What we wouldn’t give for that now, though…). The other day we cracked and ordered her a paddling pool and two big bags of sand.

For almost all our neighbours here, it’s also Ramadan. I can’t imagine a 24/7 curfew makes that much easier, either, least of all for those now lacking access to the mosque-based welfare system. I’m told that dates and other relevant (and imported) foodstuffs have proved hard to find this year.

And at the opposite end of the religio-dietary spectrum, all of the booze stores have been shuttered, by teetotalitarian decree. A recent Economist assessment said the government was losing Rs500m (£2.1m) a day in taxes from non-sales of alcohol. Well, no shit. There’s part of the economy I could keep running by myself! In the UK, meanwhile, ‘buying several days’ worth of food, including luxury items and alcohol‘ (emphasis mine) is at the very top of a police list of ‘necessities‘ (ditto) for which individuals may reasonably expect to leave their homes.

So, is Sri Lanka’s lockdown working? Impossible to know, really. The collection and dissemination of any test results is, shall we say, highly politicised. The national Health Promotion Bureau’s live stats (as at midday Friday 1st May, SL time) acknowledge 666 total confirmed cases, with 7 deaths and 157 recovered and discharged. Even for a country of only 21.5 million, those numbers might be viewed as rather fortunate.

Perhaps more surprisingly from this ex-military president, the government keeps changing its mind, informing the public of one thing, and then going back on it – often within the course of the same day. Our ‘release date’ has been announced and cancelled at least twice now (thrice, if you include that first long weekend). And last week, my wife and daughter were ordered back in from the empty lane by military personnel because they were not wearing masks. Time and again it had been clarified that ordinary citizens were not required to wear face coverings. But now, of course, it is compulsory. No doubt the commissariat will bring them when it brings the food.

Here, as in the UK, the population understands there is a major problem, and has remained broadly compliant. But as of today, May 1st, we’ve had six weeks of this. Our domestic day-to-day has settled into dull routine; but everybody knows Sri Lanka can’t afford to just stagnate indefinitely, especially in the total absence of the tourist dollar. This week, the government said that we (Colombo) will start to be allowed out from Monday 4th. But will we really? As of last night, the entire Democratic Socialist Republic has been curfewed again for the May Day ‘labour’ weekend. A few infringements, or a spike in positive (i.e. bad) test results over the next three days, and who can say what next week will be like?

No change for me, I’d guess. Those not required to do essential work are still ordered to stay at home, whence they’ll be let out one weekday in five, based on the numbers on their ID cards. As a non-citizen, of course, I do not have an ID card.

*UPDATE*

This article was filed on Friday evening, May 1st, around 5pm Sri Lankan time. By 9, the news had come round that the curfew will continue until May 11th.

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