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Editorial

Bridging vaccine divide

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Monday 12th April, 2021

Rich nations make a show of their commitment to defending human rights in the world. They harangue their developing counterparts, at every turn, about the need to protect human rights, and even threaten to meet non-compliance with punitive actions such as sanctions. They, however, do not seem keen to promote and protect humans’ right to vaccination vis-a-vis the prevailing global health emergency. The only way to safeguard this right is to ensure an equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines across the world, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) has expressed utter dismay at what it calls a ‘shocking imbalance’ in the distribution of vaccines between the rich and the poor.

This kind of vaccine inequality could be attributed to what WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has rightly called a ‘catastrophic moral failure’. The COVAX initiative, which alone can ensure a well-coordinated global fight against the virus, has suffered a serious setback, with the high-income countries reportedly holding as many as 4.6 billion doses of vaccines, and the low-middle income nations only 670 million. One in four people have been inoculated in the high-income countries as opposed to one in more than 500 in the low-income countries, according to the WHO.

Unless the COVAX scheme, the most efficacious antidote to what has come to be dubbed ‘vaccine nationalism’, which has put the poorer countries at a distinct disadvantage, goes ahead as planned, a vast majority of the global population, in the developing countries, will be badly hit, and in the long-term, the world’s fight against the virus will be in jeopardy because the pandemic is no respecter of geographical boundaries; no country, however rich and powerful, will be safe in today’s interconnected world dependent on international trade and travel.

‘Vaccine nationalism’ may give the rich nations a sense of security in the short-term, but it will be counterproductive in the long-term, for no vaccine is believed to be able to ensure life-time immunity against COVID-19. The pandemic continues to throw up new challenges. Even if the rich nations achieve their vaccination goals while their poor counterparts are lagging far behind, they will be at the risk of being affected by new variants, against which, the currently available jabs might not be effective. This is why Dr. Ghebreyesus has said no country will be safe until every country is safe.

Some Asian nations are struggling to beat the virus despite some initial success in their battle against the pandemic, according to an Asia News Network article we publish today. The report informs us that India, which is grappling with its second wave of infections, has seen record increases of new cases, with more than 100,000 daily being reported on, at least, five days, last week. This being the predicament of a vaccine-producing nation, with a reasonably efficient vaccination rollout, the vulnerability of other countries is not difficult to guess. Similar unfortunate situations have been reported from other parts of the world as well. The US, which is among the nations with impressively high COVID-19 vaccination rates, is also troubled by a sudden increase in the number of pandemic-related deaths.

If the vaccine rollouts fail to reach a successful conclusion the world over fast, it may not be possible to achieve global herd immunity through vaccination, and the chances of beating the virus may be slim due to its mutations, experts warn. COVAX is scheduled to supply as many as two billion doses of vaccines to 190 countries within one year with 92 poorer nations gaining access to vaccines at the same time as their wealthier counterparts. This is a highly ambitious target, which, however, must be achieved if the world is to get on top of the pandemic. But help from the rich nations is not forthcoming, and it is only natural that the WHO is disappointed.

The WHO is hopeful that it may be possible to change the composition of the existing vaccines to deal with the mutations of the virus, but it is still trying to figure out what kind of impact new variants may have on the effectiveness of vaccines. Reuters reported yesterday that a new coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa had been found to be able to break through Pfizer/BitoNtech’s vaccine to a considerable extent. Some Indian epidemiologists interviewed by BBC yesterday said they feared that the emerging variants might even be able to escape the human immune system!

The need for all nations, which are currently at cross purposes as regards the global battle against the virus, to support and be guided by COVAX, which alone can make them work in unison to beat the virus, cannot be overemphasised.



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Editorial

Rapists at large

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Friday 2nd December, 2022

A diplomat attached to the Sri Lankan Embassy in Muscat has been arrested upon his arrival at the BIA and remanded for his alleged involvement in a human trafficking racket, where women smuggled out of this country were forced into prostitution in Oman. According to some media reports, they were auctioned like slaves and raped. But those who have gang-raped the Sri Lankan economy for years can move through the BIA freely.

Basil Rajapaksa, who is one of the politicians responsible for the collapse of the Sri Lankan economy, returned to the country recently through the VIP section of the BIA. Worse, National Police Commission Chief Chandra Fernando himself was among those present there to welcome him; Fernando was seen touching his forelock before Basil! What’s the world coming to when the heads of the so-called Independent Commissions, which have been established to depoliticise public institutions, behave like fawning sycophants before disgraced politicians?

Anyone who commits sex crimes have to be severely dealt with according to the law, and the diplomat from hell who has allegedly collaborated with human traffickers and even sexually abused some of the victims must be made to face the full force of the law. But the question is why no action has been taken against those who rape the economy and inflict so much suffering on the public.

The perpetrators of economic crimes against the nation are back in action, and some of them, who went into hiding during anti-government protests a few moons ago, are now on the offensive; they have started carrying out attacks on their political rivals. They unleashed violence at Hanguranketha on Sunday. Old habits are said to die hard.

The unfortunate Sri Lankan women who were auctioned as sex slaves in Oman can at least hope to have their day in court here, thanks to an effective media campaign against the human traffickers and their accomplices in the Foreign Service, but the victims of the rape of the economy have to suffer in silence. The government has chosen to gag them, and threatened to unleash the military on them in case they take to the streets to voice their grievances.

Basil could not leave for the US in the aftermath of the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in July, due to protests against him at the BIA; he had to return. But he left the country via the BIA, with his head held high, following the election by the SLPP of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the President, in Parliament. Today, he is given VIP treatment and police escort. This seems to be the only change the current SLPP-UNP administration has brought about!

The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe symbiosis reminds us of the sea anemone and the hermit crab. The Rajapaksas’ lot and that of their cronies and the UNP grandees have manifestly improved while the people are undergoing untold hardships. People are in for another shock; electricity tariffs are to be jacked up again next year. Corruption is rampant, and public funds continue to be plundered. The health sector trade unions have blown the lid off a racket involving oxygen concentrators!

There has been a let-up of sorts in public protests, and this seems to have lulled the government politicians into a false sense of security, and emboldened them to make up for lost time, but let them be warned that they are courting danger. What they are experiencing is like the eerie calm and drawback that precede the landfall of a killer tsunami. They are behaving like those who, blinded by greed, and oblivious to danger, tried to grab newly-exposed land when the sea rolled back minutes before the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, and perished.

Given the massive build-up of public anger in the polity, the protests that led to the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa will look mere ripples in a puddle in comparison to the next popular uprising, which is bound to happen sooner than expected. There is absolutely no defence against a real People Power revolution. Tinpot Hitlers are not equal to the task of stopping it; even the mighty Chinese Communist Party is struggling to contain a wave of public protests.

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Editorial

When House oozes with religiosity

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Thursday 1st December, 2022

We have been wondering, during the past few days, whether the ongoing parliamentary debate is on Budget 2023 or Buddhism. President Ranil Wickremesinghe, JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa have been arguing over some Suttas, or different interpretations thereof. Yesterday, Premadasa treated the House to a brief lecture again on some Suttas in response to what the President had said the previous day.

Never a dull moment in the House when President Wickremesinghe is present. He has a remarkable predilection for thrusting and parrying with his rivals. An avid reader, he is au courant with Buddhism, and causes a stir now and then by making snide remarks about political monks. It was something uncomplimentary he said about some junior monks and their conduct that prompted Opposition Leader Premadasa to leap to the defence of the Maha Sangha and quote extensively from several Suttas in support of his arguments. One may not countenance the President’s choice of words at issue, but the conduct of some Buddhist monks is deplorable to say the least, and they are a disgrace to the Sangha. It is incumbent upon the Maha Nayake Theras to rein them in.

Some MPs have strayed into such lengthy digressions, parading their knowledge of Buddhism, that yesterday Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene happened to urge them to stop preaching Dhamma and concentrate on the purpose of the debate and the day’s business.

Politicians are known for smug moralising and fervent religiosity, and on listening to their arguments over Dhamma in the House we were reminded of a line Antonio utters in The Merchant of Venice: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” They are doing to the Dhamma what they do to the Constitution; they are interpreting it in such a way as to justify their actions and gain political mileage.

Curiously, while some laymen were arguing about the Dhamma in the House in a bid to score political points, MP monk, Rathana Thera, made no intervention. It is not clear from media reports on parliamentary proceedings whether he was present in the House while others were bandying words about Buddhism. He waxes eloquent on other subjects ranging from agriculture to foreign affairs, and even advises the Presidents on matters related to agrochemicals, but has chosen to remain silent on the ‘debate’ on the Dhamma, which is his province! We expected him to intervene when the budget debate took a religious turn, so to speak. Even Education Minister Susil Premjayantha stuck his oar in, yesterday. Is it that Rathana Thera considers it infra dig to make a contribution to a debate among laypersons on Buddhism?

It is Vanijja Sutta that Opposition MPs and the President should have discussed during the budget debate, if at all, more than anything else because the Buddha has basically said therein what types of business should be avoided.

The Constitution accords Buddhism the foremost place, but the State of Sri Lanka has, under successive governments led by Buddhist leaders, been doing exactly the opposite of what the Buddha has preached in Vanijja Sutta; he has asked people to abstain from engaging in business in weapons, business in living beings, business in flesh, business in intoxicants and business in poison’. Sri Lanka promotes slavery in all but name; it encourages its women to slave away in West Asia to earn forex; it is dependent on taxes collected from manufacturers of liquor and cancer sticks, and it has undertaken to develop fisheries and animal husbandry. The Chandrika Kumaratunga government sought to set up a factory to manufacture arms here, but its plan went awry. Budget 2023 has proposed to explore the possibility of growing cannabis, of all things, for export! The Sri Lankan state is not involved in the poison business as such, but allows the sale of food items and other commodities contaminated with harmful substances including carcinogens.

Can the rulers of Sri Lanka reconcile the constitutional provision that grants Buddhism the foremost place with the blatant violation by the State of the core tenets of Buddhism?

Now that our honourable representatives have amply demonstrated their knowledge of Buddhism, let them be urged to practise what they preach so that Parliament will be a better place. For this purpose, they do not have to study the Suttas or discourses; they only have to observe the Five Precepts and abstain from, at least, lying, killing and stealing.

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Editorial

Hitler, Stalin and others

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Wednesday 30th November, 2022

The Nazis of Sri Lanka (read the members of the current SLPP-UNP government, whose leader, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, has called himself Hitler recently in Parliament) have gone into overdrive to suppress democratic dissent. They invaded an auditorium at Hanguranketha, on Sunday, in a bid to sabotage a conference held by a group of SLPP dissidents. Thankfully, they failed in their endeavour.

The fact that the Sri Lanka police are functioning as the Sturmabteilung or Brown Shirts under the Third Reich in Germany, and the prevailing culture of impunity seem to have emboldened the Nazis here to unleash violence to intimidate their political opponents. The Hanguranketha attack presages trouble for democracy, the Opposition and the distressed citizens who are left with no alternative but to take to the streets.

What is up the government’s sleeve is not difficult to guess; even a female ruling party MP has warned that there will be attacks on the Opposition. State Minister Diana Gamage warned Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, the other day, in Parliament; she asked him to cancel a protest march to be held from Kandy to Colombo lest the people should set upon him on the way. The term, ‘people’, is a euphemism Sri Lankan governments use for their goons. One may recall that in the early 1990s, when some journalists covering a DUNF leaflet distribution campaign near the Fort Railway Station were attacked by a gang of UNP thugs, the then Minister of Defence D. B. Wijetunga claimed that ‘irate train commuters’ had assaulted the media personnel who were blocking the entrance to the railway station! We asked him, in this column, whether commuters carried firearms, swords, bicycle chains, and knives. President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was in power at the time, may not have thought his beloved son would come under similar attacks by ‘people’.

The government has sought to justify the use of draconian laws such as the PTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) to curb public protests on the grounds that political upheavals adversely impact tourism. If so, will the SLPP and the UNP explain why they resorted to street protests to engineer regime changes? The UNP held a large number of protests against the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, and the SLPP unsettled the Yahapalana administration by means of mass protests. The UNP backed the Galle Face protest campaign to the hilt when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the President. No sooner had Wickremesinghe been appointed the Prime Minister than he appointed a committee to look after the interests of the anti-government protesters!

Power cuts, scarcities of essentials, attacks on democracy and the exploitation of foreigners affect tourism more than peaceful protests do.

Political stability is no doubt a prerequisite for economic revival, but it cannot be achieved by suppressing public protests. Similarly, it is well-nigh impossible to overcome political instability while the people are undergoing economic hardships and demanding relief. The government must not only take action to stabilise the economy but also be seen to be doing so. Unfortunately, it is seen to be busy solving the problems of the Rajapaksa family, the SLPP, the UNP and their cronies! It also lacks legitimacy because it comprises the SLPP grandees who ruined the economy, and other failed leaders who were rejected by the people at the last general election for neglecting national security and mismanaging the economy.

There are some troublemakers hell-bent on plunging the country into chaos on the pretext of fighting for the rights of the people. They are the ones who carried out arson attacks, assaulted people and even killed an MP during anti-government protests in May and July. But that is no reason why the people’s fundamental rights should be curtailed. All violent elements that break the law have to be dealt with separately. Interestingly, President Wickremesinghe, who calls himself Hitler, has condemned anti-government protesters as Fascists! Some violent characters among protesters claim to be ‘students’. The government refuses to accept their claim. It does not seem to be aware that the terrorists who have ruined Afghanistan are also called ‘students’ or Taliban in Pashto!

Meanwhile, the unfolding politico-economic tragedy is not devoid of some comic relief. In the 1940s, Stalin had Hitler on the run. But, about seven decades on, here in this land like no other, we see ‘Stalin’ running like a rabbit with ‘Hitler’ in hot pursuit! General Secretary of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union, Joseph Stalin, valiantly led mass protests against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the front, and was instrumental in engineering the collapse of the Rajapaksa regime, but today he is on the defensive, facing as he does harassment at the hands of the current dispensation. He has proved to be no match for Gotabaya’s successor, who calls himself Der Fuhrer; his bark is now worse than his bite.

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