Between Jab Lines and Pandemic Orientalism in Urban Sri Lanka

VICHITRA GODAMUNNE & RAPTI SIRIWARDANE-DE ZOYSA 

The global COVID-19 vaccination drive has been steeped in geopolitical rivalries, captured not in the least within mainstream Euro-American media narratives. Coverage of the vaccine efforts in the so-called “Global South” has been replete with orientalised visions of these countries where the same international media-predicted pandemic disorder that did not come to pass as expected. Critics might call this “pandemic orientalism.”

A chart published in The Economist predicts for example 2023 as Sri Lanka’s vaccine roll-out year. Arguably, such orientalised framings barely took into account contemporary realities of vaccine manufacturing. Countries such as Vietnam, Cuba and Iran are presently in the process of manufacturing their homegrown COVID-19 vaccinations, while India remains one of the world’s largest manufacturers and suppliers of vaccinations.

In this blog, we’ll explore how Sri Lanka’s state-funded vaccine drive has been unfolding since late January 2021 through our intertwined and intensely personal perspectives, while putting these everyday grassroot sensibilities in conversation with particular geopolitical narratives.


Entrée the post-pandemic nanny state

Sri Lanka’s pandemic realities came to be felt amidst a backdrop of an economy dependent on exports and tourism. COVID-19 containment measures have used an expansive universal public healthcare system as well as the military and law enforcement machinery. A highly controversial mandatory cremation policy that was in effect until recently, and state-run and hotel-based quarantine and treatment centres that became crowded over time have been a part of the country’s pandemic experience.

The first consignment of COVISHIELD vaccines (the name of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine that is manufactured in India) arrived in the country by end-January 2021 as a donation from India, inoculating frontline healthcare workers and military personnel. Sri Lanka is currently in the process of purchasing the needed doses.

From late February onwards, Sri Lanka started opening up vaccinations to the high-risk populations and clusters, (rather demographics) covering everyone over 30. The initial vaccine phase focuses on the Western Province (the area with the highest numbers of COVID-19 infections) and plans are afoot to expand to other areas of the country.

Sri Lanka has been mandating universal inoculation for decades through public healthcare. The country largely lacks a visible anti-vax mind-set, with less concern about the safety of a fast-tracked vaccine. Obtaining the COVID-19 vaccination has not been deemed mandatory by the government; it is a Sri Lankan citizen’s private decision when vaccinations are made available to them.

“My Kingdom for a Vaccine”

Unlike Sri Lanka’s highly centralised pandemic containment system, the vaccination drive was administered through decentralised state health sector authorities, with no private sector involvement. Its speed is determined by availability of vaccinations and efficiency is dependent on the local urban councils/Ministry of Health (MOH) offices managing the vaccination drive. In the absence of a top-down vaccination registration and communication strategy by the state, news and updates regarding vaccination venues in Colombo localities are usually obtained from the respective urban councils, MOH offices, and neighbourhood announcements. Although roll-out guidelines had been formulated ahead, some of them were overwritten by local politicians who interfered on the spaces of vaccination.

Anecdotal accounts of the vaccination experience vary, with some Colombo residents finding themselves in well-organised vaccination queues and others finding themselves in poorly managed queues with little social distancing.

Vichitra: My vaccination experience offers one example of the vaccination reality in Colombo. I learnt about the vaccination drive in my locality via word of mouth. The vaccinations were offered in a temple that was converted to a vaccination centre. I encountered many irate Colombo residents, unhappy with the state of queuing and their long wait. The atmosphere inside the vaccination venue was orderly, contrasting sharply with the queue outside. This stage of the process was surprisingly fast. You sign a form providing consent to receive the vaccination, provide details of any health conditions, collect your vaccination card, and receive the inoculation from nurses. At the point of exit, those who do have any health conditions are requested to remain for 20 minutes and monitored for any immediate adverse reactions.

Rapti: As a self-proclaimed vaccine sceptic I asked a taxi driver I knew whether he’d get his jab. “What’s the point?” he quipped, “where am I going to fly to?” The vaccine serves cosmopolitan elites he later mused, “It’s like a badge of honour; the vaccine is like a passport.” I recall these past two weeks being mired by heated debates with my octogenarian parents, about vaccine efficacy and limited trial timelines. Electoral registers confirm that citizens legitimately live in a neighbourhood the vaccinators visit with claims some were refused on account that they were missing from voter databases. Vaccination centers serve only residents in high-risk localities or certain administrative zones. Very often those from outside stand in line expecting to get the vaccination based on unreliable hearsay and are turned away whilst some manage to receive their vaccinations.

(Un)picking sides in the geopolitical vaccinations game

The state-sponsored roll-out of free Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines to the public, within the confines of Colombo, is unveiling against this biopolitical backdrop of socio-material containment. As a result of being “jab-prioritised”, Colombo has seen the proliferation of state-funded vaccination points, momentarily altering the lived micro-geographies within the metropolis itself.  

Sri Lanka’s vaccine roll-out debunks established Euro-American geopolitical framings such as being “ensnared by China” and orientalised vaccination narratives. For a supposed “vassal” of China, Sri Lanka’s first choice of vaccination was the Indian manufactured COVISHIELD, followed by Russia’s Sputnik V

Standing in the jab lines of urban Sri Lanka, we bear witness to a host of uncanny micro-realities in public imagination, peppered by anxieties of a global vaccine hierarchy that follows in the wake of potential vaccine nationalisms that may play out in border control regimes. Or ironically, the much touted “good fortune” of finding one’s self in a “Global South” vaccination centre in the wake of the pandemic’s dismal prophecies.

Acknowledgements

Our thanks to Dhivya Sivenesan for inspiring some of the subtitles of this blog, and to Asoka Siriwardane for further insights.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Vichitra Godamunne is a communications consultant and independent writer/researcher. These days, her work mainly focuses on literary and media analysis through the lens of postcolonial discourse. Her educational background includes communications and new media (National University of Singapore) and film studies (London Metropolitan University). Vichitra’s professional experience spans communications roles in the technology and higher education industries.

Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa is an anthropologist and a cultural geographer, with a background in environmental politics (University of Oxford), and development studies (University of Bonn). She is presently a postdoctoral researcher at the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT), Germany, and is principal investigator of the German Science Foundation-funded project, BlueUrban. Her work is broadly inspired by diverse histories and cultural politics of seacoasts in island and archipelagic contexts.

References

Photos by the authors

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