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Editorial

Cold logic, hard facts

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Amid the gloom of the country situation we are living in today, there was a beam of light emitted by a statement issued by the Association of Medical Specialists (AMS) published last week. The use of the word “Association” rather than the more familiar “Union” in the name or title of an organization blunts the abrasive edge associated with the latter term. This, of course, is not always the case. The GMOA, for example, is also an association – the Government Medical Officers Association to give its full title. But in the public mind it is, in fact, a union and one that has in too many instances in the past and present acted no differently from blue collar unions in holding the general public to ransom to obtain its demands. Not so (or should we say so much so) the AMS, although it too has in its history acted in a manner similar to the GMOA, whose members are not all medical specialists, to win various facilities and concessions for its members who too are government employees.

The statement we referred to at the beginning of this comment relates to the AMS’s warning to the government that ad hoc salary increases recently promised to nurses and paramedical services would literally open a can of worms triggering similar demands from across the entire public services spectrum. It is public knowledge that salary anomalies are ubiquitous in the various segments of the monolithic public sector. Its size, Mr. KHJ Wijeyadasa, a former Secretary to the President, says in an article published in this issue of our newspaper totals a massive one and a half million employees. To borrow his words, “Sri Lanka’s tottering economy has to sustain a massive government service of over 1.5 million employees, half a million (government) pensioners and two million Samurdhi beneficiaries.”

He has said that this means that 20 percent of the country’s population is paid by the State. Given that the average family size in this country is four, it can be calculated that as many as eight million people – about a third of our population – subsist on State funding, Wijeyadasa says. Given today’s cost of living, we would add that the former senior public servant chose the right word in using “subsist” rather than “live.” There is no escaping the reality of his conclusion that two issues, affordability and sustainability, are very much a part of the existing situation and the picture is no less than “suicidal.” What we, and we believe most sensible people understand is that a spate of pay increases across the government sector at this point of time will be totally unmanageable however much money we print. That is why we find the AMS statement refreshing. They, like Oliver Twist, are not asking for more for themselves but warning of an approaching whirlwind.

Evening television news bulletins over that past week and more projected the misery caused to poor people by the crippling of government hospital services due to various strikes. The AMS said in its statement that they, as public servants, have been least affected by the pandemic and its resultant economic impact. “Our salaries were paid in full, whether we worked from home or did not work. Even transport was arranged at the expense of the State for some. Even essentials were made available for us, delivered to workplace as an extra convenience. These are some of the privileges we have enjoyed as public servants during this period,” the statement said. “In contrast to us, the private sector employees were not so lucky. There were pay cuts, redundancies were declared and bonuses were trimmed, all cost cutting maneuvers.”

Saying all this in a public statement is refreshing candor seldom encountered in this so-called Democratic Socialist Republic of ours. The medical specialists also drew attention to the plight of those they called “freelance” workers, small businesses and most of all, the daily paid workers saying, “Therefore, we strongly believe that being the least affected segment of the society, we public servants should be more mindful of our duty over rights,” the statement said. “Having analyzed the current situation, and the cascade of events crippling the entire nation, we feel that an urgent interim solution should be sought to prevent a lot more trade unions joining the bandwagon.”

Medical specialists in this country are no doubt a very high earning segment of society. Their fees are high adding substantially to astronomically high cost of private health care. They are also beneficiaries of tax breaks on professional incomes. Many of them drive high-end cars with fleets of BMWs, Mercedes Benzes and expensive SUVs, mostly purchased on duty free permits, seen parked at private hospitals as they engage in their consultation practice in the evenings. The lesser fry, particularly in the health care sector can well throw these facts at their faces saying it is easy for those living in luxury and suffering no hardship whatever to say what the AMS has said. But their own unions must seize opportunities that arise to seize benefits for their members as they have done. That, however, does not detract from the logic of the facts as stated by the AMS. The situation is careening out of control and there is no love lost between the people and the political class that must take the hard decisions. Basil Rajapaksa’s entry into the scene is not going to result in the kind of magic that his supporters say is on the way.



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Editorial

Plaguey jab hesitancy

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Friday 30th July, 2021

Sri Lanka’s national vaccination drive has gained considerable momentum with more vaccine doses arriving, and the administration thereof continuing apace. The only way to reopen the country fully, and revive the economy soon is to accelerate the vaccination programme further, and ensure the public compliance with the health regulations to beat the Delta variant, decisively. Sadly, it has been reported that some people are not keen to have themselves vaccinated. This kind of vaccine hesitancy or wariness is bound to stand in the way of the country’s reopening plans. How could this issue be tackled? It is however not limited to Sri Lanka. The US and Australia are among the countries affected by the vexatious jab wariness, which is a threat to public health.

It may not be possible to make vaccination mandatory. But everything possible has to be done to persuade the unvaccinated to get the jab for their own sake as well as that of others. In this country, various factors have been adduced to explain vaccine hesitancy. Some people have an unfounded fear of vaccines. Others have been misled by misinformation campaigns carried out by some elements promoting certain brands of vaccines; they are waiting for the jabs of their choice, and this has been the result of the ongoing international trade war over vaccines. There are still others who are planning to travel overseas and want to receive the shots specified by the countries they will be visiting.

The concerns of those who avoid the jab have to be addressed and remedial measures adopted if we are to achieve the much-needed herd immunity through vaccination. The World Health Organization (WHO) has exploded many a myth about vaccines, and approved several jabs after testing them scientifically, and its messages and recommendations have not apparently reached some sections of the Sri Lankan public, who must be made aware that all WHO-recommended vaccines are safe and effective against coronavirus.

Vaccine is science, which has benefited humans tremendously, and there is no reason why one should not repose one’s trust therein. It is the opinion of respected medical professionals that one should heed as regards the pandemic and the vaccines, and not the much-publicised views of profit-seeking multinationals that are notorious for questionable business practices and have even been fined for resorting to corruption to promote their products.

There has been a mixed public reaction to a proposal by the Lanka Private Bus Owners’ Association (LPBOA) to limit interprovincial travel to the vaccinated. It has struck a responsive chord with some people, but the opponents thereof have pointed out that such a move will be tantamount to discrimination and a violation of people’s rights. Many people have not yet received the jab, and they will be at a disadvantage if the unvaccinated are denied permission to travel across the provinces, the critics of the LPBOA proposal have argued, maintaining that in a democratic society, nobody should be forced to undergo vaccination. This argument is not without some merits. Prior to the commencement of the national vaccination programme, the government announced that nobody would be forced to take the jab. But one may ask how fair it is to respect the rights of some people who refuse to be vaccinated at the expense of others’ right to safety. As for the pandemic, nobody will be safe until everybody is safe, as health experts have warned.

Even the advanced democracies have had to pressure their citizens to take the jab, and devise ways and means of achieving that end. In the US, President Joe Biden, who deserves the credit for having saved millions of American lives by believing in science and expediting the vaccination programme, is expected to announce that all civilian federal employees must be inoculated against coronavirus or be forced to submit to regular testing, physical distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel, according to The New York Times. Fair enough! If one wants one’s right to remain unvaccinated respected, one has to respect others’ right to remain safe, and, therefore agree to enjoy one’s rights under certain conditions for the greater good.

The US vaccine persuasion model is worthy of emulation.

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Editorial

It’s MPs’ Code of Conduct, stupid!

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Thursday 29th July, 2021

What on earth are our politicians doing at the Tokyo Olympics? The Opposition has called for action against some state ministers who are currently in Tokyo for having violated the MPs’ Code of Conduct. The government has claimed that none of its politicians have used state funds for the trip. Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella has demanded to know how they raised funds and who the donors are.

One wonders what even Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa is doing at the Olympics, where his presence is not required. He should have stayed here because he has taken upon himself the task of monitoring the progress of the vaccination drive, and a ministerial visit serves absolutely no purpose where the performance of the national athletes is concerned. Going by the way Minister Rajapaksa was running around, ‘inspecting’ as he did vaccination centres, one thought the national inoculation campaign would collapse without his supervision.

Our players have performed reasonably well in international competition in spite of our Sports Ministers. Politicians and their cronies have only ruined sports over the years, the chronic crisis Sri Lanka Cricket finds itself in, being a case in point. Perhaps, in our opinion, the only instance where a Sports Minister ever helped Sri Lanka secure a medal in an international competition was in 2000, when Susanthika Jayasinghe won a Silver at the Sydney Olympics; the poor lass had to sprint to escape from the randy minister pursuing her!

Kiriella has said some MPs misuse their positions for monetary gains. One could not agree with him more although he has made no revelation. Many are the rogue MPs who have sold their souls to moneybags on the wrong side of the law. Behind every successful underworld figure, there is a crooked politician. If Makandure Madush, who was Sri Lanka’s Napoleon of Crime, had lived to face trial, he would perhaps have revealed who had made his meteoric rise in the netherworld of crime and drugs possible. Dead men tell no tales.

If the State Ministers allegedly enjoying themselves currently in Japan are to be made to disclose the sources of funding at issue, shouldn’t the politicians who have spent billions of rupees on their election campaigns be made to do likewise? Where has all the money come from?

Will the Opposition care to find out how much the SJB and SLPP candidates spent at the last presidential election? How were the funds raised and who donated them? The SJB should reveal information about its presidential election campaign expenditure and dare the SLPP to follow suit. Were there any leftover funds, and if so, what happened to them? Why haven’t the names of the financiers concerned been revealed to the public? Similarly, will all those who contested previous elections declare the amounts they received by way of campaign funds?

All members of the previous Rajapaksa governments had amassed wealth sufficient for generations to come by the Jan. 2015 regime change. The UNP had been in penury due to its long stay in the political wilderness; its headquarters, Sirikotha, could not even pay its electricity and water bills. But within a few months of grabbing power in Parliament, the UNP’s war chest began to overflow with funds, and the Greens outspent their political opponents at the 2015 general election. Perhaps, such a spending spree would not have been possible but for undisclosed foreign funds and the Treasury bond scams, which yielded billions of rupees for the perpetrators and their masters. Only those who were directly involved in the racket, including the then Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran, are facing legal action; the mastermind of the scams and those who benefited therefrom have gone scot-free and are moralizing. Similarly, the incumbent government went out of its way to facilitate the recent sugar tax scam, which is believed to be bigger than the Treasury bond racket, and the person who made a killing is a ruling party financier. No wonder the present-day leaders are not going all out to secure the extradition of Mahendran, and the Opposition is soft-pedalling the sugar tax fraud. The two rackets have cancelled each other out politically to all intents and purposes.

Those who expect the present government to bring back Mahendran to stand trial is only waiting for Godot. Never will the current Opposition worthies bring the perpetrators of the sugar tax racket to justice if they form a government. There is honour among thieves.

Those who expect the MPs to adhere to the so-called Code of Conduct need their heads examined.

 

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Editorial

Oxygen support

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Wednesday 28th July, 2021

Those who do not believe in miracles will be hard put to explain why Sri Lanka is still behind India and Indonesia anent the pandemic death toll, given the extremely irresponsible behaviour of its people and rulers. Delta is deadlier and more transmissible than all other coronavirus variants and spreading fast here. But there are street protests, where nobody cares about the Covid-19 protocol.

Hospitals are struggling to cope with the increasing number of Covid-19 patients, most of whom are said to need oxygen support. This is certainly bad news which all those who have lowered their guard should take cognizance of.

The government has met the representatives of protesting teachers’ unions, at last. Their talks have ended inconclusively, but the government agrees in principle that teachers’ demand for better pay is justifiable. There is no gainsaying that the government teachers deserve a better deal, and nobody will object to a pay hike for them although there are many shirkers among them. But the question is whether this is the right time for salary increases in the public sector. The economy is also on oxygen support. True, the blame for this situation should be apportioned to all those who have been in power for the past several decades, but one has to come to terms with the ground reality.

Pay hikes for public servants mean tax increases and the aggravation of the woes of the public struggling to keep the wolf from the door. Indirect taxes (paid by all people) account for about 85 percent of the state tax revenue. This, however, does not mean those who deserve pay hikes should be denied them indefinitely. On the other hand, the government blundered by ordering duty-free luxury vehicles for the MPs and thereby making the public wonder whether its claim of being cash-strapped was true. Sanity prevailed, and the controversial vehicle order was suspended owing to protests. It also made a huge mistake by increasing doctors’ allowances and undertaking to grant the nurses’ demand for a pay hike; this ill-advised action prompted other state employees to resort to trade union action to win similar demands.

Meanwhile, it is heartening that the government has paid off a one-billion-dollar bond debt a couple of days before the deadline. State Minister of Money and Capital Market and State Enterprises Reforms, Ajith Nivard Cabraal’s announcement yesterday that the country had honoured its debt obligation may have disappointed those who expected their prediction of a sovereign default to come true. Some investors believed in that prognosis, panicked and suffered staggering losses. Minister Cabraal rubbed salt into the wound; he tweeted, “The bond investors who panicked due to rating actions and analyst reports and sold off at huge discounts must be regretting’. The situation, however, is far from rosy; there are more debts to be serviced and more forex is needed for that purpose; it is not feasible for the government to go on dipping into its foreign exchange reserves, which will have to be shored up urgently. But the aforesaid payment will help boost investor confidence and avert further credit rating downgrades. A prerequisite for tackling the debt crisis is to overcome the national health crisis and reopen the country fully as soon as possible so that the forex inflow will improve with expected increases in exports and tourist arrivals.

If the pandemic takes a turn for the worse, and the economy collapses, those who are demanding pay hikes and protesting to win that demand, will not get even their salaries; everyone will have to starve. This is what those who are facilitating the transmission of Covid-19 by staging street protests ought to bear in mind. Their processions will make it well-nigh impossible for the country to be reopened fully any time soon. What moral right will the protesting teachers who blatantly violate the quarantine laws and are seen trying to pull down gates have to tell their pupils to behave and follow the health guidelines when schools reopen?

The government must also act responsibly without provoking trade unions. It should have invited the warring unions for talks much earlier instead of having their leaders rounded up and packed off to faraway quarantine centres, and postponed the presentation of the Kotelawala Defence University Bill, which cannot be considered a national priority by any stretch of the imagination.

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