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“Agony at the Airport”: A short story

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Travel in the COVID era is refined bureaucratised purgatory

Kumar David

This is not a personal story though it’s based on experience. Hundreds even thousands experience it every day. Nor is it a complaint-filed grumble; actually, it has made me a minor celebrity among friends and family. It’s a story about how COVID (CV) has stood everything that has long been taken for granted on its head. It’s a story about an inconspicuous chap KD who made a trip from CMB to a destination further east HKG. Our intrepid warrior tilted not at mere windmills but took on airports, airplanes, healthcare bureaucrats and government bullies. Come on, give him two cheers.

The first shock was before he purchased the air-ticket. Though starting point and destination are five hours apart on a non-stop hop there are no direct flights from CMB to any neighbouring Asian city – Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei or Jakarta. The only way to get anywhere in the region is to take a Middle East carrier to Dubai, Doha or Abu Dhabi (call it DZZ) and then fly all the way east again to the destination. Hence a one-way economy ticket to any of these destination from CMB which used to cost about Rs 50,000 is now between Rs 145,000 and Rs 230,000. It’s crazy! The same carrier will fly you from CMB to New York or Los Angeles westward via the same Middle East hub for about Rs 90,000; there is no logical or illogical explanation airlines attempt to offer.

The second experience in this droll story unfolds two days before departure from CMB. A CV-negative certificate from an ISO Certified (that is a recognised) hospital or clinic, issued within 72 hours of boarding is a must. Ha you think three days, that’s easy! Keep dreaming. Say you make a 7 am appointment at reputed institution, say AsH on Milk Mansion Rd. (Kirula) which promises the certificate by 6 pm. With his flight scheduled for 2 am next morning AsH kept KD on tenterhooks prevaricating with one excuse or another. He finally had it in hand at 10pm and rushed directly to the airport. The staff at AsH are most courteous and helpful; they kept bugging the laboratory and did all they could to keep KD’s spirits up. (Thank you Roshani, Dinky and Angelo if you read this). The problem is the AsH administrative system; it’s just chaotic. You may say “Come on, your sample was taken at 7am, the flight is at 2 am early next morning; that’s 19 hours, so it’s safe”. Not so; read on.

To emplane for HKG you have to get your smart-mobile on-line, log into HKG Immigration and navigate till after a godforsaken search you locate a form to be perfected and submitted online; not at leisure but only within 48 hours of departure. A QR-code is promptly returned. (QR is the box with mangle of worms in it). Carefully save that till you reach HKG or else no one knows what torture one will be subjected to; maybe drawn, sawed and quartered. In any case the airline will not let you board till it sees the QR. Then comes another hiccup. Whichever outward flight one takes to DZZ, arrival is at about 5am, but all HKG connections depart at about 2am (plus or minus an hour or two). Hence KD had a 21 to 23-hour layover to next morning’s connection. Adding 23 to 19 means 42 hours between sample collection and departure from DZZ. So, could KD be safely within the 72-hour deadline?

No luck! HKG suddenly reduced the minimum time between CV sampling and boarding of passengers from DZZ from 72 hours to 48 hours. KD now has a six-hour (48-42) window and it was getting scary. International air rules oblige airlines to provide hotel accommodation if a layover exceeds eight hours, but KD had no such luck with airline EK during his 23-hour layover he. Having already walked around the duty-free arcades for 23 hours KD didn’t want to be dragged off to – where, lock-up, asylum? No one knows or will admit to knowing what they do to connecting passengers whose CV certificates expire before the next boarding, due to delays in flight departure. KD doubted they serve scotch and soda with a cube of ice in Middle Eastern dungeons. Thankfully it was only a one-hour delay; so, he managed to clamber on board with four hours to spare on his CV report.

The CMB to DZZ leg was full with every seat taken, mostly were ladies travelling to the Middle East for employment. On arrival KD noted that DZZ was moderately busy, not chock full as before though at times it seemed quite busy. KD has a head for numbers and scrutinising the departure board for 20+ hours he did a bit of mental arithmetic and reckoned there are 200 departures, that is 400 operations, every day. Hence DZZ is far from shut down, unlike the ghost airport CMB. As he later discovered HKG runs about 100 operations a day instead of its pre-CV bustle of maybe 600 or more per day. The flight from DZZ to HKG was via Bangkok; the first leg was three-quarters full but there were a mere 50 people in that 300-seat aircraft on the second BKK-HKG leg.

Now the final act of the drama. HKG is smart and high-tech, its government servants efficient and polite; but CV has sent all overboard. On arrival KD was not allowed to clear immigration or collect luggage; he was steered with the 50 others into the custody of the health authorities who have taken over a whole floor in an airport wing. And here began a ritual. First an officer standing next to KD phoned him to hear the ring and confirm the number. Then he had to get his smart phone to talk to cyberspace and download an app called ‘Stay Home Safe’. Next an interview and the usual questions “where have you come from; where have you been in the last 14 days” etc. A tag with a number was hung round his neck and then watch a video about self-collection of a deep-throat sample; off into a cubicle, spit into a paper funnel and collect in a vial, always obedient to the video. Hand over the sample only to be given a second sample collection pack because on the tenth day a second deep-throat product has to be ejected and the vial sent via a friend to one of several locations (or pay the equivalent of US$ 12 to a collecting agency). A white band with a QR code and a concealed chip was tethered to KD’s wrist to monitor location, rather like a felon on bail. Don’t you dare stray away from the self-quarantine location or Big-Brother HKG-version will find out. He was given a pocket digital thermometer to keep a daily record, facemasks, a 36-page pamphlet of do’s and don’ts and more colourful sheets of guidelines and instructions.

All this done, clear immigration, move to the baggage-hall, claim one’s bounty and board a coach. Arrivals are taken to a government arranged and paid hotel for one night; nice, clean, small room with a spanking clean toilet and shower. Only then does the number hanging round the neck make sense; it’s the hotel room all super efficiently organised in advance. Collect a dinner-box (veg or non-veg) on the way up. But there’s a catch; the electronic door card is set to ‘No-time-only’ to prevent ants-in-the-pants chaps from walking out all over town and infecting the world. The room phone is dead, neither reception, nor operator nor housekeeping will answer. Some super isolation! What if one has a heart attack? Well KD didn’t; a good night’s sleep, snoring till 10.45 next morning. An 11 o’clock call on the hotel phone said the equivalent of “Buzz-off you have been cleared”. A breakfast-box, courtesy the government will be found hanging outside the door. The government does not pay for the taxi home; well never mind everything not Christmas.

There’s more to come – supra-high-tech is a malady in HKG. Once in his flat KD was phoned and told to activate the Stay Home Safe app on the smart-phone, turn on Bluetooth and Location Tracking and present the QR code (see photo) to the phone. The system promptly recognises it and returns a message about hygiene and the dire consequences of straying beyond the front door – a fine equivalent to US$ 3,100. They now have a double check on your location; the signal on the smart-phone and the chip on the wristband. End of story? Not quite; you have forgotten the second sample. On the morning of the tenth day KD dutifully cleared his throat, spat into the vial, put into two Biohazard marked plastic zip bags with some documentation and deposited it outside his front door. The brave agents of the collection agency came for it to earn their $12. As you read this KD is on his eleventh day of self-quarantine all alone in his tiny flat and slowly working his way through a 28-bottle wine cooler and a liquor cabinet. Thankfully stocks are adequate till the end of incarceration.



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Features

Why record export earnings may not be good news

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By Gomi Senadhira

The press release by the Central Bank on the external sector performance ,in June 2022, perhaps was the first piece of good news we had received for a long time. According to the press release, “Earnings from merchandise exports, in June 2022, increased by 23.9 percent over the corresponding month, in 2021, recording US dollars 1,248 million, which is the highest ever monthly export earnings recorded. An increase in earnings of both industrial and agricultural exports contributed to this favourable outcome, …. Cumulative export earnings, from January to June 2022, also increased by 14.3 percent, over the same period in the last year, amounting to US dollars 6,514 million.” So, most of us would think we have enough dollars to cover our essential imports. But, apparently, that is not the case.

Earlier, the Central Bank Governor, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, had said that exporters only converted about 20% of their export earnings into Sri Lankan Rupees and the rest was not brought back to Sri Lanka. That amounts to the US $800 million a month! The Governor had also said “… At least 40% of the total export earnings should be added to the formal financial system of the country. So exporters have a responsibility, at a very difficult time like this, to bring back their foreign exchange, through the banking system, and if that happens, then we can resolve the fuel crisis comfortably.”

(Diesel shipment that arrived in Colombo, on 16 July, still not paid for want of dollars – The Island July 30th) It appears as if the Governor is pleading with the exporters to bring back at least 40% of their export earnings. More notably, from Dr Weerasinghe’s statement, it is clear that the exporter had only converted 20% of their export earnings to rupees during the last five months. Did they convert their export earnings to rupees during the last year, or in the previous years? For how long has this been going on? When the Central Bank says “… exporters have a responsibility, at a very difficult time like this, to bring back their foreign exchange, through the banking system,” does that mean the foreign exchange earned, with the exports, is brought through the hawala network, or other similar arrangements?

Exporters deserve credit for the great service they provide and should be rewarded, appropriately. But not disproportionately. The export earnings are not earned by the exporters alone. These earnings are earned by all those who contribute to manufacturing the export products. All of them should be getting their fair share of the export proceeds. If not, there is something terribly wrong with the system. Is this normal in international trade?

During the last few years, some of the studies by Indian scholars, including Utsa Patnaik and Shashi Tharoor, have placed in the public domain some of the less known facts on the effects of the British colonial rule on India. They explain how the British seized India, “… one of the richest countries in the world – accounting for 27% of global GDP in 1700 – and, over 200 years of colonial rule, reduced it to one of the world’s poorest,” and how during the period British Raj siphoned out $45 trillion from India.

How was this done? Patnaik explains, “In the colonial era, most of India’s sizeable foreign exchange earnings went straight to London—severely hampering the country’s ability to import machinery and technology in order to embark on a modernisation path, similar to what Japan did in the 1870s. …, a third of India’s budgetary revenues was … set aside as ‘expenditure abroad’. The secretary of state (SoS) for India, based in London, invited foreign importers to deposit with him the payment (in gold and sterling) for their net imports from India, which disappeared into the SoS’s account in the Bank of England. Against these Indian earnings he issued bills… to an equivalent rupee value—which was paid out of the budget, from the part called ‘expenditure abroad’.” Patnaik underlines that this was “something you’d never find in any independent country,”

But it appears something very similar is happening in Sri Lanka, many years after the independence! If the exporters do not “bring back their foreign exchange ,through the banking system,” or only bring back 20% of it, then how do they pay for goods and services obtained locally? The local value addition for most of our exports is 70% to 80% or higher! The only major exception is cut and polished diamonds. Tea exporters buy tea with rupees. Some of the imported inputs, like fertiliser, or diesel, are sourced locally! The garment industry had moved up the value chain during the last 40 years and provide many value-added services, like designing, locally.

How do the exporters pay for all these goods and services, if they keep more than 60% of their export earnings outside the country? Do they get it through “hawala” or similar arrangements? During the British Raj, payments to local producers were done with the taxes collected by the Raj. In present-day Sri Lanka, how does one manage to raise a large amount of cash to operate such a system?

If a sizeable chunk of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange earnings goes straight to banks in London, New York, Zurich, or elsewhere, severely hampering the country’s ability to import essential items, doesn’t that mean, Sri Lanka’s wealth is getting siphoned out through our exports? And there is not much of a difference between what happened during the colonial period and the post independent Sri Lanka!

So, June’s record export earnings also mean nearly US$ billion was siphoned off during the month! A new record for the month of June! And that means Patnaik was wrong when she said this was not “something you’d never find in any independent country”

That is not good news.

(The writer is a specialist on trade and development issues and can be contacted at senadhiragomi@gmail.com)

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Improving trend needs to be sustained on multiple fronts

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by Jehan Perera

The government appears to have secured political stability in the short term.  So far President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s efforts to restore stability appear to be working. Political stability is necessary for decisions to be made and kept.  It is a necessary element for international support to come in.  One of the IMF’s conditions to provide the country with the multi-billion-dollar loan it seeks is political stability that would ensure that commitments that are made will be kept.  The protest movement has not mobilised public demonstrations on the very large scale of the past after the appearance of Ranil Wickremesinghe in leadership positions, initially as prime minister and subsequently as president. This would be seen as an achievement by the government.  The present governmental line that protests should be within the law is difficult, and also frightening, to challenge when a state of emergency is in force.

The government has shown its ability to wield the emergency law with deterrent effect. Under the state of emergency that President Wickremesinghe declared on July 18, the period that a person may be detained before being brought before a magistrate has been increased from 24 to 72 hours. The authorities have been granted additional powers of search and arrest, and the military has been empowered to detain people for up to a day without disclosing their detention. The state of emergency also gives the president and the police broad powers to ban public gatherings, allows the police or military to order anyone to leave any public place or face arrest, and makes it an offense to cause “disaffection” or to spread “rumours.” However, in a sign that Sri Lanka’s system of checks and balances is still working, the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Court has rejected a request by the police to ban a public protest planned by political parties and multiple organisations on September 9.

Human Rights watch has pointed out that “these provisions are vague, overly broad, and disproportionate in violation of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, and movement.”  The midnight strike on the protestors who had camped for over three months at the main protest site at Galle Face would make any reasonable person think twice before getting into physical confrontation with the government.  The social media coverage of events that night showed men in black uniform and wearing masks, attacking the unarmed protestors.  As these men did not wear identification badges, there is a question whether they were part of the official security forces or drawn from other groups that work with them.  This response brought discredit to the perpetrators and disturbed both Sri Lankan people and the international community that have the welfare of Sri Lanka at heart.

The government has also used the full power of the draconian law to ensure that the leadership of the protest movement is neutralised. Several of them have been arrested, some of them given bail, others remanded, which would send a chilling message to the others.  The government has also shown its willingness to offer high positions to those who are prepared to join it.  This has led to a situation where two trade union leaders active in the protest movement have been treated very differently.  One has been offered a high post while the other has been put into prison, although he has now been given bail.  In a signal that he is sensitive to public pressure and human rights concerns, President Wickremesinghe had spoken to leader of the Ceylon Teachers Union, Joseph Stalin, after he was remanded and reportedly said he admires the members of the protest movement who talk of a system change.

ECONOMIC STABILISATION

Apart from the appearance of political stability there is also the appearance of economic stabilisation.  The shortages of cooking gas, petrol and diesel, and the 13-hour power cuts were among the main catalysts of the protest movement.  It was during the period of long power cuts, when staying at home became unbearable, that neigbourhood groups began to converge in urban centres to hold candlelight protests.  However, at this time the supply of gas, petrol and diesel has improved significantly and the kilomere-long lines in front of fuel stations are much less common.  Credit has gone to the QR code system put in place that gives to each vehicle a weekly quota.

The challenge for the government is to ensure that the economic situation continues to be stable without experiencing the acute shortages of key items that causes distress to the general population.  The QR code system can only work if there is petrol and diesel to be distributed.  The current imports of cooking gas, petrol and diesel appear to have been made possible by a World Bank loan which was re-purposed to the purchase of essential items.  However, these funds will dry up soon.  The question is what will happen after that.  There is apprehension that the country will fall once again into a situation of severe shortage.  The government needs to take the people into its confidence regarding the future.  The government also needs to be trusted if it is to be believed.

The World Bank has given an indication that they are still to be convinced regarding the provision of further assistance to Sri Lanka.  Earlier this month, the World Bank issued a statement “expressing deep concern about the dire economic situation and its impact on the people of Sri Lanka yesterday said it does not plan to offer new financing to Sri Lanka until an adequate macroeconomic policy framework is in place.  Issuing a statement, the World Bank Group said it is repurposing resources under existing loans in its portfolio to help alleviate severe shortages of essential items such as medicines, cooking gas, fertiliser, meals for school children and cash transfers for poor and vulnerable households.  To date, the World Bank has disbursed about US$160 million of these funds to meet urgent needs.”  This is extremely concerning as the World Bank is closely connected to the IMF on which Sri Lanka is pinning its hopes for a big loan.

POLITICAL STABILITY

The issue of political stability is highlighted by the government as being necessary to obtain international assistance and also as a justification for quelling the protest movement through emergency laws.  There is explicit blame being apportioned to the protest movement for creating instability in the polity that is deterring the influx of foreign assistance and investments.  However, the fuller picture needs to be seen.  The IMF as much as the World Bank, and indeed other potential sources of donor support, want their resources to be used for the intended purpose and not be squandered or siphoned away corrupt practices and in sustaining loss-making state institutions.

The hoped-for IMF-supported programme to provide assistance to Sri Lanka is being developed to restore macroeconomic stability and debt sustainability, while protecting the poor and vulnerable, safeguarding financial stability, and stepping up structural reforms to address corruption vulnerabilities and unlock the country’s growth potential. IMF mission team to Sri Lanka last month specifically mentioned the need to reduce corruption stating that “Other challenges that need addressing include containing rising levels of inflation, addressing the severe balance of payments pressures, reducing corruption vulnerabilities and embarking on growth-enhancing reforms.”

Both the international funding agencies and the protest movement are on the same page when it comes to opposing corrupt practices.  The main slogans of the protest movement during their heyday was the ouster of the then president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers, and indeed the entire parliament, on account of the corruption that they believed was responsible for having denuded the country of its foreign exchange reserves. This was not simply the replacement of one set of corrupt leaders by another. There are disturbing signs that some of those accused of corruption are once again on the ascendant.

The underlying demand of the protest movement was and continues to be the very “systems change” that the president has said he admires in his reported discussion with remanded trade union leader Joseph Stalin. Civil disobedience to obtain a government that is transparent and law abiding, that does not steal the wealth of the country, is a noble goal, no less sacred than the civil disobedience struggles engaged in by Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in the United States.  The ingredients for a rebound of the protest movement continue to be in place and hopefully the evidence of a systems change will become more convincing.

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Brenda Mendis… ‘Gindara Kellek’

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I first got to know Brenda Mendis when she was very much a part of the group Aquarius, before joining Mirage..

With Aquarius, her dynamism bloomed, on stage, when she partnered two other female vocalists – from the Philippines.

And…yes, they certainly did rock the scene; the three girls were the talk-of the-town and they were featured at some of the best venues in the city.

She was also, at one time, associated with the band 2Forty2.

Brenda now operates with an outfit called C Plus Band, and with whatever free time, that comes her way, the talented artiste is now working on originals.

The latest is the song ‘Gindara Kellek’ and this is what Brenda has to say:

“I have known this guy Chathurangana de Silva for a very time and he has been involved in composing certain songs for the C Plus Band.

“We then got down to discussing about putting together a song which could be classified as a fast genre in music, and Chathurangana, along with Sampath Fernandopulle, came up with the suggestion for the lyrics, and they did so, based upon a proper observation of my lifestyle and the personality portrayal of myself, and that’s how “Gindara Kellek’ came into the scene.”

Brenda went on to say that the composing was done during a tight schedule.

“As I am the female vocalist, on a full time basis, with the C Plus Band, it took us more time than what is usual spent at a recording session, because of our public performances.”

‘Gindara Kellek’ is not Brenda’s maiden effort. She has been involved in quite a few other originals, including ‘Tharu Peedena Seethale,’ ‘Obai Mage Thaththe,’ ‘Mage Raththaran,’ ‘Kaprinna (Chooty),’ ‘You Never Know,’ ‘Mea Nilwan Nimnaye, and ‘Sitha Igilee Gihin.’ And, they are all uniquely different to each other, she says.

With the country going through a tough period, Brenda, spends her free time working out and reading.

“I would take this opportunity, through your very popular music page, to thank all those who helped me throughout my journey in this wonderful field of music.

“I shall continue to keep music lovers happy, with my music, and I would also thank my followers for supporting me and for being with me throughout my career in showbiz.”

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