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A more inclusive and humane approach to COVID-19 control is needed

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By Jehan Perera

 

The rapid spread of the coronavirus has become the focus of national attention. The extension of the three day lockdown and 24 hour curfew that was imposed on Colombo and the entire Western Province over the weekend has now been extended by a week with the implication that the threat of uncontrolled spread is very serious. The external manifestation of the crisis came with the discovery of the Brandix factory cluster in early October. There appears to have been many failures in regard to its control. Religious clerics have appeared on media to say that this is the nature of things. Following the latest lockdown President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made an appeal to the general population to be more responsible in their attitudes. However, the laxity appears to have been contributed to by the state authorities and their agents responsible for the implementation of the Covid control system.

There is an increasing public sentiment that the government as a whole was resting too much on the laurels that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had earned for safeguarding the country from Covid up to now. Indeed, this was one of the general election campaign slogans, where national television depicted the plight of Covid patients in other more developed countries, and contrasted them to Sri Lanka’s situation. The president was the recipient of much credit for having decisively ensured that the country should go in for prolonged lockdown for nearly three months in order to ensure security and safety from Covid infection. For many months it appeared that Covid infections from within the country had come down to virtually zero with only foreign returnees adding to the numbers of those infected.

Indeed, the situation in the country appeared to be Covid-free to the extent that election rallies were conducted without conforming to Covid guidelines imposed by the health authorities. Regrettably the impression was created, that most of the people readily accepted, that the government had conquered Covid. The confidence that the country was Covid-free was demontrated with the holding of the International Book Fair in Colombo in September. Going by the experience of previous years, it could have been anticipated that there would be tens of thousands of book lovers coming from all parts of the country. This was in fact the reality. There was a compulsory requirement for those who entered the book fair to be wearing masks. However, due to the large crowds that gathered there was no space for social distancing to be practiced.

 

BIPARTISAN SUPPORT

Even in that time of apparent safety, references to the need for more testing were made drawing on international experience from those countries had had been more successful in controlling the infection. In July former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said Sri Lanka should be prepared to face a possible second wave of COVID-19 pandemic without delay. He said, “There was an opportunity to bring in a new legislation to control COVID-19. We, in the UNP made several proposals in this regard. We called for the increase of testing. This was ignored.” In addition, he warned “It is everyone’s duty to prevent a second wave. UK is greatly affected by COVID-19. It is questionable whether the UK could get out of this crisis. How could Sri Lanka get out of it if a country like the UK is unable to get out of it?”

The resurgent Covid threat provides an opportunity for the government to reconsider its methodology and work in a more inclusive manner and instead trying to work by itself and by bringing the military to the fore even in areas of civilian governance. The debacle of the Easter bombing during the period of the previous government led by former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, and in which opposition leader Premadasa was an important member, may have discredited them. It has also induced Sri Lankan society to opt for a more centralised and top-down approach to solving national problems as manifested in the 20th Amendment that was approved by a 2/3 majority in parliament including those from the opposition. It appears that even civilian administrators are being influenced by the top-down approach of the military which is to follow orders to the letter without reasoning why.

The suicide of a physically disabled child whose mother was taken away for Covid quarantine that was reported in the media highlights the importance of a culture of care, in addition to efficiency, that needs to be promoted. In this case, even the neighbours had appealed to the Public Health Inspectors to take her child along with the mother instead of leaving him by himself. There are reports of those who happened to be physically present at the Peliyagoda fish market when the Covid cluster was discovered, were taken without a moment’s notice, and without the possibility of even taking their medications for other ailments. In one such case, top level connections had to be utilized to get heart and high blood pressure tablets across to a person with heart disease taken away to be quarantined.

 

BROADER EXPERTISE

The major shortcoming and danger of the government’s current approach to Covid-control is that it is narrow in its focus, is top-down and does not adequately consider the larger fallout of decisions that are made. There is no greater fear that parents have that they may be suddenly dragged away to quarantine and their children left to fend for themselves as that physically disabled child was. Finding the best answer is not a task that the government should take on by itself. Any responsible opposition party would wish to collaborate with the government to ensure that the country recovers from the pandemic. In SJB leader Sajith Premadasa, the government can be assured that it has a leader of the opposition who will work cooperatively rather than to trip it up. A few days after the Brandix cluster was discovered he made an appeal for a lockdown of the Gampaha district which, if it had been heeded, may have halted the spread of the virus countrywide.

Today, the sense of satisfaction that Sri Lanka is different from other parts of the world on account of its highly efficient government and security force leadership is giving way to apprehensions of getting infected by coronavirus or being suddenly taken away into quarantine. There appears to be a lack of consistency in government announcements with cancelling the two day for grocery stores to operate during curfew hours, being the latest case in point. A problem with the government’s current approach to Covid-control is that it is non-transparent. The government has chosen to work with the security forces as prime actors in dealing with the problem. As this is a national crisis it would be better if the government made its decisions on a more inclusive basis bringing in the opposition and institutions such as the GMOA to widen the discussion about possible alternatives and to dispel doubts about the real situation.

One of Sri Lanka’s top experts in health policy Dr Ravi Rannan Eliya who was prophetic six months ago in warning of what was to come has offered a three step programme to minimize the harm that Covid spread can bring. First, he say, the government needs to impose a two week lockdown island-wide, having given everyone 48 hours to prepare. This is because such a lockdown would prevent clusters from being seeded in new areas. Second it needs to scale-up PCR testing capacity to around 50,000 tests a day. Third, in the longer term, everyone with any respiratory symptoms or fever, even a runny nose or scratchy throat, should be encouraged to get tested. “And to avoid terrifying them of the consequences, we will need to find an alternative that allows most cases to be isolated and managed at home. The experience of countries that follow this approach is that this strategy with high levels of testing can prevent large outbreaks ever occurring and can allow us to return to normal life without masks or lockdowns.” This is indeed a message of hope for which a national consensus can and must be built.



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Port City Bill Requires Referendum

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by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne,PC

The Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill was presented in Parliament on 08 April 2021, while the country was getting ready to celebrate the traditional New Year. With the intervening weekend and public holidays, citizens had just two working days to retain lawyers, many of whom were on vacation, and file applications challenging the constitutionality of the Bill in the Supreme Court within the one-week period stipulated in the Constitution. One wonders whether the timing was deliberate.

Special economic zones are common. They are created mainly to attract foreign investments. In return, investors are offered various concessions so that their products are competitive in the global market. Several negative effects of such zones have also been highlighted. The sole purpose of this article, however, is a discussion on the constitutionality of the Bill.

The Bill seeks to establish a high-powered Commission entrusted with the administration, regulation and control of all matters connected with businesses and other operations in and from the Colombo Port City. It may lease land situated in the Colombo Port City area and even transfer freehold ownership of condominium parcels. It operates as a Single Window Investment Facilitator for proposed investments into the Port City. It would exercise the powers and functions of any applicable regulatory authority under any written law and obtain the concurrence of the relevant regulatory authority, which shall, as a matter of priority, provide such concurrence to the Commission. The discretion and powers of such other authorities under the various laws shall thus stand removed.

The Commission consists of five members who need not be Sri Lankan citizens, quite unlike the Urban Development Authority, the Board of Management of which must comprise Sri Lankan citizens only. One issue that arises is that the vesting of such powers upon persons with loyalties to other countries, especially superpowers, would undermine the free, sovereign, and independent status of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 1 of our Constitution. It would also impinge on the sovereignty of the People of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 3 read with Article 4.

The removal of the discretionary powers of the various regulatory authorities is arbitrary and violative of the right to equal protection of the law guaranteed by Article 12 (1).

Under Clause 25, only persons authorized by the Commission can engage in business in the Port City. Clause 27 requires that all investments be in foreign currency only. What is worse is that even foreign currency deposited in an account in a Sri Lankan bank cannot be used for investment. Thus, Sri Lankans cannot invest in the Port City using Sri Lankan rupees; neither can they use foreign currency that they legally have in Sri Lanka. The above provisions are clearly arbitrary and discriminatory of Sri Lankans and violate equality and non-discrimination guaranteed by Article 12. They also violate the fundamental right to engage in business guaranteed by Article 14 (1) (g).

Under clause 35, any person, whether a resident or a non-resident, may be employed within the Port City and such employee shall be remunerated in a designated foreign currency, other than in Sri Lanka rupees. Such employment income shall be exempt from income tax. Clause 36 provides that Sri Lankan rupees accepted within the Port City can be converted to foreign currency. Under clause 40, Sri Lankans may pay for goods, services, and facilities in Sri Lankan rupees but would be required to pay a levy for goods taken out of the Port City, as if s/he were returning from another country! The mere repetition of phrases such as ‘in the interests of the national economy’ throughout the Bill like a ‘mantra’ does not bring such restrictions within permissible restrictions set out in Article 15.

Clause 62 requires that all disputes involving the Commission be resolved through arbitration. The jurisdiction of Sri Lankan courts is thus ousted.

In any legal proceedings instituted on civil and commercial matters, where the cause of action has arisen within the Port City or in relation to any business carried on in or from the Port City, Clause 63 requires Sri Lankan courts to give such cases priority and hear them speedily on a day-to-day basis to ensure their expeditious disposal.

The inability of an Attorney-at-Law to appear before the court even for personal reasons, such as sickness, shall not be a ground for postponement. These provisions are arbitrary and violate Article 12.

Clause 73 provides that several Sri Lankan laws listed in Schedule III would have no application within the Port City. Such laws include the Urban Development Authority Act, Municipal Councils Ordinance, and the Town and Country Planning Ordinance. Under Clauses 52 and 53, exemptions may be granted by the Commission from several laws of Sri Lanka, including the Inland Revenue Act, Betting and Gaming Levy Act, Foreign Exchange Act, and the Customs Ordinance.

The Commission being empowered to grant exemptions from Sri Lankan laws undermines the legislative power of the People and of Parliament and violates Articles 3 and Article 4 (c) of the Constitution.

Several matters dealt with by the Bill come under the Provincial Councils List. They include local government, physical planning, and betting and gaming. Article 154G (3) requires that such a Bill be referred to Provincial Councils for their views. As Provincial Councils are not currently constituted, passage by a two-thirds majority will be necessary in the absence of the consent of the Provincial Councils.

The exclusion of the Municipal Councils Ordinance from the Port City area is not possible under the Constitution. When the Greater Colombo Economic Commission was sought to be established in 1978 under the 1972 Constitution, a similar exclusion was held by the Constitutional Court not to be arbitrary. Since then, under the Thirteenth Amendment under the 1978 Constitution, local government has been given constitutional recognition and included under the Provincial Council List. Under the present constitutional provisions, therefore, the Port City cannot be excluded from laws on local government.

The writer submits that in the above circumstances, the Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill requires to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and approved by the People at a Referendum. Quite apart from the constitutional issues that arise, such an important piece of proposed legislation needs to be widely discussed. It is best that the Bill is referred to a Parliamentary Committee before which the public, as well as citizens’ organizations and experts in the related fields, could make their submissions.

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Investigative Journalism?

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I usually end up totally exhausted when I finish reading the local newspapers from the Pearl. There are so many burning questions and so much is written about them but there are no conclusions and definitely no answers. For example, we seem to have three burning issues right now and this is not in order of importance.

We have a lengthy report that has been published on the Easter Sunday carnage. Everybody knows what I am talking about. However, no one, be it an editor, a paid journalist or a single one of the many amateurs who write to the papers, has reached a conclusion or even expressed an opinion as to who was responsible. At least not a believable one! Surely there are energetic and committed young people in the field of journalism today who, if asked, or directed properly will go out and find a source that would give them at least a credible hypothesis? Or do conclusions exist and has no one the courage to publish them?

At least interview the authors or should I use the word perpetrators of that report. If they refuse to be interviewed ask them why and publish an item every day asking them why! Once you get a hold of them, cross-examine them, trap them into admissions and have no mercy. It is usually geriatrics who write these reports in the Pearl and surely a bright young journalist can catch them out with a smart question or two, or at least show us that they tried? The future of the country depends on it!

We have allegations of contaminated coconut oil been imported. These are very serious allegations and could lead to much harm to the general populace. Do you really believe that no one can find out who the importers are and what brands they sell their products under? In this the Pearl, where everyone has a price, you mean to say that if a keen young journalist was given the correct ammunition (and I don’t mean 45 calibres) and sent out on a specific message, he or she couldn’t get the information required?

We are told that a massive amount of money has been printed over the last few months. There is only speculation as to the sums involved and even more speculation as to what this means to the people of the Pearl. Surely, there are records, probably guarded by extremely lowly paid government servants. I am not condoning bribery but there is nothing left to condone, is there? There are peons in government ministries who will gladly slip you the details if you are committed enough and if you are sent there to get it by a boss who will stand by you and refuse to disclose his sources.

I put it to you, dear readers, that we do not have enough professional, committed and adequately funded news organisations in the country. We can straightaway discount the government-owned joints. We can also largely discount those being run by magnates for personal gain and on personal agendas. As far as the Internet goes, we can forget about those that specialise in speculative and sensationalist untruths, what are we left with O denizens of the Pearl? Are there enough sources of news that you would consider willing to investigate a matter and risk of life and limb and expose the culprits for the greater good of society? Can they be counted even on the fingers of one hand?

In this era when we have useless political leaders, when law and order are non-existent when the police force is a joke, it is time the fourth estate stepped up to the mark! I am sure we have the personnel; it is the commitment from the top and by this, I mean funding and the willingness to risk life and limb, that we lack. Governments over the last few decades have done their best to intimidate the press and systematically destroy any news outlet that tried to buck the usual sycophantic behaviour that is expected from them by those holding absolute power.

Do you think Richard Nixon would ever have been impeached if not for the Watergate reporting? Donald Trump partially owes his defeat to the unrelenting campaign carried out against him by the “fake news” outlets that he tried to denigrate. Trump took on too much. The fourth estate of America is too strong and too powerful to destroy in a head-to-head battle and even the most powerful man in the world, lost. Let’s not go into the merits and demerits of the victor as this is open to debate.

Now, do we have anything like that in the Pearl? Surely, with 20 million-plus “literate” people, we should? We should have over 70 years of independence built up the Fourth Estate to be proud of. One that would, if it stood strong and didn’t waver and collapse under pressure from the rulers, have ensured a better situation for our land. Here is Aotearoa with just five million people, we have journalists who keep holding the government to account. They are well-funded by newspapers and TV networks with audiences that are only a fraction of what is available in the Pearl. Some of the matters they highlight often bring a smirk of derision to my face for such matters wouldn’t even warrant one single line of newsprint, should they happen in the Pearl.

Talking of intimidation from the rulers, most of us are familiar with the nationalisation of the press, the murder and torture of journalists, the burning of presses to insidious laws been passed to curtail the activities of Journalism. These things have happened in other countries, too, but the people and press have been stronger, and they have prevailed. We are at a watershed, an absolutely crucial time. It is now that our last few credible news sources should lift their game. Give us carefully researched and accurate reports with specific conclusions, not generalisations. Refuse to disclose your sources as is your right, especially now that the myopic eye of the UNHCR is turned in our direction.

All other ways and means of saving our beloved motherland, be it government, religion, sources of law and order and even civil society leadership seems to have lapsed into the realm of theory and rhetoric. Our last chance lies with the Fourth Esate and all it stands for. I call for, nay BEG for, a favourable reaction from those decision-makers in that field, who have enough credibility left in society, DON’T LET US DOWN NOW!

 

 

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The world sees ugly side of our beauty pageants

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Yes, it’s still the talk-of-the-town…not only here, but the world over – the fracas that took place at a recently held beauty pageant, in Colombo.

It’s not surprising that the local beauty scene has hit a new low because, in the past, there have been many unpleasant happenings taking place at these so-called beauty pageants.

On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.

My suggestions, obviously, have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the end result – our beauty pageants have become the laughing stock the world over; talk show hosts are creating scenes, connected with the recent incidents, to amuse their audience.

Australians had the opportunity of enjoying this scenario, so did folks in Canada – via talk show hosts, discussing our issue, and bringing a lot of fun, and laughter, into their discussions!

Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants.

And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.

I was witnessed to one such incident where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.

There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.

But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.

When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, her sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.

Come on, they are no babes!

On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.

It never happened and she had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.

Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.

The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice was crowned the winner.

The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.

I’m also told there are organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.

Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!

Right now, in spite of the pandemic, that is crippling the whole world, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!

Are the organisers adhering to the Covid-19 health guidelines? No way. Every rule is disregarded.

The recently-held contest saw the contestants, on the move, for workshops, etc., with no face masks, and no social distancing.

They were even seen in an open double-decker bus, checking out the city of Colombo…with NO FACE MASKS.

Perhaps, the instructions given by Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, mean nothing to the organisers of these beauty pageants…in this pandemic setting.

My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy.

For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.

In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’

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