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Editorial

Beating the virus

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Monday, 9th August, 2021

We have got what we asked for. The viral tsunami has made landfall. A surge in Covid-19 infections is snuffing out lives at the rate of about 100 a day. Hospitals are facing a capacity crunch, and mortuaries are packed to the rafters. Unclaimed remains of Covid victims are being buried/cremated by the state. Crematoria in some parts of the country are kept open round the clock. The prognosis of morbidity and mortality rates is even gloomier. Unless stern action is taken to contain the pandemic, the death rate is likely to double within the next few weeks, health experts warn.

If the country had been closed during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, a few months ago, this situation would not have come about. Most of the current infections have been traced to the explosive spread of the pandemic in April. We never learn from our blunders.

A few Covid-19 deaths caused the country to be locked down for weeks, last year. Today, the government is determined to keep the country open despite the loss of about 100 lives a day—for obvious reasons. Another round of lockdowns will send the economy into a tailspin, making pandemic control even more difficult.

The government is under heavy pressure to impose lockdowns again, but such action will reduce many more people to penury almost overnight. Job losses have already increased exponentially, and many people are struggling to keep the wolf from the door. The country now finds itself between a rock and a hard place. But the main problem—the surge in infections—is not without a solution, which has, in fact, been staring us in the face since the detection of the first coronavirus infection in this country.

The Delta variant of coronavirus is capable of many things. It is far more transmissible than other variants and causes disease severity among many more people than in the past, necessitating hospitalisation and high-flow oxygen dependency. This has resulted in an increase in the death toll. The Delta variant is also capable of breaking the vaccine barrier and causing breakthrough infections. (The rich nations are mulling over administering the third booster shot while the vast majority of people in the Global South are waiting for the first vaccine dose.) But the Achilles heel of the Delta variant is that it cannot beat the WHO-recommended preventive measures, the proper implementation of which is therefore the solution. Unfortunately, nobody seems to follow the health regulations strictly, in this country. Most Sri Lankans do not maintain physical distancing or wear masks in the prescribed manner or wash/sanitise their hands. If these simple methods are followed, we will be able to curb the spread of the pandemic without having to contend with lockdowns again.

The need to redouble preventive efforts to beat the virus cannot be overemphasised. Why the government has not banned mass gatherings such as wedding receptions, etc., is the question. Those who are dependent on such social events for a living will be affected by a blanket ban, but it is wiser to provide economic relief to them than to allow large gatherings where people ignore health regulations and endanger their lives as well as others’. Weddings, more often than not, lead to infections clusters. Movement restrictions will have to be imposed where necessary, and remote work encouraged as far as possible. Thankfully, teachers have suspended their street demonstrations, but the blame for the rapid increase in infections should be apportioned to them and the government, which has driven trade unions to conduct protests, whose cumulative impact on public health will be felt soon. Among the measures that have been adopted in other countries to prevent the Delta variant infections are mandatory double-masking and the two-metre distancing rule. We must also adopt them, and bring in new laws and regulations to take stringent action against noncompliance. The health and law enforcement authorities have to get tough with those who flout health regulations. There is no other way to prevent mass burials.

The virus can be beaten decisively if we get our act together.



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Editorial

Singer and different UN tune

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Friday 17th September, 2021

State Minister Lohan Ratwatte’s violent behaviour inside two prisons has drawn widespread condemnation from the civilised world—and rightly so. The government has stooped so low as to shield him, and in so doing it has brought not only itself but also the entire country into disrepute.

Popular actor turned politician Ranjan Ramanayake, given to making a melodrama out of everything in life, is serving a jail term for having said something that the judiciary deemed an affront to its dignity; he lost his parliamentary seat as a result. But Ratwatte, who forcibly entered two prisons and held some Tamil prisoners at gunpoint in one of them, on Sunday, is moving about freely, and, worse, remains a State Minister. The least the government can do by way of damage control is to sack Ratwatte and ensure that he will be arrested and prosecuted without further delay, as we argued yesterday. With the likes of him within its ministerial ranks, the government needs no enemies.

Meanwhile, no sooner had Ratwatte’s despicable behaviour come to light than the UN pontificated to Sri Lanka on the need to look after prisoners. UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, Hanaa Singer-Hamdy said that it was the duty of the State to protect the rights of prisoners. “In our work on prison reform and drug rehabilitation, UN Sri Lanka works to strengthen capacities to uphold the rights of all those in custody and condemns any ill-treatment of prisoners,” Singer tweeted on Wednesday. One cannot but agree with her. The state of Sri Lanka is duty bound to protect all prisoners.

If only the UN had shown the same concern for its own workers taken prisoner by the LTTE. At the height of the Vanni war in 2007, the LTTE abducted two UN workers, accusing them of having helped the Tamil civilians flee the areas under its control. The captives were kept in a dungeon, badly beaten and questioned. The UN chose to keep the incident under wraps, and held clandestine talks with the LTTE to secure the release of the victims, but in vain. On 20 April 2007, we reported the capture of the UN workers. The LTTE again held a group of UN personnel and their families as part of its human shield in the Vanni, but the UN did not condemn the outfit or call upon the big powers to intervene to pressure the LTTE to release them. So much for the UN’s concern for human rights and the safety of prisoners! This kind of duplicity on the part of the UN and the world powers has stood in the way of the global efforts being made to protect human rights.

What Minister Ratwatte is reported to have done in the Anuradhapura Prison on Sunday is an act of terrorism. No civilised person can condone such brutality. Similarly, all acts of terrorism must be condemned unreservedly if human rights are to be protected. The TNA is also out for Ratwatte’s scalp. It has every right to do so, and the government must heed its concerns about the Tamil prisoners, whose safety must be ensured. But the TNA owes an apology to the Sri Lankan public for having defended the LTTE and acted as the outfit’s mouthpiece in Parliament as well as elsewhere despite its heinous crimes against civilians. The TNA, which is currently on a crusade to defend human rights, has not even condemned the LTTE for assassinating its own leaders, child abductions, civilian massacres, political killings, running illegal prisons, and the violent suppression of dissent, among other things.

Let it be repeated that the government must strip Ratwatte of his ministerial post immediately, make him face the full force of the law and ensure that the SLPP takes disciplinary action against him. It must also stop fielding murder suspects at elections, accommodating killers in Parliament, pardoning convicted murderers and appointing those who should be behind bars as ministers.

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Editorial

Arrest them!

Published

on

Thursday 16th September, 2021

Lohan Ratwatte is reported to have resigned as the State Minister of Prison Management & Prisoners’ Rehabilitation over two separate incidents where he and a group of persons, described as his friends, forced themselves into two prisons and threatened some inmates and made a nuisance of themselves to the prison officers. He, however, will continue to function as the Sate Minister of Gem, Jewellery related Industries. (A gem of a minister!)

It is a criminal offence to enter prisons forcibly, brandish firearms and threaten inmates. The government must explain why Ratwatte and others who were with him at the time of the incidents, have not been arrested, yet. The SLPP leaders came to power, promising to uphold the rule of law and ensure public security. Now, people are not safe even inside heavily-guarded prisons!

Legal action must also be taken against the officers of the Anuradhapura and Welikada Prisons for their inaction. They should have prevented the State Minister from entering their institutions allegedly under the influence of liquor and running amok. The fact that Ratwatte was the State Minster in charge of prisons at the time was no reason for them to allow him in, and let him run around in a frenzied state. Shame on them! How would the brave prison officers have reacted if an ordinary person had tried to gain unauthorised entry into a state pen? He would have been beaten to a bloody pulp.

A few months ago, the government lost no time in having an irate young driver arrested and hauled up before courts for tooting and encouraging others to do likewise in protest against the closing of a road in Colombo to make room for a foreign dignitary, at night. It also orders the police to arrest protesters for violating quarantine laws. So, there is no way it can justify its failure to have the unruly State Minister and his gang arrested.

Crush Health Mafia!

Some Health Ministry officials who take vital decisions on Covid-19 testing and allied matters are doctors working at private hospitals, and therefore there is a conflict of interest on their part, we are told. So, how can the Health Ministry be expected to make the optimal use of its medical laboratories to test inbound passengers at the BIA?

The government would have us believe that it has embarked on a mission to tame the Rice Mafia. The Consumer Affairs Authority has been conducting raids purportedly to achieve this objective. But the Health Mafia preying on the pandemic-hit people, and causing staggering losses to the state coffers, enjoys the freedom to do as it pleases. President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS) Ravi Kumudesh has told this newspaper that some high-ranking Health Ministry officials are benefiting from a racket involving private medical laboratories and quarantine centres, but the government has taken no action against them.

The CMLS has rubbished Deputy Director General of Health Services Dr. Hemantha Herath’s claim that the state sector is not equipped to test all those arriving here from overseas. Its personnel were capable of carrying out that task if given a free hand, the CMLS has said, stressing that the number of Covid-19 tests conducted daily could be increased to 100,000 easily with the existing resources if the Health Ministry is willing to do so. Other countries are encouraging home testing by making available Rapid Antigen Test kits at reasonable prices, but the Sri Lankan government has created a situation where its cronies are thriving on testing, the CMLS alleges.

The CMLS informs us that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered the Health Ministry to purchase 30 rapid PCR machines to ramp up testing, but some officials halved that number arbitrarily. They have overridden a presidential order with impunity! They must be really powerful!

The CMLS ought to lodge a complaint with the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption against the Health Ministry officials who are preventing the state-run medical laboratories from functioning at optimal capacity to line their pockets.

The Health Department has the capacity to conduct as many as 4,500 tests a day on inbound tourists and issue reports within 90 minutes, but some officials have prevented the state-run lab at the BIA from receiving samples, which are sent to private hospitals, the CMLS has said. Strangely, the government has chosen to ignore these very serious allegations, making one wonder whether its members are also benefiting from the testing and quarantine rackets.

If the ruling party politicians and cronies are not involved in the health scams, the government should be able to order a probe into the allegations at issue.

This is something that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should take note of because the blame for the testing and quarantine rackets is laid at his door while the crooked health officials are laughing all the way to the bank together with their corrupt chums.

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Editorial

Donations tainted with politics

Published

on

Wednesday 15th September, 2021

The Chinese Embassy in Colombo is reported to have handed over a consignment of medical equipment to the UNP for distribution among the state-run hospitals. China has made the donation at the request of UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, we are told. It defies comprehension why any foreign government should hand over medical equipment, meant for the Sri Lankan public, to local political parties instead of the Health Ministry. As a popular Sri Lankan saying goes, why should a donkey be entrusted with a task that is best left to a dog?

What are the criteria that China adopts in determining the eligibility of Sri Lankan political parties to handle some of its donations to Sri Lankans? There are 70 registered political parties in this country, and 15 of them are represented in Parliament. What if all of them, or the ones with parliamentary representation, ask for medical equipment from the Chinese government to be handed over to the government hospitals and gain some political mileage? Will China oblige? If not, why? Is it that kissing goes by favour? (China got a port from a UNP-led government, didn’t it?)

China has been looking after Sri Lankan politicians very well, as is public knowledge, and therefore does not have to do anything more for them. It offers junkets even to the local government members. But for the pandemic, by now, all the MPs and most local councillors would have been to China on pilgrimage. Even the most vociferous critics of China in Parliament have no qualms about benefiting from the Chinese largesse.

Political parties should not be allowed to gain political mileage from donations that come from the people of other countries to their Sri Lankan counterparts. It is an affront to the kind-hearted foreigners for their donations to be tainted with partisan politics at this end. When foreign governments make donations through local political parties, they are seen to be helping further the agendas of the latter. Is it fair for foreign governments to use their taxpayers’ money for such purposes?

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Politicians!

JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, MP, is raking Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa over the coals for having asked the government to hold a snap election. Those who call for elections while people are dying of Covid-19 need psychiatric care, Dissanayake has declared. True, there is absolutely no need for an election at this juncture, and the country’s top priority should be fighting the pandemic, and everything else can wait. But Premadasa should not be singled out for criticism; all politicians see opportunities in crises. If the present-day leaders had been in the Opposition today, they would also have asked for an election; they made the most of a national security crisis in 2019 to floor the yahapalana government and capture power.

The JVP is not acting out of principle when it opposes Premadasa’s call for polls; it is scared of facing elections. It, however, has a history of trying to topple a government while the country was in a bigger crisis. It joined forces with others in a bid to defeat the Rajapaksa administration’s budgets in 2007 and 2008 while the country’s war against the LTTE was raging. Had they succeeded in their endeavour, the government would have fallen, and an election would have had to be held; Prabhakaran would have been given ample time to have international pressure ratcheted up on Sri Lanka to halt or abandon military operations against the LTTE; the armed forces, too, would have been greatly demoralised in such a situation.

In this country, politicians think of everything in terms of elections. It is said that a politician thinks of the next election; a statesman of the next generation. Sri Lanka’s biggest problem is that it has not had statespersons.

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