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Sri Lanka struck hard as COVID-19 starts global second wave

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by Rajan Philips

After months of Covid-quiet, the coronavirus has hit the country hard. Sri Lanka’s 33rd Covid-cluster could not have erupted in Minuwangoda any more suddenly and in larger numbers. It caught the government literally holding its constitutional pants to the neglect of everything else. After stagnating for months at 3,200+ cases, the Sri Lankan Covid-19 total rose by more than a third in a matter of three days. Since its discovery last Sunday, the 33rd cluster accounted for 1,053 cases by Wednesday. 729 cases were reported on a single day, a record. The total number of infections in the country has since passed 4,500.

The case count is still miniscule compared to the large South Asian countries, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The recovery rate is exceptionally high, and the death rate is exceptionally low. What should be concerning, however, is whether Sri Lanka has strengthened its infrastructure and capacity to anticipate and handle future cluster eruptions. Or, has the government been resting on its old Covid laurels and wasting time and effort on an unnecessary constitutional makeover?

Worldwide, all the highly infected countries are bracing for the so called second wave, with new daily infections higher than what they were in March-April triggering the first spate of lockdowns. People are more aware of the virus now than they were during the first wave, but they are not behaving as responsibly, especially in social situations in the West. Irresponsibly infected by the virus, the American President Donald Trump, who soaks on the slogan “Make America Great Again,” has turned the White House into a “Blight House”, as the New York Daily News called it. No one wants to go there even if they cannot avoid it.

Governments are reluctant to enforce another lockdown for fear of driving businesses out of business and their employees out of livelihood. On Wednesday, the World Bank predicted that the Covid-19 pandemic will force 150 million people into extreme poverty globally, and South Asia will bear the biggest share between 49 and 57 million of them. Proportionately, based on these projections, Sri Lanka would likely have about 500,000 people driven to extreme poverty by the pandemic. The Bank makes it clear that the new poor will be in the urban, and not rural, sector, mostly comprised of people “engaged in informal services, construction, and manufacturing.” Globally, the public health crisis is expected to last at least two more years, even after a vaccine; and economic recovery could take a decade. The picture cannot be grimmer.

The public health picture in Sri Lanka has not been so grim, and the general feeling has been that the island country has somehow dodged the Covid-bullet. The worry, at least among the more informed citizens and commentators, is about the economy. For the majority of the people, however, the economic hardships are not something abstract, but have become their living misery. The government lost its head after the initial Covid containment success, and became bullish about a quick (V-shaped, no less) economic recovery despite all the evidence that a rapid and substantial economic recovery is virtually impossible in the middle of a global slowdown. After the August election and two-thirds majority, the government has needlessly got itself embroiled in a constitutional makeover, exposing in the process both political naivete and technical incompetence. It is now banking on a favourable outcome from the Supreme Court, and later even a referendum. The outbreak in Minuawngoda changes the whole picture and all the preceding calculations. Will the government change appropriately, as well? That is the question.

 

Covid response and hot spots

 

Whether or not the government will change course, it has already changed the response structure to Covid-19 that it created during the early months of the outbreak. The response structure that was in place earlier is no longer there. There were two faces to the original structure: its health face was Dr. Anil Jasinghe; and its logistics face was Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva. Dr. Jasinghe is no longer in the Health Ministry. He was administratively shuffled up as Secretary to the Ministry of the Environment soon after the election. The shuffling was apparently a part of what President Rajapaksa hailed as the new “methodical procedure to appoint Heads of Government Institutions.” After Dr. Jasinghe was dispatched, the expectation in professional circles was that Dr. Amal Harsha De Silva, would be promoted to succeed Dr. Jasinghe. There were skeptics, however, who seemed to know the games that are played in these matters despite presidential assertions to the contrary.

The skeptics were correct, it turns out. Dr. Amal Harsha de Silva did not get the promotion. In fact, no one seems to have been promoted. Dr. S. Sridharan would appear to be functioning as Acting Director General of Health Services. One of the Deputy Directors, Dr. Sudath Samaraweera, who is also the Chief Epidemiologist, has been assigned to fill the other role of Dr. Jasinghe in the National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak (NOCPCO). It is Dr. Sudath Samaraweera who is the new Health counterpart to Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva’s military arm. There is no questioning the competence of Dr. Samaraweera, but there is a question to the government – why move medical professionals in and out of a pandemic task force while keeping the military men as immovable fixtures? Are such moves well advised, for professional morale and dedication, in the middle of a very serious public health crisis? Should Doctors be fighting the coronavirus while looking over their shoulders for political strikes?

Medical professionals are also speaking out in the wake of the 33rd cluster eruption. Opinions differ on the extent of ‘community spread’ and the exclusion of primary care physicians from the Covid-19 response system. The risks involved in speaking out have been illustrated by the removal of Dr Jayaruwan Bandara, as Director of the Medical Research Institute. His replacement Dr. Prabhath Amarasinghe, was Dr. Bandara’s Deputy Director, according to reports. Government Ministers have muddied the matter by stating in parliament that Dr. Amerasinghe is merely returning to his accredited position as Director after being out of the country for research studies. So, has Dr. Bandara been only an Acting Director all along? It is not my purpose to labour on staffing minutiae, but only to look at how President Rajapaksa’s new “methodical” appointment approach is being applied to senior medical professionals in the middle of a global pandemic.

The bigger problem after the 33rd cluster is the potential for rampant spread of the virus among the 50,000 garment factory workers employed by nearly 85 companies in the Gampaha District. From what is being reported, garment factory owners and the army and public health officials are co-ordinating the response efforts for contact tracing and quarantining quite responsibly. It turns out that in addition to the direct factory workers, there others providing ancillary services in factories through separate contractors. The problem of tracing the ancillary contract workers would seem to be more difficult than dealing with direct factory workers. The key question to the government and the Covid-response Operation Centre, is why no attention was given to potential hot spots during all the months when the virus was keeping things quiet.

Garment factory workers are an internal migrant population. Perhaps characteristic of the inelastic village and kinship ties and obligations in South Asian societies including Sri Lanka, factory workers are not atomized to permanently relocate from their natal villages to the places of factory work. The upshot is crowded living around the factories in permanently temporary arrangements. Village housing schemes undertaken by governments may not have spotted this contradiction, let alone address it. There are other social issues involving uprooted personal relationships, alcoholism, gambling, and indebtedness. Nonetheless, people would have muddled through lives, as they have been, but for the unexpected arrival of a new virus. Overnight, sources of livelihood are turned into hot spots of infection. This is not anybody’s fault, and there are no readymade solutions. Only thing that can reasonably be said to the government is that Covid-19 has made the government’s work cut out. There is no room for playing constitutional games in this situation.

Infections involving garment factory workers drive home the two prongs of the Covid assault and the responses to it, involving public health and the economy. Not only healthy working conditions, but also living conditions must be provided for garment workers to remain healthy and to continue working. The government cannot sustain the economy and the society if the garment factory workers are not working. The same premise can be extended to other sectors with due adjustments. The point is that the economic approach that is needed is to ensure basic survival through this crisis. And not the approach that is hitched to any vistas of prosperity or splendour. The only vistas staring Sri Lanka in the face now are vistas of debts, with massive repayments. The 33rd Covid cluster is a wake up call to the government. How will it respond?


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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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