Patriotic Science: The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Politics of Indigeneity and Decoloniality in Sri Lanka

Harshana Rambukwella

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic (a global highly contagious respiratory infection) in early 2020, Sri Lanka witnessed an upsurge in indigenous discourses. These ranged from claims by western medical doctors that pirit pæn (water blessed during Buddhist chanting) has scientifically proven health benefits to endorsements of a divinely inspired syrup. These discourses gained wide publicity and received state endorsement with the health minister consuming the syrup on national television. But by early 2021 these discourses had lost their lustre and the health minister contracted COVID. These “alternative” discourses nearly derailed the country’s vaccination program. By 2021, many who backed these ideas had lost credibility and the state and public began to place faith in vaccination. The sudden public visibility of these indigenous discourses and their swift decline speaks to the complex politics of indigeneity. This essay uses the Sri Lankan case to argue that decoloniality, which has become a global theoretical trend, in some instances is insufficiently self-reflexive of how its conceptual premises are appropriated by nativist discourses. The fetishization of the indigenous can have devastating consequences. When Sri Lankan western-trained doctors spoke on behalf of a romanticized indigeneity they were appropriating the authority of indigenous medicine, which had historically fashioned itself as a “scientifically” valid hybrid alternative. When variants of decolonial thinking promote a radically “non-modern” ontology and epistemology, a similar process of romanticization occurs. I conclude with a call for a critical practice that recognizes how the so-called “modern” and “traditional” are more apparent than real and are deeply implicated in each other. I also argue for the importance of recognizing the significance of an agonistic critical orientation that is not resistant to knowledge based on its putative “western” origins.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)828-845
Number of pages18
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2023


  • Decoloniality
  • Sri Lanka
  • indigeneity
  • nationalism
  • postcolonialism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Anthropology


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