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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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Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation

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By Jehan Perera

Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.

Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.

Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”

Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.

 

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE

 

The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”

It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.

International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.

 

 

SEQUENTIAL IMPLEMENATION

 

In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”

As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.

The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.

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Album to celebrate 30 years

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Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.

However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.

All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.

Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.

Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.

Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.

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LET’S DO IT … in the new normal

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The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)

Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.

But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.

Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.

Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.

However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.

And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.

Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.

“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”

The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.

“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”

Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.

In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.

Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.

Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!

Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.

 

 

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