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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

When shamelessness becomes a virtue

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Wednesday 16th June, 2021

Prof. Sasanka Perera has, in a hard-hitting column published in the Midweek Review section, today, castigates all political potentates who do not have an iota of shame and are ready to stoop to anything morally reprehensible to further their own interests. His consternation is understandable, and his astringent criticism will surely strike a responsive chord with the discerning public outraged at widespread bribery and corruption, the plunder of state funds, the abuse of power and the culture of impunity.

Unfortunately, shamelessness is a virtue in a moral wasteland. It does not pay to be shameless in societies where morals and ethics are cherished, but it certainly does in this land like no other. An apocryphal story about a Mudliyar and his coconut estate comes to mind; villagers, mostly women, would trespass on his property at dawn and remove all the coconuts that had fallen overnight. Try as he might, he failed to stop this. One of his workers offered to help him, and accomplished in double-quick time what he had undertaken, much to the surprise of the big man, who asked how he had done it, and the latter said he roamed around in the buff, and villagers ran away. Likewise, shamelessness has worked for the members of parliament and other elected representatives as evident from their social positions, privileges, influence and wealth.

The nabobs at the levers of power do everything except fulfilling their election pledges. This, we have witnessed over the past several decades. The MPs of all political hues seldom knuckle down anent their legislative duties and obligations; most of them are notorious for absenteeism among other things, and the Speaker has a hard time, trying to have quorate sittings. But these worthies have all the luck thanks to the fealty of the public to political parties and politicians.

The JVP is the only Opposition party that has torn into the government for having shamelessly ordered vehicles for the MPs while the country is struggling to raise funds for its fight against the pandemic. The ‘comrades’ have called for auctioning the vehicles to be imported and utilising the proceeds for the benefit of the public. Let them be commended for their principled stand, which, however, will not translate into popular support for their cause thanks to the threadbare ideological shibboleths they cling to, as Prof. Perera has rightly pointed out. Unfortunately, other Opposition bigwigs are prevaricating on this vital issue. What the government deserves for being so shameless as to waste public funds on luxury vehicles for the MPs amidst crises on all fronts is a knuckle sandwich, but these worthies are pulling punches.

(The government claims to have cancelled the vehicle imports at issue, but it is doubtful whether anyone will buy into that claim.)

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa says he is opposed to public funds being used to buy vehicles for the MPs. He wants the money spent on the vaccination programme instead. Will the SJB MPs reject the super luxury vehicles to be imported? Such perks will make the members of parliament even in the developed world green with envy. In Sweden, as we have pointed out in a previous comment, only the Prime Minister is given an official vehicle.

Meanwhile, shamelessness seems to beget shamelessness, which has stood the elected in good stead; the vast majority of electors are also without any sense of shame. They shamelessly vote the shameless into office alternately while complaining of being taken to the cleaners by every regime. Thus, this country has governments of the shameless by the shameless for the shameless.

There are, of course, intelligent Sri Lankans who desire a radical departure from the rotten political culture, but they are thought to be hoping against hope. However, in some other countries, people have sought to make a difference by rejecting career politicians and candidates from political families. The frustration of Ukrainians with established political parties and their leaders led to the election of Volodymyr Zelensky, a professional comedian, as their President. The French elected as their President a virtual political unknown, Emmanuel Macron, who recently got slapped by a man during a walkabout, but remained composed. What prevents this country from attempting such experiments is the constancy of the majority of electors’ blind loyalty to the shameless politicians.

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Editorial

Of that mystery boat

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Tuesday 15th June, 2021

Time was when Sri Lanka remained on high alert to prevent the movement of armed groups from Tamil Nadu, a haven for terrorists who brought boatloads of arms and ammunition here. It has now been reported that Tamil Nadu is worrying about such a security threat from this side of the Palk Strait; its police and the Indian Central intelligence agencies have reportedly been placed on the highest alert level following a warning that some armed persons from Sri Lanka are trying to enter India via the sea. Search operations are being conducted in several cities in Tamil Nadu and road blocks have been set up, we are told. Kerala is also reported to have adopted similar measures in view of the threat. However, the identities of the suspected infiltrators are not known, and they had not been intercepted or sighted at the time of going to press.

It is not clear from what has been reported of the security threat at issue whether the armed persons are from a terror group, or any other criminal outfit. Gunrunning and drug smuggling between India and Sri Lanka have been going on despite attempts by the two countries to stop them, but what has prompted Tamil Nadu to go on red alert cannot be a boat carrying weapons or drugs with some armed smugglers aboard; it is believed to be a boatload of armed persons presumably intent on carrying out an attack on Indian soil. This is a very serious situation that warrants a high-level probe here as well.

Sri Lankan underworld figures flee to India when the police close in on them here. Some of them have been arrested in India. Drug dealer and contract killer, Maddumage Lasantha Chandana Perera, alias Angoda Lokka, who fled Sri Lanka, fearing his capture, is believed to have died while hiding in India, last year. But such characters usually do not carry weapons while fleeing in boats; they travel disguised as fishers, and make good their escape in most cases. They have links to their counterparts in India, where they have protection, and therefore do not take the trouble of moving their weapons in boats and run the risk of being captured. Some attempts by the LTTE rump to smuggle explosive devices to this country have been foiled in South India since the end of the Vanni war, but there have been no reports of former Tigers trying to infiltrate India. Drug smugglers also do not carry weapons when they cross the Palk Strait; their operations are far more sophisticated.

So, who are the armed persons trying to reach India by boat? Are they members of a foreign terror group using Sri Lanka as a transit point? Some years ago, the Indian intelligence warned of the possibility of such terrorist operations. But what could such a foreign terror outfit achieve by sending a single boatload of armed cadres to India unless its goal is to carry out a one-off attack like the Easter Sunday carnage? Such a mission involves extremely high risks because it requires the movement of terrorists through Sri Lanka, where intelligence outfits have been on high alert since the Easter Sunday attacks, and the Sri Lankan Navy has also gone into overdrive to prevent illegal immigrants from India in view of the pandemic. It is doubtful whether any organised terror group will take unnecessary risks particularly at this juncture.

Sri Lanka’s reaction to the infiltration threat in question was not immediately known. Maybe, an investigation has already got underway here, and information thereof has not been disclosed. Everything possible must be done to get to the bottom of it. One hopes that both India and Sri Lanka will go flat out to catch the armed group, if any, trace the source of threat and do everything in their power to neutralise it forthwith.

The reported security threat to India ought to make the Sri Lankan authorities redouble their counterterror efforts without leaving anything to chance. There could be more to it than meets the eye. The previous government chose to ignore a warning in 2019, and the price the country paid for that blunder was huge.

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Editorial

Govt. vs Govt.

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Monday 14th June, 2021

It never rains but it pours. There is no end in sight to the various shocks the public frequently receives from the government. The Covid-19 pandemic is ripping through the country, destroying scores of lives daily. The inoculation programme is moving at a tardy pace as there is no steady supply of vaccines. Travel restrictions are causing hardships to the public and hurting the economy badly but have not yielded the desired results. The poor are asking for food and farmers fertiliser. Atop all these have come fuel price increases, which are bound to send the cost of living into the stratosphere.

Bakery owners have already decided to increase the prices of certain products. Private bus owners, cab operators and the trishaw fraternity will follow suit, and life will become even more unbearable to most people.

The fuel price hikes have made the ruling SLPP coalition look like MV X-Press Pearl, which had a nitric acid leak on board and was burnt out. A caustic remark made by SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam has triggered an explosion aboard the ship of government, as it were. No sooner had Minster of Energy Udaya Gammanpila announced the fuel price increases, claiming that the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) was incurring heavy losses due to the world market oil price increases than Kariyawasam fired from the hip; he issued a stinging media statement flaying Gammanpila, and demanding to know whether the price hikes were aimed at bringing the government leaders into disrepute; he even asked Gammanpila to resign.

Kariyawasam sought to have the public believe that Gammanpila had done something high-handed. But we reported a few days ago that the government was planning fuel price increases. However, if one goes by the SLPP General Secretary’s statement, then one may wonder if Gammanpila is so powerful in the government as to revise fuel prices himself? But the truth is otherwise. The Energy Minister alone cannot jack up fuel prices or bring them down without the consent of the President and the Prime Minister. The Cabinet Sub-Committee on Cost of Living also has a say in such matters.

Gammanpila struck back yesterday; he insisted that he had only announced a government decision, and the uncomplimentary remarks Kariyawasam had made in the aforesaid statement applied to both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa! Several ministers have also sought to justify the oil price increases. Curiouser and curiouser! Is it that they are also party to Gammanpila’s ‘conspiracy’ to make the government leaders unpopular?

If the SLPP really thinks Minister Gammanpila alone is responsible for the fuel price hikes, then there is a simple remedy. The government can swiftly undo what he has done. If it thinks it can get away with the price hikes at issue by laying the blame for it at Gammanpila’s door, it is mistaken.

The SLPP General Secretary’s statement flaying Gammanpila is proof of the ruling coalition’s internal problems. The SLPP is apparently doing to its coalition partners what the SLFP, in its wisdom, did to its United Front allies in mid-1970s. Some SLPP leaders are apparently trying to settle political scores with Gammanpila, who is critical of them. A few moons ago, Kariyawasam took on Minister Wimal Weerawansa, who has antagonised some SLPP grandees.

It was only the other day that the government MPs gloated over the SJB’s internal problems and tried to embarrass the Opposition, in Parliament. They expect UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appointment as a National List MP to create a division in the SJB. But the fact remains that the SLPP, which is magnifying others’ problems, is far from united; and a scenario similar to what we witnessed towards the latter stages of the previous Rajapaksa government in 2014 seems to be playing out.

The SLPP seems to think the masses are asses. Otherwise, it will not try to dupe the public into believing that the government had no hand in the fuel price hikes, and Gammanpila arbitrarily effected them unbeknownst to his bosses. Now that it has come to light that the decision to jack up fuel prices was taken by the Cabinet, the entire government must resign in keeping with the SLPP General Secretary’s argument that anyone responsible for placing another economic burden on the pandemic-hit people has to go.

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