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Editorial

Counting deaths and votes

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Thursday 27th May, 2021

Government leaders seem to think their failure to muster a two-thirds majority for the Port City Economic Commission Bill (PCECB) recently in Parliament is a far worse problem than Covid-19 ravaging the country, thanks to their bungling attempts at pandemic control. Only 149 MPs voted for the bill much to the disappointment of the SLPP, which expected at least 150 votes in favour. Justice Minister Ali Sabry is one of the SLPP MPs who insist that something went wrong with the vote count, and there should be a recount. The government says it is keen to get to the bottom of it. If only it had been equally keen to heed dire warnings from health experts and take action to prevent the current wave of the pandemic.

Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella has said parliamentary Standing Orders do not provide for vote recounts. Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene has appointed a committee to look into what actually happened.

The government, we believe, ought to stop worrying about its inability to maintain its two-thirds majority in the House, and instead concentrate on how to control the raging pandemic and save lives and the economy. But it needs to be mentioned that a remedy is available for disputed vote counts in Parliament even though one does not know whether the government’s claim at issue is true or false; politicians and political parties are adept at making lies sound like veracities.

There is a precedent anent vote recounts in Parliament regardless of what the Standing Orders say. On 05 May 2016, the JVP made a surprising move in the House; it wrong-footed the yahapalana government by calling for division on a supplementary estimate. The government MPs hurtled helter-skelter in Parliament in a desperate bid to muster a majority (33) of those present; some MPs were not in the Chamber, and they had to be brought in. The vote was taken amidst an awful din. Secretary General Dhammika Dassanayake declared that 33 votes had been cast in favour and 31 against, and all hell broke loose with the Joint Opposition (JO) claiming that the vote had been rigged, and demanding a recount.

An examination of the CCTV footage of the vote revealed that 31 had voted in favour and 31 against. The then Chief Government Whip Lakshman Kiriella insisted that the outcome of the vote was a fait accompli as the Speaker had endorsed it, and there was no provision for a recount. But Speaker Karu Jayasuriya appointed a committee comprising Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan, former speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, Minister of Justice Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, and Minister Rauff Hakeem to look into the very serious allegation and submit a report. The following day, the JO called for the resignation of the Secretary General. A fresh vote was taken subsequently on the recommendation of the ad hoc committee, and the estimate was passed. The issue was forgotten.

So, the incumbent government may be able to make use of this precedent as per the PCECB, but there is absolutely no need for such action as the bill, which needed only a simple majority for passage, was duly ratified. However, before asking for a recount, the government will have to substantiate its allegation perhaps with the help of the video footage of the vote.

Why the government is making such a hullabaloo defies comprehension. Maybe, it cannot come to terms with the fact that it is no longer capable of securing a two-thirds majority in the House. It must be regretting that Rishad Bathiudeen’s party was not made to cough up three votes instead of two for the PCECB. The Opposition, which is without any achievements as such, is cock-a-hoop at the government’s failure to secure a two-thirds majority. It should try to stop its MPs from voting with the SLPP instead of deriving a perverse pleasure from others’ problems.

What should be of concern to the government at this juncture is the increasing number of lives being snuffed out by the pandemic, and not the number of votes it can muster in Parliament.



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Editorial

Failures galore

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Saturday 12th June, 2021

The Covid-19 fatality rate is rising steadily; 101 deaths were reported yesterday. A few weeks ago, not many people may have taken seriously scientists’ prediction that Covid deaths would exceed 100 a day here unless stringent measures were adopted to curb the spread of the pandemic. The government played politics with pandemic control in April and let the grass grow under its feet, and the public took health experts’ warnings lightly, and threw caution to the wind.

It is usually the ruling party/coalition that faces internal problems during national crises, which the Opposition uses to gain traction on the political front. But, today, both the government and the Opposition are up the creek; the former has its approval ratings plummeting rapidly due to the mismanagement of the pandemic, corruption, inefficiency, etc., and the latter is facing a leadership crisis. They are papering over the cracks.

The Opposition would have the public believe that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has failed. Its propagandists have launched an aggressive social media campaign against the government, which, they claim, has failed on every front. If their claim is considered true, then it follows therefrom that 6.9 million people who voted for Rajapaksa at the last presidential election have failed, for they have made a bad choice. The same may be said of those who voted for the SLPP at the last general election.

Some key Opposition figures in the SJB have reportedly turned against their leader Sajith Premadasa, and are expected to join forces with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe when the latter enters Parliament as a UNP National List MP. The SJB rebels are of the view that the Opposition, under Premadasa’s leadership, has failed to live up to the people’s expectations because it has not become an effective countervailing force against the government, which is bulldozing its way through. One may therefore argue that 5.5 million people who voted for Premadasa at the last presidential election have also failed; the same goes for the voters who backed the SJB at last year’s parliamentary polls.

Thus, it may be seen that not only the elected but also electors have failed. This may explain why this country finds itself in the present predicament and is unable to achieve progress.

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Let actions speak!

Some Opposition MPs refused to be inoculated against Covid-19, declaring that they would wait until the ordinary public had been vaccinated; a few of these politicians have contracted the disease. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa is one of them. Attending a religious function at Ganagaramaya, Colombo, after being discharged from hospital, Premadasa said he had got infected because he had refused the jab for the sake of the public. He deserves praise for having taken a principled position.

Undergoing quarantine or treatment for Covid-19 at private hospitals is a luxury that ordinary people cannot afford; they are taken to the state-run quarantine facilities or hospitals. Have the Opposition politicians who refused to be given first dibs on the jab, for the sake of the public, and got infected as a result, stayed at the same government quarantine centres or hospitals as the ordinary people? If not, why?

Opposition Leader Premadasa has rightly called upon the government to curtail waste and channel the funds so saved for the country’s fight against Covid-19. He has berated the government both in and outside Parliament for incurring unnecessary expenditure––quite rightly so. He has struck a responsive chord with the right-thinking people, who expect the government to manage public money frugally.

Having talked the talk so eloquently, now the Opposition Leader has got an opportunity to walk the walk. The government has unashamedly decided to buy luxury vehicles for the MPs amidst the worsening national health emergency. The Opposition MPs are among the beneficiaries of what has come to be dubbed the Covid bonanza; they also had no qualms about spending public funds to the tune of billions of rupees on importing vehicles for the MPs in the aftermath of disasters like the Meethotamulla garbage dump collapse and the Salawa armoury blast. They unflinchingly did so while the disaster victims were crying out for assistance. They have shown no remorse for their shameful actions.

Will the Opposition Leader launch a frontal attack against the government, pressuring it to stop the luxury vehicle imports, or at least tell the SJB MPs to refuse the SUVs, etc., to be imported for them?

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Editorial

Make lockdown work

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Friday 11th June, 2021

The Covid-19 fatality rate shows no signs of plateauing any time soon, much less decreasing although the current lockdown has been in force for about three weeks. It was reported yesterday that 67 deaths had occurred due to the pandemic on Wednesday—the highest ever in a single day in this country. Curiously, there have been no such exponential increases in infections if the Health Ministry statistics are anything to go by. There are two possibilities, according to health experts. Either the severity of the disease has increased, killing more people, while the rate of virus transmission actually remains at the same level, or the number of PCR tests conducted daily has been decreased. Doctors have warned the government that any reduction in PCR testing will stand in the way of assessing the pandemic situation properly and, therefore be counterproductive.

The Covid-19 deaths are officially announced in such a way that one suspects a government attempt at obfuscation. The only way the Health Ministry can allay doubts as regards the mortality rate is to announce the number of new fatalities for each day of the week separately. Gobbledygook won’t do. Every statistical lie has a short shelf life. There is no alternative to aggressive testing in the fight against Covid-19, and the government had better heed expert advice. The country is in the current mess with so many lives being lost daily, because the government ignored doctors’ call for a lockdown in April.

Lockdowns helped prevent the formation of infection clusters very effectively last year because they were coupled with a quarantine curfew. The government was blamed for overreacting then. But this time around, the lockdown has not been so effective probably because many workplaces have been allowed to function without adequate pandemic prevention measures being adopted to ensure the safety of workers.

About 92 out of 300 workers who underwent PCR testing at a private factory in the Dompe MHO area have tested positive for Covid-19, according to media reports. These infected workers must have travelled to and from work, exposing their family members, friends and others to the disease. The existence of such infection clusters may explain why the death toll from the pandemic continues to rise in spite of the current lockdown. A similar situation is said to prevail in many other workplaces, especially factories, which must be inspected regularly.

As for the spread of Covid-19, people working in cramped conditions, run the same risk as partygoers, however essential it may be to keep factories and other such workplaces open to mitigate the adverse economic impact of the lockdown. Unless urgent action is taken to prevent the transmission of the deadly virus through these places, the current lockdown is bound to fail. The health authorities will have to inspect all workplaces that remain open to see if they have become pandemic hotspots, and ensure that aggressive PRC testing is done and workers are inoculated against Covid-19 on a priority basis. The Dompe factory cluster would not have emerged if the health officials responsible for inspecting the place had done their job properly. There is no way so many workers could work while being sick, unbeknownst to their employers. Were they forced to work to meet production targets despite their sickness? An investigation is called for.

Going by the sheer number of vehicles on roads, one may wonder whether the country is under lockdown at all, or if all Sri Lankan workers are engaged in the provision of essential services. It is humanly impossible for the police to check every vehicle, and almost all drivers and riders produce letters from their employers, claiming that they have to report for work. Confusion over who should actually go to work to maintain essential services and keep the economy ticking has to be cleared to prevent many institutions from making their employees report for work unnecessarily amidst the worsening pandemic situation.

The government keeps extending lockdowns. Necessary as such action is, given the increasing death rate, it may not help curb the spread of the pandemic unless the current movement restrictions are strictly enforced. It is high time the situation was reassessed and stringent remedial action taken to make the lockdown work so that the pandemic could be brought under control for the country to be reopened soon.

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Editorial

‘Prosperity and Splendour’

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Thursday 10th June, 2021

It is now clear that the government will import hundreds of luxury vehicles, costing billions of rupees, for the MPs while the country is struggling to procure vaccines, and medical equipment to save lives, and many people are crying out for financial assistance. How the hapless masses feel when their well-fed, contented representatives zip past them in flashy vehicles is anybody’s guess.

The government continues to contradict itself. A few weeks ago, it said it had decided against importing luxury vehicles at the instance of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is also the Minister of Finance. Previously, it said it had been left with no alternative but to impose import restrictions because foreign reserves had to be shored up. But it does not give a tinker’s cuss about the country’s foreign exchange woes when the beneficiaries of luxury imports happen to be influential politicians. It has fulfilled its prosperity-and-splendour promise, where the MPs are concerned.

Yesterday, our main news item quoted Media Minister and Government Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella, as having said in a television interview that now it was not possible to cancel the controversial vehicle imports as letters of credit had already been opened. It is doubtful whether anyone will buy into this claim. No sooner had this government been formed than it cancelled a Japanese-funded Light Rail Transit project worth USD 2.2 billion regardless of the consequences of its action. So, the argument that it is now too late to cancel the luxury vehicle purchases does not hold water. Will the government explain why it ever decided to spend about Rs. 4 billion on vehicle imports unnecessarily amidst the raging pandemic, in the first place?

Strangely, the Opposition, which picks holes in everything the government does, and demands that wasteful expenditure be curtailed and more funds allocated for the country’s fight against the pandemic, is silent on the vehicle imports. Some of its members recently claimed they were not aware of the government decision to import luxury SUVs for the MPs! But they claim to be privy to even what the government politicians do on the sly.

Now that the patriotic members of the Opposition have been informed that the cash-strapped government is wasting public funds on importing vehicles for the MPs, what will be their reaction? Will they refuse to accept the vehicles to be imported? It may be recalled that they refused to be inoculated against Covid-19, saying the people should be given the jab first. When they said so, we asked them whether they would forgo duty free vehicles as well. Let that question be repeated.

It will be interesting to see the reaction of the Opposition, especially the SJB and the JVP. Will they call upon the government to cancel luxury vehicle imports? After all, during the yahapalana government, they even cancelled an aircraft purchase agreement. So, they should be able to pressure the government to stop importing vehicles, and if their call goes unheeded, they must say no to the SUVs, etc., being imported for them. The time has come for them to prove their claim that they really feel for the public unlike the government.

Meanwhile, the political leaders who bellow patriotic rhetoric, claiming to have made a tremendous contribution to what they call the development of the country, unashamedly beg for assistance whenever they meet foreign leaders or envoys. They also puff out their chests and beam from ear to ear when they pose for pictures with the donors handing over aid.

Begging has evolved into an industry of sorts in this country. Some shameless racketeers exploit poor children and adults with various disabilities and diseases to move the public to donate money, which they use to feather their own nests. They have amassed enormous amounts of wealth at the expense of the poor. One does not see any difference between these beggar mudalalis and the politicians who exploit the suffering of the poor to raise funds.

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