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20A misfiring, biodiversity warnings and tremors near Victoria Dam

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by Rajan Philips

No one expected a misfiring start for a supposedly no-nonsense government that was expected to hit the road firing on all cylinders after the parliamentary election. There is a difference between majority in parliament and competence in government. Two-thirds majority does not make whole of one-third competence. The 20th Amendment fiasco illustrates well the gap between power and competence. No one knows who drafted the now ‘paused’, not ‘withdrawn’, 20A draft bill. No one will admit to drafting it, nor can anyone else find out. That should not be surprising given the now established law and order culture in the country that permits those who commit crimes to safely remain at large and unexposed, without fear of arrest and arraignment. Alternatively, if you commit a crime and even if you are convicted, you can get away with it so long as you have the right political connections to get on the nomination list of the governing political party, win the election with full government backing, and enter parliament as a matter of privilege over criminal conviction.

The parliamentary welcome extended by the government with appellate blessing to Premalal Jayasekara from the Ratnapura District, who is convicted of murder, and S. Chandrakanthan from the Batticaloa District, who is in remand custody for murder, sets the most edifying backdrop and ennobling tone for the impending new constitution. The government could even present this as a rare instance of national parity insofar as a Sinhalese and a Tamil are equally receiving privileged rewards for their political crimes. And take the business of reconciliation to an altogether different level. Especially with CV Wigneswaran dropping obiters in parliament about the old age of the Tamil language. From misfiring starts let us turn to misplaced priorities.

Sri Lanka is easily the only country in the world today where the government is pre-occupying itself with making a new constitution. The pre-occupations everywhere else are about containing Covid-19, refiring the economy, and coping with extreme vagaries of weather. India is all but set to take the lead in the global Covid-19 cases in a matter of week. The recovery rates are good and death rates are low, but there is nothing to be complacent because the worst is yet to come in India. The US is still the global Covid-19 leader, a strange status for a sole superpower. It is also getting inundated with water in the southeast, being set on fire along the west coast, and is stuck in the middle with a President who malaprops “herd mentality” (for herd immunity) as his national health plan for Covid19, and ignorantly opines, “I don’t think science knows, actually” about climate change and the surge of forest fires.

 

UN Report on Biodiversity

 

Next to climate change, the fear of biodiversity collapse is the other major global environmental concern. On Tuesday last, the UN issued its 10-year Global Biodiversity Outlook report with a sweeping warning that the continuing local and global threats to the planet’s biodiversity will not only wipe out species and ecosystems, but also endanger the food supply, health and security of the world’s nations and peoples. The new report is a sequel to the 2010 gathering of leaders of 196 countries in Aichi, Japan, under the auspices of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, that set out a 10-year plan centered on 20 goals, known as the Aichi Biodiversity targets. The 10-year report card is not at all encouraging. Of the 20 goals, only six have been “partially achieved,” and reporting countries have generally indicated that they can meet one third of their national targets. According to the UN press release, “the rate of biodiversity loss is unprecedented in human history.”

 

Sri Lanka is one of the participating countries in the UN Biodiversity Convention and operates through the Biodiversity Secretariat that is set up in the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment. The Secretariat submitted its (sixth) National Report to the UN Convention as one of the reporting country contributions that fed into the main UN report. The Sri Lankan report, viewed online, is impressive both for its content and its ecological and scientific contributors. That has never been a problem for Sri Lanka. The problem is in delivering the ecological knowledge to the political decision chambers where there is no intelligible interest in understanding the environment, let alone protecting it.

The Sri Lankan report identifies six main threats to preserving the island’s biodiversity: River Diversion; Habitat Fragmentation and Ecosystem Losses; Pollution from both Organic and Inorganic Wastes; Over Exploitation; Spread of Invasive Species; and Climate Change. River diversion tops the threat list, and, hopefully, the report authors did not miss the irony of writing from within a Ministry that is all about river diversion. My criticism is not about the authors, but about the Cabinet makers for housing in the same Ministry the regulatory responsibility for protecting the environment (that includes rivers) and the engineering function of ‘harnessing’ rivers for human purposes.

If I am not mistaken, Mahaweli and the Environment were grouped in one Ministry for the executive convenience of Maithripala Sirisena. The same portfolio continues today along with a handful of other Ministries and State Ministries divvying up the environment between them. The fragmentation of responsibilities is identified in the Sri Lankan Biodiversity report, along with the widened gap between committed and informed environmental activists and government policy making.

Biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth – in all its vastly different ecosystems. Sri Lanka, small as islands go, is quite rich in biodiversity. Protecting biodiversity is important for protecting freshwater resources and soils formation, nutrient storage and recycling, for medicinal resources, sustaining the varieties of food crops and enhancing food resources, breaking down pollutants, contributing to climate stability, and for facilitating speedy recovery from natural resources. It is for these reasons that the UN report is warning that breakdowns in biodiversity will have adverse consequences for human food, health, and security everywhere.

 

Archaeology and Geology

 

Three of the six threats to local biodiversity identified in the Sri Lankan national report to the UN, fall under government development and infrastructure projects. They are river diversion, habitat fragmentation and ecosystem losses, and over exploitation. Dealing with a fourth one is direct government responsibility, namely, managing organic and inorganic wastes. In less than a month, the government has had three encounters with the environment – in the Sinharaja reserve, the Anawilundawa wetlands, and most recently in Kuratiyamohotta, Aruwakkalu where more than 200 acres of residual forest are reported to have been destroyed.

 

The government should consider these encounters as useful lessons for finding new directions for environmentally sustainable economic development. The government should realize that the environmentalists are not lying when they say that only 3% of the island’s total land area is covered with rainforests, and only 65% of it has been designated as protected areas. Why cannot the government bring the remaining 35% that is currently under the Land Reform Commission within the protected areas? Maintaining and extending the forest cover is crucial for consistent rainfalls, water replenishment, and the protection of the island’s precious wet zone.

 

Sri Lanka’s more immediate concern should be about natural disasters that are becoming more frequent in every country with the onset of global warming. The 2004 tsunami was an epochal event and perhaps the country’s worst disaster ever. Alternating droughts and floods are now almost a fact of life. Landslides are a constant threat during major rainy seasons. But recent reports of earth tremors in areas around the Victoria Dam create a new concern.

 

According to the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) Preliminary Report, there were two events within the last four weeks. The first tremor was on August 29 (8:00 PM) and was “felt by people living in Haragama, Milapitiya, Anuragama and Kiual-Linda areas of the right bank of the Mahaweli River, as well as by dwellers at Ambakote, Aluthwatte and Kengalla areas of the left bank of the river.” The second tremor was on September 2 (7:00 AM) and was “felt by few people mainly in the left bank of the river, Ambakotte and Aluthwatte villages.” The two events took place between four and five kilometres from the Pallekele seismic station, and the first main event registered 2.0 units in the Richter scale, which is considered a small earthquake.

Victoria Dam, a concrete arch dam, is Sri Lanka’s largest dam – 122 metres (400 feet) high and 520 metres (1700 feet) long, and is the subject of a recent academic case study under “possible earthquake loading.” Dulip Jayawardena, a former Director of Geological Survey, wrote a comprehensive article in The Island (September 7) providing a scientific explanation of the observed earth tremors and their implications, and urging “the government to appoint a multidisciplinary team of experts comprising of geologists , geophysicists, hydrologists, civil engineers and those from the NBRO as well as the universities to study the state of the Victoria dam as well as other gravity dams and recommend an effective method of monitoring such tremors.”

 

There have not been any follow up reports after Mr. Jayawardena’s article, to indicate that the government is seriously looking into this. Victoria Dam and reservoir should come under the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment. I have not seen any statement in parliament by the subject Minister (Mahinda Amaraweera), or any question put to him by anyone from the opposition. But there is plenty written on the 20th Amendment and plenty more has been written about the attention given by the government to Archaeological investigation in the Eastern Province. Perhaps it is the geology of the area around Victoria Dam that deserves greater government attention than archaeological digs in the Eastern Province. Any problem at the Victoria Dam can create downstream flooding, all the way to Trincomalee.

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Features

ROYAL COLLEGE CADET PLATOON 1980

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An extract from the book

“G R A T I T U D E”

By Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne

(Retired from Sri Lanka Navy) Former Chief of Defence Staff

The School Cadet Organization of Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) was established in 1881 by Mr. John B Cull, the Principal of Royal College, Colombo 7. The idea of introducing Cadetting to Royal was to train the students on drill to make them disciplined and responsible. Mr. Cull believed that well trained and disciplined youth at school will later become more responsible citizens with leadership skills and eventually will be better prepared for success in life.

History says that about 320 Ceylon school cadets at the ages of 16 to 20 years had volunteered to fight alongside the Allied Forces in the Great War from 1914 to 1918. Royal, St Thomes, Trinity and Kingswood sent their cadets to war. The contingent was consist of Royalists – 88, Thomians – 86, Trinitians – 74 and Kingswoodians – 72.

Even though very limited records on Royal College Cadets available on participation in Great War, first Ceylonese Cadet to paid supreme sacrifice was young Royalist W E Speldewinde who was drowned when troop ship “Villa Dela Ciotat” was torpedoed by Germans and sank in Mediterranean Sea.

First Ceylonese cadet to win a military decoration for bravery and valour was Captain O J Robertson, who was awarded with Military Cross. Other Royalist recipients of Military Cross in World War I were Second Lt H E Speldewinde de Boer, Lt C W Nicholas and Second Lt J Robertson.

Almost 30 per cent of them had paid the supreme sacrifice for the British Crown and many had been severely wounded in action. In 1917, a District Judge in Badulla, Mr. Herman Loos had presented a Challenge trophy to be awarded to the best school cadet platoon in the Island. This was the beginning of the Herman Loos trophy competition for Cadetting in Sri Lanka, and it was first won by the Kingswood College, Kandy.

When we joined the Royal College Cadetting in the late 1970s, the Cadetting legacy of Royal College was reaching its 100th anniversary. I was a member of the 1980 Royal College Cadet platoon. Our Sergeant was Naeem Mahamoor. Lance Sergeant of our Platoon was Arosha Jayawickrama who was an outstanding cadet and the best Commander of junior Cadetting. Supun Hennayaka, C K Rajapaksa and I were the three senior Corporals. Later in our lives, Naeem went on to Airline Management and held high positions in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Arosha migrated to the USA soon after leaving the College. Supun became a well-known specialist medical Doctor in the country. CK and I joined the Armed Forces.

We were very fortunate that Lieutenant (NCC) H M Dharmaratne, came to Royal College in 1979 on a transfer from the Ananda Shastralaya, Kotte. He was a young and energetic Cadet Master who had brought several cadetting achievements to Ananda Shastralaya. Royal College finally had a very good Cadet Master. We began planning for our “Operation Herman Loos” at our Cadet room known as the ‘Armoury.’ Our ultimate goal was to win the prestigious Herman Loos trophy for the Best Cadet Platoon in Sri Lanka. We had our plan carefully reviewed and crafted by our Sergeant and Master in Charge. We knew that both the Commandant’s Test (which tested the First Aid knowledge and the Field craft & Map-reading test) offered 300 marks. All the other competitions namely ‘Hut Inspections’, ‘Squad Drill’, ‘Physical Training (PT)’, ‘Athletics’, and ‘Drama’ offered either 100 or 50 marks each. We also knew with past experiences that most of the other schools concentrate and spend much time in practicing and training of the Squad Drill and PT.

Instead of focusing a lot on training for the squad drill and PT, we spent more time in learning first aid, fieldcraft theories, and map reading. I, being a President’s Scout at the time was tasked with teaching first aid to the platoon.

Captain (then) Parakrama Pannipitiya, a distinguished old Royalist (who later rose to the rank of Major General) from Sri Lanka Army’s Sinha Regiment agreed to teach us field craft and map-reading during evenings and weekends. He was working at the Army Headquarters at the time. With these arrangements, we knew our knowledge on first aid, and field craft & map reading subjects would be much superior to other cadet platoons.

We boarded the train from Colombo Fort Railway station to travel to the Army camp at Boosa for our annual cadet camp and Herman Loos competition. Under the able leadership of our Sergeant Naeem Mahamoor, we were determined and confident that we could change cadetting at Royal that year. In the 99-year history of Herman Loos trophy, Royal College had won it just twice. That was in 1963 under Sergeant Weerakumar, and later in 1970 under Sergeant MR Moosa.

As expected, we won the Commandant’s test with a very high margin. Sri Lanka Army examiners were surprised by our performance and were very happy with our excellent knowledge. We also won the Hut Inspection and became second in place in the PT test. Those accomplishments helped us win the coveted Herman Loos trophy for the best Cadet Platoon in the country. Royal College won it after ten years and for the third time in 99 years.

The rest was history. Royal won the Herman Loos trophy again in 1981 under Sergeant Pradeep Edirisinghe (that was the centenary year of Cadetting at Royal), and again in 1982 under Sergeant H D Jayasinghe. Present Navy Commander Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenna was Member of College 1981 and 1982 Herman Loos Trophy winning platoons. Later he rose to the rank of regimental quartermaster Sergeant – (RQMS) of 3rd Battalion of NCC.

Mr. Dharmaratne was the Royal College Cadet Platoon Master in charge for all three years. Later he was promoted to the rank of Captain in the National Cadet Corps (NCC). Thank you, Sir, for your guidance and advice as the Master in Charge of Royal College Cadetting for a very long time.

When we look back and see what we achieved 40 years ago with a clear plan and well-executed strategy, and have a sense of pride and accomplishment. What Mr. Cull, the Principal of Royal College wanted to achieve by introducing Cadetting to Royal in 1881 has materialized.

“Long live Cadetting at Royal College!”

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Budget 2021 likely to worsen macroeconomic instability amidst COVID-19 pandemic

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By Prof. Sirimevan Colombage

The Budget Speech 2021 was presented at a time when the country is being severely hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. GDP growth is projected to be down to negative 2 percent this year. Despite this economic setback, the government envisages to maintain an inclusive GDP growth rate of 6 percent per annum over the medium-term while containing inflation to around 5 percent, according to its macroeconomic programme, ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’.

 

Less emphasis on COVID-19

Given such optimistic targets, it is somewhat puzzling that the Budget Speech does not pay much attention to Covid-19 pandemic which has paralyzed virtually all economic activities by now. Reflecting mixed-up priorities, the Budget has given undue resource allocations at this difficult juncture to some arbitrarily selected projects such as urban townships, sports, road construction and walking paths, which have no direct relevance to revive the pandemic-hit economy, though they may have their own merits during normal times.

A coherent economic recovery strategy, apart from the fiscal and monetary stimulus already granted, is the need of the hour to revive the economy from the fallout. The pandemic has severe consequences on the Sri Lankan economy, which had already encountered multiple economic setbacks including low economic growth, fiscal disarrays, balance of payments deficits and foreign debt burden even prior to the health crisis. The pandemic has adversely affected the export sector, domestic production, inward remittances and distribution network. Poor households who are mostly working in the informal sector with irregular income sources have become extremely vulnerable in the present crisis situation.

 

Escalating fiscal imbalance

The budget deficit is projected to rise by 24 percent from Rs. 1,266 bn. (7.9 percent of GDP) in 2020 to Rs. 1,565 bn. (8.9 percent of GDP) in 2021, reflecting a severe deterioration of the fiscal position (Figure 1). It is expected that the total revenue would rise by 28 percent in 2021 as against 26 percent increase in total expenditure. Such exorbitant revenue growth cannot be expected for a single year even during normal times. The projected increase in revenue is said to be based on the assumption of 5 percent growth in GDP in 2021. This assumption seems to be over-optimistic considering the negative impact of COVID-19 in years to come, and the country’s limited growth potential experienced even before the outbreak of the pandemic. Slower GDP growth in 2021 means low level of government revenue, and consequent expansion of the budget deficit much higher than what is expected. Thus, the budget deficit is likely to be 10 percent of GDP or more in 2021.

 

Monetary implications of fiscal imbalance

With the rise in the budget deficit, the government is compelled to rely increasingly on the banking system to finance the deficit. Net bank credit to the government rose by 46 percent from Rs. 2,732 bn. in September 2019 to Rs.3.980 bn. in September 2020. The Central Bank has accommodated government finance requirements by directly purchasing Treasury Bills at primary auctions. The Central Bank’s net credit to the government rose by 50.8 percent from Rs. 383.2 bn. in September 2019 to Rs. 577.7 bn. in September 2020.

The monetary easing policy adopted by the Central Bank to relieve the households and businesses adversely affected by Covid-19 too accelerated the annual money growth from 7.4 percent in September 2019 to 19.2 percent in September 2020 (Figure 2). The monetary easing measures included sequential reductions of the policy interest rates and Statutory Reserve Ratio (SRR), which led to inject substantial liquidity into the market, and to reduce borrowing costs significantly. Concessional credit schemes were also introduced to facilitate the activities of Small and Medium-scale Enterprises (SMEs), alongside debt moratoria granted for businesses and individuals distressed by the pandemic.

Nevertheless, the annual growth of commercial bank credit to the private sector has remained stagnant around 5 percent reflecting the slow pick up of economic activities. In contrast, net commercial bank credit to the government rose by 44.9 percent in the 12-month period ending September 2020. In this background, the excessive money supply growth is bound to create demand pressures augmenting inflation and imports in the coming months.

 

Inflation-targeting monetary policy missing

Surprisingly, the Budget Speech does not make any reference to monetary policy which is vital in achieving macroeconomic stability, and sustaining economic growth. The Central Bank made concerted efforts about two years ago to launch the inflation-targeting monetary policy framework with the expectation of close coordination with fiscal authorities while regaining its independence. I categorically warned in these columns that such efforts would be suicidal for the Central Bank, unless the fiscal sector is aligned with such process committing to low budget deficits.

It is evident by now that inflation-targeting monetary policy is a remote possibility, as such policy is completely neglected not only by the fiscal authorities in the latest Budget Speech, but also by its architect, the Central Bank. Inflation-targeting monetary policy framework is not focused in the Central Bank’s publication, ‘Recent Economic Developments – Highlights of 2020 and Prospects for 2021’.

Understandably, it is not feasible to implement such rule-based policy amidst the current economic crisis, but the Central Bank should have displayed its long-term commitment to run the inflation-targeting monetary policy framework, which was declared with much grandeur not so long ago. That would strengthen the Central Bank’s independence, which is vital to operate monetary policy without undue political interference.

Demand pressures mounting

The easy monetary policy implemented by the Central Bank under the Presidential directive following the pandemic is unlikely to boost production activities significantly as expected, given the inherent weaknesses of enterprises, uncertain macroeconomic environment and imperative health-related precautionary measures imposed by the government including curfews, lockdowns and travel restrictions.

The global economic downturn resulting from the pandemic has dampening effects on the export sector. Further, business decisions in the private sector are mostly based on comparisons of the expected rate of return on investment vis-à-vis opportunity cost of investment. Interest rates represent the opportunity cost while expectations are influenced by many factors including macroeconomic economic environment, technological changes, exchange rate volatility, capacity utilization, export competitiveness, aggregate demand, fiscal stability, inflation, political stability, business confidence, and cost of production.

The present low interest rate environment encourages consumption, as savings yield low returns. Thus, low interest rates have negative effects on domestic savings. This is reflected in the downfall of domestic savings rate from 24.8 percent of GDP in the first half of 2019 to 20.8 percent in the corresponding period of 2020. Meanwhile, private consumption rose from 66.7 percent of GDP in the first half on 2019 to 70.5 percent in the same period of 2020. Given the low returns on savings, the surplus-fund holders tend to move to alternative assets such as commodities, real estate and risky financial instruments. Such fund diversions lead to distort investment decisions, and to create asset bubbles harming financial stability.

The rising consumption demand has spill-over effects on domestic production and imports exerting pressures on inflation and balance of payments deficits. Inflation, in addition to cheap credit, makes imports attractive and exports unprofitable, causing further deterioration of the trade balance. Unless the exchange rate is allowed to depreciate freely to achieve external equilibrium, import restrictions become imperative to avoid deterioration of the trade deficit. This type of inward-looking foreign trade policy seems to be the government’s policy choice at present, as can be evident from several import controls imposed in recent times. Although such measures are inevitable amidst the pandemic, it must be noted that they have adverse consequences on competitiveness, productivity and export-led growth in the long run. Hence, it is important to phase out import restrictions and to allow free trade.

Policy concerns

Given Sri Lanka’s long track record of low economic growth and macroeconomic imbalances, it is a major policy challenge to mitigate the economic fallout from COVID-19. Budget 2021 does not contain any coherent policy strategy to overcome the crisis. The budget deficit in 2021 is likely to be much higher than what is given in the official projections due to inevitable revenue shortfalls and expenditure overruns amidst the pandemic. In financing the widening budget deficit, increased reliance on bank borrowings results in liquidity injections, and consequent pressures on the money supply, inflation and balance of payments. The import restrictions imposed recently to arrest the balance of payments deficit might give wrong signals to the market depressing outward-oriented growth. Meanwhile, recourse to foreign borrowings escalates the already heavy external debt burden.

The response of the private sector to monetary easing seems rather weak due to structural factors while cheap credit has tended to encourage extravagant consumption, speculative asset holdings and risky financial dealings. The neglect of inflation-targeting monetary policy launched by the Central Bank about two years ago is a matter of concern from the viewpoint of optimal monetary-fiscal policy mix. A systematic growth strategy, backed by a realistic macroeconomic framework, is essential to recover the economy.

(The author is Emeritus Professor in Economics at the Open University of Sri Lanka)

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Good news about vaccine

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Cassandra, like so many others of her ilk, has locked herself down and voluntarily shut herself in the confines of her home. Being of mature age, she does not fret at self-imposed stay-at-home-ness and actually finds plenty to do to occupy the alone-hours. Such persons also know they are abiding faithfully by medical guidelines. Most sally forth on walks, masked and all, and keep in contact with friends and relatives via electronic wonders and that old faithful – the telephone. It needs effort to stave off fears and bouts of sinking spirits, and at night a further boost is needed. But being essentially optimistic, such persons give praise to the Task Force that is battling COVID-19 night and day. Also greatly appreciated are many helpers who are available to shop and run errands for them. Those who had no time to chant pirit or be prayerful do so now, with benefit, for it sure ensures a nightmare free night’s sleep.

We refrain from political talk as we have heard it is dangerous. Hence too Cass’s disinfected Friday articles. We spoke free and criticized where criticism was due during the yahapalanaya regime. The then Prime Minister, Ranil W, took criticism, even barbs and insults in his stride so we felt free to write about government and matters thereof. But no longer.

Return of the respected and trusted voice, though no longer heard

One radiant shaft of sunlight however, shone through recently. Newspapers announced Dr Anil Jasinha was back in the COVID-19 Presidential Task Force, at meetings at least, though sadly not visible on TV. We do miss him as when he spoke to the public we listened with full confidence in him, and were inspired. This is not meant to insult or demean others who took his place, and advise us on TV, all dedicated medical men, but personality and that earnest sincerity that came through when Dr J spoke was missing. It is not only what is said, but how it is said and received that make for effective communication. We were very suspicious of the ‘kick up’ he was given to move from the Health Ministry to Environment. Welcome back, respected Dr Jasinha and we hope we will see you again making announcements over TV. You called a spade a spade and that we appreciate. We are sick of being fed euphemistic news; good tidings all round and reams about the good our government is doing for the ordinary men and women of this fair isle. Spoons of salt are inbibed! Enough of treating us like fools! That really is how many politicians treat us, while in most cases, the boot is on the other foot.

We who have family overseas have resigned ourselves to leaving this life without seeing them. Terribly tragic but true and realistic. We are thus doubly interested in the manufacture of vaccines – for their sakes more than ours; those vaccines that have been tested and proved effective. Not those released before full testing is completed. Skyping a person in the US, I commented the Pfizer vaccine would cost much. He said the government over there has promised free distribution. Sure that’s a promise of Biden and not the barnacle clinging onto his residence in the White House and swinging more and more his golf club. He should swing himself out; that way of exit of orangutans seems suitable.

 

The Oxford vaccine

I had intended writing about half Sri Lankan, half Indian Dr. Maheshi Ramasamy who, having started her education in Sri Lanka, completed her medical degrees in the United Kingdom, and is now world-renowned as a member of the pioneering team of the most widely accepted vaccine against the global outbreak of Covid-19: the Oxford University vaccine. However, we have read about her great contribution in local newspapers this last Sunday, so I mean to quote from an article in the UK Guardian sent me, about the leaders of that team.

“At the heart of Oxford’s effort to produce a Covid vaccine are half a dozen scientists who between them brought decades of experience to the challenge of designing, developing, manufacturing and trialling a safe vaccine at breakneck speed.

“Prof Sarah Gilbert, the Kettering-born (in Northamptonshire, England) project leader, arrived at Oxford in 1994 to work with Prof Adrian Hill, a senior member of the team, on the malaria parasite, plasmodium. She soon fell into work on experimental vaccines, starting with one that roused white blood cells to fight malaria, followed by a ‘universal’ flu vaccine. As a researcher at Oxford, she gained a no-nonsense reputation, which some attribute in part to her raising triplets, though her husband gave up work to parent them.

“Hill, an Irish vaccinologist described by the Lancet as having ‘silent steeliness’, was first into clinical trials with an Ebola vaccine based on the chimp virus during the 2014 outbreak in West Africa. He and Gilbert patented the technology and in 2016 co-founded Vaccitech, an Oxford spin-off, to capitalise on the research.

“Oxford’s coronavirus work is built on research pioneered by Hill and Gilbert on vaccines based on a virus that causes common colds in chimpanzees. The adenovirus could be rendered harmless and then modified to smuggle genetic material into human cells. The trick was to make that material the gene for a protein on the surface of a nasty virus, one the immune system could lock on to.” The operative word here is ‘raced’ since these admirable pioneers have produced a vaccine and tested it to 70% effectiveness, to undergo one other test ensuring 90%, within a year, while the development of vaccines and full testing usually takes over at least two years. Work on the Oxford vaccine started as early as February this year. So even we oldies of Free Sri Lanka have hopes of being vaccinated as the Oxford vaccine is so much cheaper and can be transported easily. Praise be and grateful thanks to pioneers who sure would have worked against the clock.

Interesting to know about these pioneers. Adrian Vivian Sinton Hill, Irish vaccinologist, aged 62, studied in Trinity College Dublin and then at Oxford, He is director of the Jenner Institute, Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Oxford, Consultant Physician and Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. More interestingly: married to Dr Sunetra Gupta.

And thus, thanks to these selfless pioneers, even we Third Worlders may have a vaccine against Covid 19 fairly soon. WHO will assist of course, as Bill Gates is doing in African States.

 

Slowly giving way but as yet mulish

Yes, that is the defeated Prez of the US, still ensconced in the White House while whiling his time on golf links and sacking VIPs of his government and insulting his successor. Trump has directed that the hand-over of the presidency be facilitated but keeps reiterating that he has not been defeated and will not concede defeat. Absolutely unbelievably, masses are still behind him, flag waving and vociferous with a few Republicans on his side, while many have agreed it is time he goes. I suppose he depended on the ‘Bad Boys’ or whoever who banded themselves just prior to the 2016 presidential election. They seem to have had their fangs shortened,

We are far removed from the US but it was heartening to watch as Biden named his team, most having served under President Obama, with a number of women included. Quite a few are second generation immigrants with one having a step father killed during the Hotocuast. One contrast between his team and Trumps, the latter disintegrating, is that all Biden’s team are slim and trim while Trump had many fat cats behind him. Appearances are also very important.

Mum’s the word with sealed lips on matters Sri Lankan, if they are political! One comment, however, has to be made. We saw on TV Arjuna Ranatunge and some other UNPers wanting Ranil W as the sole nominated UNP member in Parliament. Well and good, since Ranil W is an experienced, highly knowledgeable, cleverly debating, able Parliamentarian. What Cass wishes to comment on is how ole John Amaratunge presented himself to the TV camera on Monday 23, claiming he should be the nominated MP. He is an octogenarian – just made it being born in 1940 – but seems advanced in his three score and ten plus plus. He must be having a vitamin he takes for eternal springy (imagined/induced) vitality and verve! Never say die seems to be his motto after being once accused of sitting on the fence – UNPer given gift trip to the Vatican by the then SLFP government, accompanying Prez Mahinda R, no less!

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