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Budget offers fool’s paradise instead of facing up to Covid-19 realities

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by Rajan Philips

The Prime Minister’s budget speech last Tuesday and the President’s address to the nation the next day are both remarkable for their omissions to share with the people the government’s thinking and planning for dealing with the pandemic crisis that Sri Lanka is now going through along with the rest of the world. The budget speech tried to pretend a business as usual present scenario and routinely optimistic future prospects. It said little or nothing about Covid-19 and the government’s plans to deal with it. If anyone thought that the (Covid-19) matter was left to be addressed by the President himself in his talk the next day, that was not to be. The President covered every base (in baseball parlance) in his short political career but barely touched the topic of Covid-19. Why this reluctance to frankly talk about Covid-19?

There is no point in denying or trying to hide the formidable challenges posed by Covid-19 and the difficulties that the government of Sri Lanka and the country as a whole are having in dealing those challenges. No one is expecting the government to come up with a magical national response to the global pandemic. But it is reasonable to have expected that either the President or the Prime Minister would use their national pulpit to apprise the people of the gravity of the situation and the challenges of navigating through it. Nothing of the kind.

Our South Asian neighbours have been more transparent about the coronavirus in their budgets and economic statements. Pakistan and Bangladesh presented their current budgets in June 2020. Neither of them was shy about mentioning Covid-19. In fact, Pakistan called it the “corona budget.” Although criticized by the two opposition parties (PML-N and PPP), the Imran Khan government increased the allocation to the health sector to $156 M (130% increase from 2019), with 90% of it going to hospitals to deal with Covid-19 crisis.

In Bangladesh, the budget confirmed that sufficient funds have been allocated to meet the needs of all ministries to deal with the impact of Covid-19, while increasing the allocation to the health sector. From what was once ‘an economic basket case’, Bangladesh is now among the world’s fastest growing economies with a higher GDP than Pakistan despite having 60 million fewer people (161 M and 221 M). From a high growth rate of 8.2%, Bangladesh is now set to grow at still impressive 5.2% owing to Covid-19.

India finished its budget in February before the pandemic outbreak. But it has since consistently intervened with financial stimuli at both central and state levels. A week before Sri Lanka’s budget, India announced two stimulus packages totaling $60 billion topping up the $266 billion package from May, for a total 12% of GDP. India has also heavily invested in vaccine development for Covid-19 by the government’s biotechnology development. Both Pakistan and Bangladesh have also provided significant stimuli packages to soften Covid-19 fallouts.

 

Rewired Thinking

 

From what I have seen there is no mention in the budget of any Covid-19 related support, stimulus, or expenditure. The President in his speech referred to the allowance of Rs. 5,000 paid twice to 5.9 M families (total of Rs. 59,000 M, less than 0.5% GDP), and another $70 M for Corona-related expenditure. But nothing about future Covid-19 expenditures in either speech. Admittedly, Sri Lanka does not have too much money to spend on anything. That is all the reason why the government should use any and every opportunity to level with the people and tell them without holding back anything – where the government and the country are under Covid19, and what the government is planning to do about it. Are not budgets occasions meant for such purpose? And when else if not in a global pandemic situation?

The apparent thinking behind the budget has been revealed by Nivard Cabraal, the long-titled State Minister, in a post-budget seminar. As reported in Daily FT, the Minister has announced that the government “could have said it’s a COVID-19 year and looked at austerity measures, but it is not the right moment to do that;” instead, the government opted to be “bullish about growth and (by) tap(ping) into the rewiring of the global economy caused by COVID-19.” This is the only way, according to the Minister, for Sri Lanka to break out of long struggle with “persistently slow growth.” The report also carries the views expressed by Dr. Dushni Weerakoon (Executive Director, Institute of Policy Studies) at the same seminar, but unfortunately not at the same length offered to Cabraal. Dr. Weerakoon “warned (that) the Government could struggle to balance low interest rates with a high budget deficit as well as aim for high growth while fighting a pandemic.” More so, “if COVID-19 infections rise and the Government has to provide more public support in social spending.” This would make debt sustainability and deficit management problematic.

It is mystifying that Mr. Cabraal would suggest that a Covid-19 budget would have involved austerity measures. On the contrary, the debate over Covid-19 economic response is not about austerity measures but about the extent of stimulus measures that governments should be prepared to administer. It is also not quite explicable how the government would tap into the “rewiring of the global economy caused by COVID-19” – whatever Cabraal means by rewiring. The budget offers no specifics about this ‘rewiring’, or how any or all of the budget proposals would be linked to the supposedly rewired global demand opportunities. Looked at it another way, the very non-austere budget is wired to spend in all the wrong areas for all the wrong reasons, at a time when Covid-19 has removed all ambiguities as to whom and where government spending should be targeted.

SJB MP Harsha de Silva, who led off the budget debate for the Opposition could not have hoped for an easier target to attack. As he summed it up the budget would neither kick-start the economy, nor provide relief to the people burdened by economic hardships. Quite rightly, he questioned the allocation of Rs. 330 billion for highways, as if building roads would help suffering businesses and starving people. The allocation, rather mis-allocation, for highways is also an instance of inappropriate assumptions for economic growth in the current pandemic situation.

Funnily enough, the space allocated for mentioning Archaeological and Cultural Heritage Presidential Task Force in the budget speech is sandwiched between Tourism and Foreign Employment. The assumptions of prospects for the future of tourism are not at all funny, however. The $10 billion industry is in serious trouble and cannot be salvaged in any significant way by promoting domestic tourism. The same goes for foreign employment, the cash-cow sector that used to have 1.5 million Sri Lankans employed abroad, mostly Middle East, and bring in $7 billion annually is now in dire straits. There is no discussion of the prospects, let alone projections, for the future of this sector and its broader socio-economic ramifications within Sri Lankan society. If it is the government’s wired thinking that 1.5 million Sri Lankans can be fitted into global rewiring, there is no indication of that thought process in the budget.

Under “Investment in Public Health,” the budget speaks somewhat unclearly “to the new reality would make it unavoidable to be engaged in the day to day activities of the people with the Corona pandemic.” It reports the global total of 55 million Covid-19 cases and 1.35 million deaths, but shies away from being transparent about the situation in Sri Lanka. And somehow an insurance fund will materialize to help Covid-19 victims with contributions from businesses who are also victims of Covid-19. Glaringly missing are any allocations for purposefully expanding the Public Health Services and related infrastructure to deal with the Covid-19 situation. Also missing are the government’s assessment of the current situation and its projections for the future. These gaps are obviously the result of professional disengagement at the political level with the realities of Covid-19.

As if to highlight the level of professional engagement in the government’s Covid-19 response, Health Minister Pavithradevi Wanniarachchi, who is patently out of her depth in coping with Covid-19 response, said in parliament last Wednesday that former Health Services Director General (DGHS) Dr. Anil Jasinghe continues to attend COVID-19 meetings, even though he is now the Secretary to the Ministry of the Environment. Public Health was dealt a big blow when Dr. Jasinghe was kicked upstairs from Health to Environment, and now the Ministry of the Environment is minus its Secretary whenever Dr. Jasinghe is on Covid-19 calls. Why not move Dr. Jasinghe back to Health?

 

 


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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