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Editorial

All hat and no cattle

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Monday 10th May, 2021

The global pandemic situation is far worse than it looks. The University of Washington estimates reveal that Covid-19 has snuffed out 6.9 million deaths across the globe, and this is more than double the officially reported number. Many countries are struggling to save lives, and shocking scenes of mass cremations in India and other such heartrending instances reported from Brazil, etc., must be weighing on the conscience of the global community heavily, but the response of the developed world to the pandemic has been appallingly slow and woefully inadequate. It is now engaged in a vaccine patent row to the neglect of what needs to be done urgently to save lives the world over. Pope Francis got it right, on Saturday, when he declared that the world was infected with the ‘virus of individualism’, and the ‘laws of intellectual property, etc., had taken precedence ‘over the laws of love and the health of humanity’. The world is facing a ‘catastrophic moral failure’ as Head of the World Health Organization (WHO) Dr. Tedros A. Ghebreyesus has said.

‘Vaccine nationalism’, which characterises the developed world’s pandemic response, is a major impediment to efforts being made to achieve global herd immunity against Covid-19 through vaccination, according to the WHO, which has called for the co-operation of the rich nations to carry out an equitable vaccine rollout across the globe. This fervent appeal has not yielded the desired results if the slow progress of COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access) initiative is any indication. As vaccine donations have not reached a satisfactory level, the pandemic-hit countries have had to think of alternative ways of meeting their urgent vaccine needs. Hence their desperate call for lifting vaccine patents in the hope that such action will help boost the global jab production.

India and Brazil are among the nations that have urged the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to lift patents on the Covid-19 vaccines to boost the world’s fight against the virus. This proposal has struck a responsive chord with most countries, but some European nations are not favourably disposed towards it. They are reportedly in favour of a voluntary licensing system similar to the one between Oxford-AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India. The proponents of this method of boosting global vaccine production in the short-term point out that the rich countries could make the licensing system mandatory for their pharmaceutical companies, which, however, will have to be compensated; the WTO regulations permit this kind of arrangement.

Opinion is however divided on the effectiveness of the proposed patent waiver. The opponents thereof argue that patents are necessary as they provide incentives and encourages innovation; this is the reason why Covid-19 vaccines have been produced in record time, they maintain. It is also being argued in some quarters that even if the patents are lifted, it will take a long time to commence vaccine production elsewhere. This argument cannot be dismissed as baseless in that there is much more to vaccine production than recipes. Supply chains have to be established, personnel trained, facilities made available and necessary processes set up. All these could be time-consuming. The world cannot wait as the virus keeps mutating and destroying more and more lives, and the only way to neutralise it is to inoculate as many people as possible across the world so as to achieve global herd immunity.

French President Emmanuel Macron has exuded pragmatism in addressing the issue of vaccine nationalism. He has urged the US to abolish its bans on the export of vaccines and ingredients so that other nations can supercharge their production.

The US has, despite initial reluctance, agreed to the proposal for lifting vaccine patents temporarily, but there are better options, as President Macron has pointed out. Being a nation that never misses an opportunity to take moral high ground, the US should put an end to its vaccine nationalism and part with some of its huge vaccine stockpiles, especially the AstraZeneca jab, which it does not use. It does not have to do so as charity; it can make available those vaccine stocks to other nations at reasonable prices. Sadly, it has so far been all mouth and no action; assistance in other forms in dribs and drabs is of little use in a pandemic situation.

The world is not short of crusaders for human rights, and they, led by the US, even ignore the concept of national sovereignty (of other countries) when they want to make interventions purportedly in keeping with the much-vaunted global political commitments such as R2P (Responsibility to Protect). But they stand accused of abusing these universal commitments to advance their geo-political and economic agendas. Nothing is more valuable to humans or any other species for that matter, than the right to life, and the current pandemic has provided the self-proclaimed defenders of human rights with an opportunity to save hundreds of thousands of lives by making Covid-19 vaccines available, and, thereby establish their liberal bona fides, if any.

The developed world is labouring under the delusion that the safety of its people can be ensured through efficient vaccine rollouts at the expense of others, but there is no guarantee that immunity so gained will last for more than one year, according to international medical experts; nobody will be safe unless the virus is beaten, once and for all, through a truly global vaccination drive. The only way out is to follow the motto—unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno (‘one for all, all for one’).



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Editorial

The funny side of the fuel price hike

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The post-announcement drama that followed the fuel price increase announcement would have been funny but for its ripple effect on the poor and not-so-poor. The rich and the well-to-do are one cup of tea; and the rest of the population another. The three-wheeler operator, whether he hires his own vehicle or that belonging to a mudalali, can and will increase his rate, but at the price of the number of hires he gets per day. A bus fare increase must follow, although how high that would be has not yet been worked out or announced. The haulage cost of essentials must rise and this will have a pervasive effect across the gamut of goods and services; and they will all come home to roost on the consumer. No wonder then that what many economists call a long delayed but essential measure has kicked up as much dust as it has and the government is already bleeding.

That’s one side of the coin. The other was the stunning statement of SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, harshly condemning the price increase and demanding the resignation of Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila. Journalists cutting their teeth in the trade (they prefer it to be called a profession) are taught that in writing a news story, unlike in sex, the climax comes first. Kariyawasam’s statement was near enough to Gammanpila’s announcement for the script to conform to the pyramidal structure of a news story. There the least important or interesting material or information comes at the tail with the juicy stuff at the top. That makes it easier for the sub-editor to trim the ‘copy’ to fit into the available space; or for that matter for the reader not to wade through a long article. Kariyawasam, who is often presented in the media as an attorney-at-law, cannot be so naive as to believe that Gammanpila announced his own decision a few days ago. Obviously something this important has to have the concurrence of the president, prime minister and the hierarchy of the government. In this instance it was approved by the Cabinet Sub-Committee on the Cost of Living, headed by the president and including the prime minister.

But Kariyawasam ignored all that and demanded Gammanpila’s resignation. The latter who seized the opportunity to earn himself some brownie points said he volunteered to be the bearer of the bad news to spare the president and prime minister of the resulting flak. He also had the temerity to ask “Who is Sagara Kariyawasam?” JVP leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, gave him the answer. “He is the person who signed your nomination papers,” he replied. All that apart, Kariyawasam like Gammanpila, would not have fired the missile (or missive), ironically bearing the PM’s photograph on the letterhead, on his own volition. He was obviously instructed to do what he did by somebody powerful – very powerful. It has been widely suggested that this was dual citizen Basil Rajapaksa now sojourning in the USA, his first (or second?) home. He’s been away now for several weeks and no date of return has yet been mentioned although as head of a very powerful Task Force, his presence in the country is important.

There have been some feeble responses to this allegation. One of these was the assertion that if Basil, a powerful member of the Royal Family, wished to make his point, he could easily have spoken to either of his brothers, the president or the prime minister or even nephew, Namal. Instead why did he choose Kariyawasam to fire off a controversial statement if he indeed did so? The latter, of course, has a National List seat in Parliament together with a lifetime pension (for himself and his widow), courtesy of the taxpayer. For this he has to thank a powerful patron. This, some have it, is Basil Rajapaksa. But that, of course, remains an unproven and probably never to be proven allegation. It was Basil after all, who created the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP), aka Pohottuwa, which leads the ruling coalition. Thus, apart from his position as an immediate family member of the leaders of the ‘Double Paksa’ government, as our regular columnist, Kumar David, delights in calling the ruling Establishment, he is much more. He created the party that won the last election and is its National Organizer. His influence then on cabinet making and National List choices would have been pervasive.

It is also pertinent to ask why the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) chose to bring a vote of no confidence against Gammanpila rather than against the government. The Sajith Premadasa party, obviously knows as well as everyone else that the fuel price increase was a government decision rather than one unilaterally made by the energy minister. Why then is it training its guns at the loquacious Gammanpila rather than the government itself? We are told that it’s all a matter of strategy debated in the inner councils of the major opposition party. The thinking is that if a no confidence motion was moved against the government, all its components will unitedly fight it. But if it is aimed at Gammanpila, there will be those deeply embarrassed about the price increases and its effect on their constituents who may be tempted to break ranks. Sagara Kariyawasam, for instance, will find it difficult to express confidence in Gammanpila. But he has an easy way out. He can be absent at voting time like so many have done before. Hopefully, Ranil Wickremesinghe would have taken his National List seat before the forthcoming debate. It will be interesting to hear what he has to say.

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Editorial

Poaching: Grasp the nettle

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Saturday 19th June, 2021

India has denied media reports that its Navy recently assaulted a group of Sri Lankan fishermen, who claim the attack took place on the high seas. We cannot either confirm or deny these claims. Both sides cannot be expected to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Fishers are notorious for fish tales, and so are diplomats, who are said to lie abroad for the good of their countries. But the question is who actually set upon the Sri Lankan fishermen, whose torsos and limbs are wealed and raw. (It is not possible that they assaulted themselves or came under an alien attack.) Sometimes, Indian fishermen also complain of attacks by the Sri Lanka Navy, and Colombo promptly denies such allegations.

The real issue here is poaching, and not the complaints that the Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen are occasionally assaulted at sea. Sri Lankan fishers are not entirely blameless; there are times when some of them get arrested for illegal fishing in Indian waters. But the number of these poachers pales into insignificance in comparison to that of their Tamil Nadu counterparts who frequently swarm the territorial waters of this country.

The Indian poachers seem to think they have a legitimate right to enter Sri Lankan waters for fishing. Hence their chutzpah to oppose Sri Lanka’s efforts to create new fish breeding grounds by sinking old buses in its territorial waters; these contraptions will damage their boats, they have argued. They have admitted, albeit unwittingly, that they fish in Sri Lankan waters! The actual reason for their protests is their fear that the submerged buses will damage the nets they use for bottom trawling, which is illegal, as Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda has pointed out. Many more old vehicles must be sunk in the sea to prevent bottom trawling.

Poaching is a far more complex issue than it looks, and the politics of it has not been factored into the efforts being made to resolve it. On 04 December 2013, the then Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne disclosed that certain Tamil Nadu politicians were behind the illegal fishing operations in Sri Lankan waters. He said they owned boats, which they made available to Indian fishers on the condition that they fished in Sri Lankan waters. These elements are bent on belittling Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, and pitting the Central government of India against this country.

The issue of poaching has remained unsolved all these years because Sri Lanka and India have been seeking a diplomatic solution to a legal problem. Their interventions, purportedly on humanitarian grounds, only encourage poachers, who know their governments will get them off the hook when they get into hot water.

When Indian poachers are taken into custody, Tamil Nadu politicians pressure the Central government to make interventions, and Colombo meekly releases them. Illegal fishing is a punishable offence under the internatioanl law, and must be treated as such. If Sri Lankan fishers enter India’s territorial waters purposely, they must be brought to justice, and the Indian poachers caught in Sri Lankan waters must be dealt with in a similar manner.

The weak-kneed Sri Lankan leaders release the Indian trawlers taken into custody for illegal fishing. This practice must end. All the vessels used for poaching must be confiscated and serious thought must be given to sinking them in the sea as part of the ongoing project to create new fish breeding grounds. This is the way to make the Tamil Nadu politicians stop promoting illegal fishing. India can do likewise to safeguard its interests. Then only the poachers of both countries will realise that they are not above the international law and feel the need to act with restraint. Half-hearted attempts to solve the problem will never reach fruition. Let the nettle be grasped.

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Editorial

Cheers and tears

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Friday 18th June, 2021

The government is behaving like an inebriated nitwit, doing exactly what it should not be doing during a grave health crisis. The ruling party pundits seem to think the only thing people lack in these troubled times is alcohol; it permitted online liquor sales. Thankfully, doctors succeeded in derailing the ill-conceived scheme. But there is no guarantee that it will not be reintroduced during or after lockdowns.

There is a catchy political slogan popular among Sri Lankans: emathilata caar, golayanta baar, janathawata soor—cars for ministers, bars for their henchmen and intoxication for the general public. This political aphorism has held true, over the decades, under successive governments, and the thinking of the present-day leaders exemplifies it.

What possessed the government to permit online liquor sales? Doctors have rightly pointed out that as many as 63 Sri Lankans die of various diseases related to alcoholism daily; this is more or less the number of lives the pandemic is snuffing out at present, here. They argue that the state expenditure on treating alcohol-related diseases is much higher than the revenue from liquor taxes.

The government has failed to ensure that the supplies of essential commodities reach the public efficiently during lockdowns. It has introduced a mobile delivery system, which is not working properly, and there are many complaints of the captive consumers being fleeced by vendors. Allegations abound that even some established supermarket chains abuse the online delivery system to cheat consumers who are made to pay for rotten onions, fruits, etc. Instead of streamlining the existing distribution system and providing economic relief to ensure that the people are fed, the government, in its wisdom, sought to introduce online liquor sales to quench the thirst of tipplers, of all people. Are the SLPP leaders themselves three sheets to the wind?

Problems, nay miseries that lockdowns bring about affect everyone. There is hardly anyone who is not troubled by the lockdown blues. Online liquor sales are certainly not a solution to any of these issues. They, if permitted, would have worsened the suffering of many families with their heads using credit cards for liquor purchases and racking up more debt in the process. The bigwigs of the government who conceived this crazy idea certainly need help from the men in white coats.

Some Excise Department grandees have reportedly sought to justify online liquor sales by claiming that owing to the temporary closure of licensed liquor outlets, bars, etc., bootleggers are having a field day. If so, then it is the fault of the Excise Department and the police. Illicit breweries and shebeens must be raided regularly and the culprits brought to justice. That is what the Excise officers and the long arm of the law are there for. The country is awash with illicit brews of all sorts because bribery and corruption are rampant among Excise officers and police personnel. They have allowed the illegal artificial toddy industry to thrive although extremely harmful materials such as old batteries and urea are used to manufacture the illicit brew, as SJB MP Buddhika Pathirana has revealed in Parliament.

Meanwhile, it is prudent to make all pandemic-related relief programmes female-oriented, for women husband financial resources much better than most men, and selflessly look after their families. Not that all men are selfish, pleasure-seeking creatures who neglect their families, but many males are addicted to alcohol, smoking and even narcotics in some cases and do not scruple to buy intoxicants at the expense of their families. This is why swarms of desperate men jostle and shove near liquor outlets when lockdowns are lifted, and unflinchingly waste their money, which could otherwise be used to meet the nutritional requirements of their families, especially children.

What should be given priority during lockdowns is feeding the public and looking after their health needs. Nobody dies due to being without alcohol for a couple of weeks; in fact, during ‘dry’ lockdowns tipplers’ health improves significantly as their vital organs get some rest. This is the best time for unfortunate dipsomaniacs to kick the habit. About 48 percent of smokers have done so, according to a recent news item in this newspaper. Lockdowns thus have the potential to control three pandemics—Covid-19, smoking and alcoholism. Let the government be urged to heed doctors’ advice.

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