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Editorial

A flaw in jab drive

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Friday 23rd July, 2021

The national vaccination campaign is gaining momentum with more vaccine doses coming in and a significant number of them being administered daily. It has received a tremendous boost from the armed forces’ involvement in the inoculation process. A senior medical doctor, in a letter published on the opposite page today, pays a glowing tribute to the Army, which deserves accolades for its good work. Government health personnel are also working tirelessly to inoculate as many people as possible to help the country achieve the much-needed herd immunity.

There is however a flaw in the ongoing vaccination drive and it needs to be rectified urgently. Thanks to the vaccine war the western bloc has declared on China, etc., the Sri Lankans who have not received the vaccines produced by western multinationals have to pay through the nose for quarantine when they travel to the developed countries.

The government has, with the help of the Army, launched a programme to give Pfizer and Moderna jabs to the students scheduled to migrate to the countries that refuse to recognise the efficacy of other vaccines. This is a welcome move, which has stood thousands of students in good stead. But, curiously, there is no such scheme for the Sri Lankans who migrate for foreign employment. They will have to pay colossal amounts of forex for quarantine in the host countries unless they are given Pfizer or Moderna jabs at this end.

Sri Lanka is facing a grave foreign crisis, as is public knowledge, and restrictions have been imposed on the outflow of foreign currency, and, therefore, there is no way those who are scheduled to migrate for foreign employment can carry the required amounts of foreign exchange even if they are ready to pay for quarantine after reaching their destinations. If they are given Pfizer/Moderna jabs here, the government can prevent millions of dollars being taken out of the country for quarantine.

Sri Lanka is heavily dependent on remittances from its expatriate workers. Therefore, the Sri Lankans leaving for foreign employment should be given Pfizer or Moderna jabs on a priority basis. Why the government has not realised the need to do so is puzzling.

It is said that a proposal has been submitted to the Health Ministry for including the Sri Lankans to be employed overseas also in the category of those eligible for receiving Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. If so, the Health Ministry must act fast. Perhaps, a presidential intervention may be necessary because some health bigwigs are not well disposed towards the military involvement in the vaccination campaign, which they consider their preserve.

Meanwhile, it defies comprehension why the developed world has chosen to promote the vaccines produced by some western pharmaceutical corporations that have earned notoriety for questionable business practices. In September 2009, The Guardian (UK) reported that Pfizer had been hit with the biggest criminal fine in US history as part of a $2.3 bn settlement with federal prosecutors for ‘mispromoting’ medicines and paying kickbacks to compliant doctors. Pfizer pleaded guilty to misbranding the painkiller Bextra, withdrawn from the market in 2004, by promoting the drug for uses that were not approved by medical regulators. Besides, it took 15 years for Pfizer to make the first compensation payment to the families of the Nigerian children who died or were disabled in a disastrous meningitis drug trial in 1996. This tragedy has made the Nigerians express serious concerns about the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine rollout at home.

One of the main reasons why the world has failed to end the Covid-19 pandemic is the hypocrisy of the Global North. The People’s Vaccine Alliance has said that the self-interest of the G-7 countries is the biggest obstacle to overcoming the Covid-19 crisis, for these nations block proposals for waiving patents and sharing life-saving technology. They have also stockpiled vaccines, causing a jab shortage in the rest of the world. The prevailing world order reflects the law of the jungle.

The developing world is left with no alternative but to follow the vaccine rules set by the rich nations. One only hopes the Sri Lankan government will act wisely and ensure that all Sri Lankans leaving for foreign employment receive the jabs acceptable to their host countries so that they will be spared the trouble of paying huge amounts of dollars for overseas quarantine.



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Editorial

Do they want bodies to pile high?

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Thursday 22nd July, 2021

Protests against the Kotelawala Defence University (Amendment) Bill continue. Media reports that Parliament will take up the bill for debate soon seem to have made its opponents intensify their agitations. Mass gatherings are sure to give a turbo boost to the spread of Covid-19. Nobody seems to care two hoots about the dire warnings medical experts have been issuing about an explosive spread of the Delta variant of coronavirus. The Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) and several senior physicians have urged the government and the public to do their utmost to prevent the community level transmission of the Delta variant, which is capable of sending the pandemic-related death toll through the roof, as evident from the destruction it wreaked on India.

The government remains maniacally focused on securing the passage of the KDU bill, and its opponents are making a determined bid to shoot it down. Mass protests are super spreader events, but the organisers thereof do not give a tinker’s cuss about the danger they expose the hapless public to.

Ironically, all universities remain closed because of Covid-19, which has also caused the closure of schools. The GCE A/L examination has also been postponed. But the government and its rivals are clashing over the defence university. Teachers expressed grave concern about their own safety and wanted themselves vaccinated on a priority basis before the reopening of schools. But they are seen conducting protests in violation of the health guidelines! The government is asking the people to adhere to Covid-19 protocol, but at the same time, it drives them to protest. Both parties to the KDU dispute seem to be emulating British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who reportedly said, ‘Let the bodies pile high!”

What possessed the government to take up the KDU bill amidst the worst ever health crisis, and trigger street protests? It may have duped itself into believing that the pandemic situation could be used to prevent the opponents of the Bill from staging public protests, or it would be able to make use of the quarantine laws to detain them. Its plans fell through. Even those who are not opposed to fee-levying university education will take exception to the haste with which the government has chosen to proceed with the KDU bill.

Australia promptly placed about one half of its population under lockdown, the other day, following the detection of some Delta variant cases in Victoria (13 infections) and New South Wales (98 infections). Melbourne and Sydney were closed. This shows how concerned other countries are about the Delta variant. In Sri Lanka, the Delta variant accounts for about 30% of the new Covid-19 cases detected in some areas, but the government, the public and trade unionists do not care. What we are witnessing could be considered a case of fools backflipping where angels fear to tread.

There is no gainsaying the fact that Sri Lanka cannot afford protracted lockdowns, given its economic difficulties. Such restrictions may help hold the virus at bay, at least temporarily, but starvation may drive the poor to suicide. The only way to curb the spread of Covid-19 without resorting to lockdowns that make the economy scream is for everyone to follow the health guidelines strictly. But public support for pandemic control remains woefully inadequate.

Clausewitz has famously said that war is a continuation of politics by other means. The current Sri Lankan government seems to think that politics is a continuation of war by other means, if its confrontational approach is any indication. There would not have been so many mass protests if the government had acted wisely without trying to rush controversial Bills through Parliament much to the consternation of other stakeholders.

Whether we should promote private universities is not an issue that can be sorted out with the help of special parliamentary majorities; nor can it be resolved through trade union muscle-flexing. It is far too serious to be left to politicians and trade unions alone. The public must have a say in such matters. But one thing is clear. This certainly is not the time for sorting out the issue. The focus of everyone must be on curbing the spread of the pandemic, especially the tranmission of the much-dreaded Delta variant. Everything else must wait.

As for the KDU bill, both the government and protesters must step back for the sake of the public, whose rights they claim to champion.

 

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Editorial

SJB’s own goal

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Wednesday 21st July, 2021

 

The defeat of the SJB’s no-faith motion against Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila yesterday in Parliament came as no surprise. As for winning the vote, the Opposition had the same chance as a cat in hell. The SJB may have sought to give a boost to its anti-government campaign with the help of its no-confidence motion. It has to remain politically active and be seen to be so to bolster its supporters’ morale. It also held a protest near Parliament on Monday. But its no-faith motion was ill-timed and ill-advised; it was an own goal.

The SJB’s no-faith motion reminds us of an apocryphal story of a cop who undertook to shoot a dog which a group of hospital workers had tied to a tree because they thought it had rabies. The policeman with a flair for melodrama came, and having ensured that all eyes were on him, knelt, took aim and fired. Much to everyone’s surprise, the dog sprinted away. The bullet had hit the rope holding the animal to the tree! The cop cut a pathetic figure.

The government has once again demonstrated that is has a two-thirds majority, and must have been more than happy to do so because it has been left with hardly anything else to flaunt, at present. However, parliamentary majorities do not necessarily translate into popular support where vital issues affecting the public are concerned.

The yahapalana government also consolidated its power in Parliament so much so that it could torpedo the illegally formed Mahinda-Maithri government in the latter part of 2018. It secured the passage of all its bills in Parliament with ease. But it was highly unpopular outside Parliament, and the UNP could not win a single seat at the last general election; the JVP and the TNA also lost a considerable number of seats as they had been supportive of the UNP-led UNF government. Sajith Premadasa was wise enough to break ranks with the UNP and form the SJB.

The Mahinda Rajapaksa government (2010-2015) also had a two-thirds majority, which it abused to steamroller its controversial bills through Parliament. It was also thought to be popular among the voters, but the truth was quite otherwise, as evident from the results of the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015.

The government’s victory in Parliament yesterday is an indictment of the SLPP grandees whose allegations against Gammanpila became the basis of the SJB’s motion of no confidence. They held Gammanpila responsible for the fuel price hikes, and demanded his resignation for having embarrassed the government and caused difficulties to the public.

Curiously, even the SLPP MPs who condemned the fuel price increases and raked Gammanpila over the coals, yesterday voted against the motion of no-confidence against him. Thus, it may be argued that in so doing these MPs voted against themselves. They also claimed that the fuel prices would not have been jacked up if Basil Rajapaksa had been in the country at the time of the price revision. Basil has come back and been appointed the Finance Minister, but there has been no fuel price reduction. Is it that the government is actually capable of reducing the fuel prices but does not care to do so?

The SJB’s political strategists do not seem to know what they are doing. But for their no-faith motion, Minister Gammanpila and SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam would have continued to fight at the expense of the government’s unity. In a way, the Opposition did the government a big favour by bringing the warring SLPP MPs together, albeit unwittingly. This is why we argued in a previous comment that the SJB leaders apparently had not read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, wherein it is said that one should not interrupt one’s enemy when the latter is making a mistake.

It behoves the government, which is cock-a-hoop at its latest win, to bear in mind that it may be able to make short work of the Opposition in Parliament, but the issues over which parliamentary battles are fought will not go away. What really matters in electoral politics is not the ruling party’s parliamentary majority but public opinion, which can make or break governments.

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Editorial

Prez shows his hand

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Tuesday 20th July, 2021

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has indicated his desire to seek a second term. He showed his hand at a meeting with a group of media heads yesterday. Asked whether he thought he would be able to accomplish his ambitious mission within the next three years, the President reportedly said he had eight more years, meaning the remainder of his current term plus five more years. He has made no revelation, though.

Not many people may have bought into claims being made in political circles that President Rajapaksa was not interested in re-election, and would hang up his boots after completing his first term. One however may argue that the President has not yet decided whether to run for President again, but has made the aforesaid statement for public consumption to prevent himself being considered a lame duck president of sorts, when his first term draws to a close. But chances are he will try to secure a second term.

Political power is habit forming just like intoxicants. It is only natural that no president with some politics left in him at the end of his or her first term can bring himself or herself to let go of power.

Re-election is the dream of any President after securing the first term and being ensconced in power. Of the seven Executive Presidents we have had so far, three served two consecutive terms each—the late J. R. Jayewardene, Chandrika Kumaratunga, and Mahinda Rajapaksa. President Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated in 1993 during his first term, and his successor, President D. B. Wijetunga, chose to retire the following year. President Maithripala Sirisena declared, at his inauguration ceremony, in January 2015, that he would not seek a second term, but it was obvious that he was planning to run for President again. He, in fact, worked tirelessly towards that end. He travelled the length and breadth of the country, attending opening ceremonies and making speeches which savoured of unofficial electioneering. His whirlybird rides cost the taxpayer an arm and a leg. The Easter Sunday terror attacks scuttled his grand plan.

Re-election is no cakewalk for a sitting President, as we have seen in the past. It was under extraordinary circumstances that Jayewardene, Kumaratunga and Rajapaksa secured their second terms. They had to campaign extremely hard, and even chose to abuse their executive powers to achieve their goals.

Jayewardene had his main rival, former Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, deprived of her civic rights and disqualified from contesting the 1982 presidential election, which he won comfortably. He would have had his work cut out if Bandaranaike had entered the fray. He also gained from a split the late JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera caused in the anti-UNP-vote, as a presidential candidate. Kumaratunga survived an assassination attempt on the eve of the 1999 presidential election and benefited from a sympathy vote. Until that time, the presidential election had been a neck-and-neck race with UNP presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe having given Kumaratunga a run for her money. Rajapaksa sought his second term while the people’s memories of the defeat of the LTTE were still fresh. (His ill-conceived attempt to secure a third term, however, failed; he was beaten by a dark horse – Sirisena – in the 2015 presidential race, despite being the most popular politician at the time and having control over the state machinery.)

A whilom frontline combat officer turned President cannot be unaware of the ground situation, and the challenges ahead of him. The success of his current term hinges on his government’s ability to resolve the ongoing health and economic crises, among other things. If he is serious about winning a second term, he will have to crack the whip.

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