The recovery of the voyage data recorder (VDR) of the dangerous cargo laden container ship, X-Press Pearl, the burning and subsequent sinking of which caused this country an unprecedented and unimaginable environmental disaster may help ongoing investigations to establish where culpability for alleged negligence or irresponsibility lie. The VDR is the equivalent on a ship of the ‘black box’ voice and data recorder in the cockpit of an aircraft vital for investigation of a plane crash. Fortunately, merchant shipping authorities, assisted by the navy, were able to recover this instrument, from the bridge of the now submerged vessel. It is now available for analysis and a court order has already been made to begin this process.
But there have been reports that because there had been little, if any, navigation on the bridge since the ship’s crew was evacuated from the vessel on May 25, the VDR may not have recorded substantial new information about recent events on board. Nevertheless it provides an added resource for investigation of the disaster.
The matter that is most in contention at the time this is being in written is whether ship’s local agent had deleted email communications between the vessel and himself as has been alleged. The fact that there was a leak in a container of nitric acid on board the ship has been known several days before the vessel anchored in Colombo’s outer harbor. The vessel had in fact attempted to off load the leaking container at two other ports, one in the Middle East and the other in India. Hamad in Qatar said it did not accept transshipment containers while Hazira in India had pleaded lack of facilities.
If the port authorities here knew of the problem well in advance, it would most likely have permitted priority berthing to deal with the emergency. The Chinese-run CICT (China International Container Terminals) controlled by China Merchant Port Holdings, one of the world’s largest port operators, with state-of-the-art equipment, would well have been able to handle the task. This is what the head of the Ceylon Association of Steamer Agents said in a recent television interview.
But from the narrative now in the public domain, it appears that the port authorities here had not been informed of the problem when the ship entered anchorage on the night of May 19 although the local agent had the information. How true or not that is remains to be established. If emails have been deleted as alleged, it will be possible to retrieve them through the ship’s server and this has been ordered.
Events had subsequently unfolded rapidly. First a fire on hold number two was reported but Colombo was told that the fire fighting capability on board had dealt with it. Thereafter the fire reignited and winds blowing at speeds of up to 100 kilometres per hour fanned the flames. The massive effort mobilizing all available resources, including air support and fire fighting tugboats, to bring the blaze under control failed dismally.
According to international safety requirements, no dangerous cargo can be stored below deck and the nitric acid containers could not have been in the hold where the first fire was reported. Whether the leaking acid triggered the fire below remains an open question.
On top of all else, it is feared that we at risk of a massive oil spill as we stagger under the Covid pandemic Whether that will come to pass has not been made clear as this comment is being written. But we have to be prepared for the worst even with the limited resources we command. International assistance that will always be available to combat a catastrophe as big as this has already been mobilized. An Indian ship equipped for such emergencies is on standby at the scene.
The stricken vessel is reported to have been carrying about 350 tonnes of fuel on board when she arrived at the Colombo anchorage. The optimistic assessment, not yet confirmed, is that much of this would have been burnt in the massive fire that raged aboard before the ship began to sink. But pictures of what appeared to be an oil slick were beamed by at least one local television station that sent a crew to cover the sinking ship. Hopefully much of the fuel oil, if not all of it, has been destroyed in the fire.
The X-press Pearl was carrying among other cargo a large volume of plastic pellets, raw material for the plastic industry, some of which was consigned to Colombo, among other cargo like chemicals and cosmetics. Billions of these pellets have been washed ashore on our beaches and many more would yet be in the sea. Beach clearing operations have begun but how effective they would be even in the short and medium term is yet to be seen.
Dead sea creatures including turtles are being washed ashore and marine environmentalists predict vast damage that can extend to a hundred years. Fishermen fear for their livelihood. What would polluted beaches do to out tourist industry? It is unlikely that even if we are compensated in billions by insurers, as is being freely claimed, that this country can never again be what it was before the disaster. There is no escaping the reality that a long tough haul lies ahead.
A flaw in jab drive
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.
Do they want bodies to pile high?
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.
SJB’s own goal
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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