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Battle against COVID-19: Key lesson

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Dr. Chandana Jayawardena DPhil

 

When?

Over the last 12 months, the whole world has battled against the greatest pandemic it has faced in 100 years. Retrospective studies consider that the 2019 Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) evolved in China in November 2019. In late December, 2019, scientific comprehension of this new kind of coronavirus took place in Guangzhou Province, and clinical apprehension of a pending epidemic started at Hubei Provincial Hospital in Wuhan. Soon after that the Wuhan Health authorities issued a case statistic, and this information reached the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in USA, soon after that.

 

What?

COVID-19, which undoubtedly is the worst pandemic during our lifetime, but it is not the worst pandemic that the world has faced. The Spanish Flu, also known as the 1918 Flu Pandemic, lasted over two years from February 1918. In four successive waves, it infected 500 million people – close to a third of the world’s population at the time, and is believed to have killed between 17 and 50 million people. As the world’s population has grown in 100 years by 4.33 times, from 1.8 billion to 7.8 billion; 17 million deaths 100 years ago are equal to 74 million deaths today. In that context, the number of COVID-19 deaths (which is currently at 1.57 million) is significantly low, as a percentage of the present global population. However, as advanced and knowledgeable as we are today, should not the world have dealt with COVID-19, in a better way?

 

Why?

In a global context, there are many reasons for the unexpected spread of COVID-19. The following eight reasons can be identified for handling the current pandemic well or poorly, particularly among the 50 countries with the largest populations:

1. Proactive political leadership (or lack of it)

2. Crisis management skills (or lack of it)

3. Mature national cultural attitude (or lack of it)

4. Quality and quantity of medical facilities

5. National wealth

6. Population density

7. Size of the country

8. Experiences in dealing with other pandemics.

 

How?

So far, what are the countries that have handled the COVID-19 pandemic better? As countries have populations of highly varied levels, it is meaningless to judge the effectiveness of handling of the pandemic, by simply looking at the total cases or deaths per country. Therefore, ‘deaths per million people can be considered as the best criteria for such an analysis. On assumption that all countries are honest with their reporting, and based on the rate of deaths per million, as published on December 9th, 2020 (reference: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/), the worst performance of COVID-19 ‘deaths per million people are the following two small European countries:

 

* Belgium 1,508 deaths per million

* San Marino 1,443 deaths per million.

In the same analysis, the world average is 201 deaths per million. Sri Lanka recorded 7 deaths per million, which is relatively very good.

 

Who?

Based on the 50 countries with the world’s largest (over 28 million) populations, can be ranked based on ‘deaths per million people, in the following (worst first, best last) order:

 

1. Peru 1,097

2. Italy 1,014

3. Spain 998

4. UK 912

5. USA 885

6. Argentina 882

7. France 862

8. Mexico 856

9. Brazil 836

10. Colombia 746

11. Iran 606

12. Poland 559

13. South Africa 376

14. Canada 340

15. Ukraine 326

16. Iraq 308

17. Russia 306

18. Germany 242

19. Turkey 181

20. Morocco 172

21. Saudi Arabia 171

22. India 102

23. Philippines 79

24. Indonesia 66

25. Egypt 66

26. Algeria 57

27. Nepal 56

28. Afghanistan 49

29. Bangladesh 42

30. Myanmar 40

31. Pakistan 38

32. Sudan 30

33. Kenya 29

34. Yemen 20

35. Japan 19

36. Uzbekistan 18

37. Ethiopia 15

38. Malaysia 12

39. South Korea 11

40. Angola 11

41. Ghana 10

42. Madagascar 9

43. Nigeria 6

44. DR Congo 4

45. Mozambique 4

46. Uganda 4

47. China 3

48. Thailand 0.9

49. Vietnam 0.4

50. Tanzania 0.3

 

It is puzzling to see rich, advanced and well-developed countries such as: Italy, Spain, UK, USA and France, among the worst Covid19 affected countries in the world while some of the poorer and less developed nations in Africa and Asia are among the least affected. Perhaps, their less democratic political systems and experience in dealing with other recent pandemics helped these countries to fight the covid19 pandemic, better than the western world.

 

What Next?

* Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has so far claimed well over one and half million lives. Medical science is progressing faster than even the optimists had expected. It is estimated by the WHO that between 65% and 75% of the population, either need vaccination or recovery against the virus to achieve immunity. Some countries have concluded that the vaccination is required for 70% of their population. A few vaccinations are now entering the national approval stage around the world.

* UK – On December 8th, 2020, ninety-year-old Margaret Keenan, a retired shop clerk from Northern Ireland was at the front of the line at University Hospital Coventry in UK to receive the vaccine that was approved by British regulators. She became the first person in the world (outside trials) to be vaccinated against COVID-19. She received the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, a week after the UK became the first country to approve its use. UK commenced this operation with 50 vaccination hubs with an aim of vaccinating (first dose) four million people by end of the year 2020. This is only 6% of the UK’s population of 66 million.

* Russia is emerging as the second nation after UK, to make an approved vaccination, available to selected public. According to the Russian President, more than two million doses of Sputnik V will be available by mid-November, 2020 for medical workers and teachers across Russia, but with a main focus on Russia’s pandemic epicentre – the city of Moscow.

* USA is expected to follow UK and Russia soon. The Wall Street Journal reports that Pfizer expects to ship half as many doses of its vaccine as planned in 2020. The medical news site STAT reports frontline US healthcare workers think the current administration’s pledge to vaccinate 20 million people in December seems unrealistic. USA’s President-Elect’s goal of getting 100 million shots in his administration’s first 100 days or by April 30th, 2021, appears to be more realistic. This is 30% of the USA’s population (of 331 million). Pfizer product is a double dose vaccination and most likely, these 100 million persons should get their second dose between 19 and 42 days, after the first dose. Ideal vaccination target of 70% of the population of USA equals 232 million. Therefore, it is unlikely that USA will reach its vaccination target before the end of 2021. Most likely, people vaccinated will also need annual boosters.

* The Rest of the World is expected to follow the UK, Russia and USA. Canada is expecting to receive up to 249,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Soon after that Canadians will begin to get vaccinated. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) plans to give its opinion in favour of a first vaccine in EU countries by the end of 2020, with a view to distribution from early 2021. Mexico’s vaccination campaign against COVID-19 is expected to begin before the end of 2020. Brazil could begin its nationwide immunization program against Covid-19 by March, 2021. China’s need to both develop and introduce a COVID-19 vaccine has differed from other countries as it has effectively halted the spread of the virus. Japan and Korea look to begin distribution of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of March, 2021. India has a couple of vaccines which in their final trial stage, and may take around three months getting the required approvals from regulatory authorities.

The World Health Organisation, (reference: Research for COVID-19 Recovery) says: “Recovering better from COVID-19 will depend on bold efforts to strengthen health systems, shore up social protections, project economic opportunities, bolster multicultural collaboration, and enhance social cohesion.” There is a key lesson the world has to learn from the current global pandemic, particularly from mistakes made by highly developed countries such as the US. That is, global research and science (and not politics) represent the world’s best chance of recovering from the current pandemic and preparing for the future pandemics.



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Opinion

A Cabinet reshuffle needed

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

It looks as if the government did not realise the need to take drastic action to stem the tide of public disapproval. Even the most optimistic, who were overjoyed at the election of a non-politician President, followed by that of a government with an unexpected thumping majority, are sighing in despair! Although part of it is due to avoidable own-goals, there seems to be an extremely effective anti-government campaign directed by an unseen hand. Even when toxins are detected in imported coconut oil, rather than laying the blame on errant importers, attempts are made to tarnish the image of the government. All this is possible because the government seems to lack an effective communication strategy. One wonders whether the government has a lax attitude because the Opposition is blundering.

The fracas in the Parliament on the issue of Ranjan Ramanayaka losing his seat was the best illustration of a misguided Opposition not fit for purpose. Critics may argue that RR was given an unfairly harsh punishment but their criticism lacks moral authority because they opted to be silent when a Buddhist priest was given a much harsher punishment for the same offence: in fact, they were delighted! RR stated publicly that most judges were corrupt and defended his stance at every possible turn. He also refused all opportunities afforded for clarification. In spite of the Attorney General informing a while ago that RR’s seat should be declared vacant, to his credit the Speaker waited till RR’s petition for appeal was dealt with. Even though the facts were obvious, the Leader of the Opposition accused the Speaker of removing RR on the basis of non-attendance for three months, which he had to correct the following day! Those who blamed the SLPP for staging unruly protests in Parliament in October 2018, did the same on behalf of RR. Is this not laughable?

Once and for all, the question of the authority of the President was settled with the passage of the 20th Amendment and it is high time the President made use of his new powers. The most important thing he can and should do is a cabinet reshuffle, a mechanism often adopted by British Prime Ministers by way of a course correction. It need not be a major reshuffle but a minor one involving some ministers who are obviously underperforming. I have written in the past about the Minister of Health who demonstrated gross irresponsibility by partaking of an untested and unlicensed medicinal product. She is also responsible for not implementing the Jennifer Perera committee report on the disposal of bodies of unfortunate victims of Covid-19? Had this been implemented in December, much of the adverse publicity the country received could have been avoided. Perhaps, the voting during the UNHRC resolution also may have been very different. The Minister of Public Security talking of banning some face coverings did not help either. Pity he did not realize he was talking of this at the wrong time; during an epidemic when face coverings may be useful.

The Minister of Trade, who was an effective critic in the Opposition, has turned out to be totally ineffective. Even the government gazette has become a joke due to his actions. Perhaps, it is time for him to take a back-seat and allow someone else to have a go at the rice-mafia. etc. Perhaps, ex-president Sirisena may be given a chance to see whether brotherly love is more effective than the gazette in controlling the prices of rice.

The biggest failure of this government is on the diplomatic front. What most diplomats consider to be the most important diplomatic assignment, the post of High Commissioner to India remains unfilled for almost a year. Whether we like it or not, India is fast gaining the status of a world power, and not having our representative to deal with officials acknowledged to be of top calibre is a shame.

The way the UNHRC resolution was handled showed total incompetence of the highest order. We withdrew but the Ambassador decided to take part; we lost and claimed victory! To cap it all, the Foreign Minister announced in Parliament that the resolution was illegal. All the time sinister forces are at work, relentlessly, to undermine the country and force the separatist agenda on us and if we are not sharp, we may end up in disaster. For reasons best known to themselves, the government failed to utilize fully the good offices of Lord Naseby. Statements made by the Foreign Secretary no doubt irked the Indian and US governments.

For all these reasons, the need of the day is a complete overhaul of our Foreign Affairs set up, starting with the Minister. It is high time we made use of our career diplomats, who are well trained for the job and stop sending political ambassadors. The practice of utilizing ambassadorial posts as parking lots for retired service chiefs is abhorrent, as it gives the false impression that Sri Lanka has a military government in all but name.

There is still a chance for reversal of fortunes, if the President decides to act swiftly after returning from Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations. If not, unfortunately, there may not be much left to celebrate!

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Opinion

Alleviating poverty, the Chinese way

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China has released a white paper on poverty alleviation which outlines the success of policies implemented, the methods employed and her desire to share the unique social experiment with other developing countries. Sri Lanka being a friendly international partner of China should make use of this opportunity to study the programme and plan a scheme and send a team to China to learn the activities conducted under the scheme so that Sri Lanka will be able to handle the fight against poverty, successfully.

“China achieved the largest scale battle against extreme poverty, worldwide, as 98.99 million people had been lifted out of absolute poverty, creating a miracle in human history.” These people were living in 128 ,000 villages all over in China. China through a sustained program was able to achieve its poverty reduction targets set out in UN 2030 agenda, 10 years ahead of its schedule.

A quote from a report released by the BBC outlines the success achieved by China.

:” In 1990, there were more than 750 million people in China, living below the international poverty line – about two-thirds of the population. By 2012, that had fallen to fewer than 90 million, and by 2016 – the most recent year for which World Bank figures are available – it had fallen to 7.2 million people (0.5% of the population). So clearly, even in 2016 China was well on the way to reaching its target This suggests that overall, 745 million fewer people were living in extreme poverty in China than were 30 years ago. World Bank figures do not take us to the present day, but the trend is certainly in line with the Chinese government’s announcement. (“Another large country, India, had 22% of its population living below the international poverty line in 2011 (the most recent data available) …:”}

The people living in extreme poverty suffer from the lack of extremely basic amenities, such as food. safe drinking water, sanitation, health, shelter, and education. It is a fact that those who come under this category are trapped in a vicious circle and for generations they cannot escape the deprivations.

Some of the policies followed by China in achieving the enviable outcome are discussed in the White paper. The most important condition to be fulfilled is the acceptance of the fact that governance of a country starts with the needs of the people and their prosperity is the responsibility of the government. “To achieve success, it is of utmost importance that the leadership have devotion. strong will and determination. and the ruling party and the government assumes their responsibilities to the people. play a leading role, mobilize forces from all quarters and ensure policies are consistent and stable’.

China has provided the poor with the guidance, direction and tools while educating them to have the ambition to emerge from poverty, Through farmers’ night schools, workshops and technical schools create the improvement of skills. The government identifies the economic opportunities in consultation with the people, then provides finances, loans for the selected projects, and strengthens the infra-structure facilities, including the marketing outlets.

While the macro aspects for the poverty alleviation is planned centrally, the activities are executed provincially and locally.

Sri Lankans living under the national poverty line was 4.1% of the population in 2016 (World Data Atlas). The impact of Covid-19 in 2020-21 has dealt a severe blow to the living standards in Sri Lanka and it is assumed that the people living under the poverty line would have reached approximately 8% of the population by 2021.

President Gotabaya Rajapakasa has realised this gloomy truth in his interaction with the poor in the villages on his visits to the remote areas in Sri Lanka. I would request him to study the success story of China and to work out a similar NATIONAL programme in consultation with China. In the White Paper, China says that she is ready to share her experience with other countries who desire to reduce the poverty levels. The President should appoint a TASK FORCE of capable and nationalist-minded individuals to steer the program with given targets as PRIORITY VENTURE. If Sri Lanka can plan a comprehensive programme for poverty alleviation and implement with determination under the capable, dedicated and willing leadership of the President, nearly two million Sri Lankans who live below the poverty line will benefit and would start contributing to the growth of the nation productively.

RANJITH SOYSA

 

 

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Opinion

Need in New Year is to heal the divides

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By Jehan Perera

One of the definitions of reconciliation is to move from a divided past to a shared future.  The arrest of the Jaffna Mayor Visvalingam Manivannan came as a reminder that unhealed issues from the past continue to threaten peace in the present and the future.  According to people I spoke to in Jaffna, this arrest has revived memories that were no longer in the people’s consciousness.  Nearly 11 years after the end of the war, the people were no longer thinking of the LTTE police and the uniform they once wore. The bailing out of the mayor de-escalated the crisis that was brewing in Jaffna following his arrest.  There were reports that a hartal, or shutdown of the city, had been planned to protest against the arrest.

Jaffna Mayor Manivannan was taken into custody by the Jaffna police for allegedly promoting uniforms and iconography of the LTTE, according to the police.  They had found that the Mayor had recruited five individuals to perform traffic duties in Jaffna town in uniforms that resembled those worn by the LTTE’s police during the time when they ran a parallel administration in parts of the north and east. Photos published in the media show a similarity.  Promoting symbols associated with the LTTE, including uniforms is an offence under provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

However, the position of the Municipality was that the five individuals had been recruited to a Jaffna Municipal Council task force on a temporary basis to enforce penalties against environmental violations such as littering the streets.  According to Mayor Manivannan, the uniforms were, in fact, the same as those worn by a similar task force run by the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC). Media reported a striking resemblance between the task force uniform and the uniforms worn by the LTTE police but also that a parking meter initiative run by the Colombo Municipal Council has employed staffers who also wear a light blue shirt and pants of a darker shade, vaguely similar to the offending Jaffna outfit. 

 

JAFFNA VISIT

Ironically, a few days prior to this incident, I visited Jaffna to take part in the last rites for Fr Nicholapillai Maria Saveri who had headed the Centre for Performing Arts, in Jaffna, for over four decades.  Under Fr Saveri’s leadership the centre produced an entire generation of artistes who reached out across all barriers of ethnicity and religion and touched the lives of people everywhere.  Through his artistic and cultural productions, Fr Saveri tried to show the interdependence of those who live in the country and need to share it bringing to the fore their different talents, connections and capacities.   He sought to turn the diversity and pluralism in the country away from being a source of conflict into one of strength and mutual enrichment. 

The normalcy I saw in Jaffna, during the short period I was there, made me feel that the ethnic conflict was a thing of the past.  At the hotel I stayed I saw young people come and enjoy a drink at the bar and talking with each other with animation and laughter as young people do.  When I went to the District Secretariat, I was struck by the fact that they played the national anthem at sharp 8.30 am and all work stopped while the anthem played all three verses in the Tamil language and all stood to attention, even inside their rooms.  The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in 2011, had recommended that the national anthem be sung in both languages and I was happy to see that in Jaffna this was being implemented a decade later.

At the funeral service for Fr Saveri I met many people and none of them spoke of war and conflict but like people in other parts of the country they spoke of the economy and cost of living.  An administrator from the University of Jaffna spoke about his satisfaction at the large number of Sinhala students at the University and the mixing that was taking place as a result, between the communities.  He said that as the University did not have adequate hostel facilities many of the students from outside of Jaffna, including the Sinhala students, lived with local families.  He said that during the recent graduation ceremony, hundreds of their family members came from the southern parts of the country and joined their children in their places of accommodation which contributed to the inter community mixing.

 

UNIFYING THEME

The situation in Jaffna was so normal to my eyes as a visitor that one of the questions I had and to which I sought answers from those I met, was whether there was a common theme that bound the people together.  Despite my inquiries I could not discern such a common theme that was openly visible or explained to me as such.  It was much like the rest of the country.  At the last general election the people of the north voted for a multiplicity of parties including ones that are part of the present government.  The candidate who got the largest number of votes was one who was affiliated with the government.  At the same time nationalist parties got votes too that saw them enter Parliament and the more moderate parties emerged the largest. 

The arrest of Mayor Visvalingam Manivannan has now supplied a common unifying theme to the politics of the north.  There is distress that the popularly elected Mayor has been treated in such a manner.  If the uniforms that the Municipal workers were wearing too closely resembled those of the LTTE, he could have been informed that this was not appropriate.  It would have been possible to ensure that the uniforms were immediately removed and replaced with ones that were more appropriate while taking into consideration the sensitivities that three decades of war would bring.  As the Mayor is most closely associated with government Minister Douglas Devananda such a request would most certainly have been complied with.  As leader of the EPDP, Minister Devananda was at the forefront of militarily fighting against the LTTE.

The government’s determination to thwart any possible attempt to revive the LTTE can be understood.  The war with the LTTE cost the country enormously in terms of human suffering and economic devastation.  The government won the last election on the promise that it would give priority to national security and also develop the country on that basis.  However, sections of the Tamil Diaspora continue to be openly pro-LTTE and espouse a separatist agenda.  The loss of the vote at the UN Human Rights Council, in which the Tamil Diaspora played a role, would make the government more determined to suppress any attempt to revive the LTTE.  Now that the immediate crisis has been defused due to the release of the Mayor on bail, it would be timely for the government to mitigate the political damage by a multiplicity of means, including by reaching out to the Jaffna Municipal Council about its Municipal law enforcement mechanism.

 

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