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Counting the Cost: A President’s Legacy at Risk

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By Kusum Wijetilleke

kusumw@gmail.com

Twitter: @kusumw

Sleep-walking Towards Tragedy

About 9,185 Sri Lankans had succumbed to Covid-19 as at 1st September. There are extraordinary scenes around the country with patients spilling out of overwhelmed hospitals. A widely circulated video shows patients lined up on the floor along corridors of the Colombo North Teaching Hospital in Ragama. There were emergency purchases of medical oxygen from India in May and reporting suggests that at present, Sri Lanka faces an acute shortage of ICU beds.

As the health system reaches breaking point, there is an inescapable feeling that Sri Lanka has lost control of a situation that many saw coming. The data from India and many other countries was clear; B.1.617.2 also known as the Delta variant would soon arrive preparations and precautions were necessary to protect the public.

Leading up to and during the Sinhala/ Tamil New Year period, medical experts were calling for a lockdown to at least delay the inevitable spread of the Delta variant. At the time, total deaths in Sri Lanka stood at just over 600, the daily death toll was in single digits. Community spread of the Delta variant was first officially reported in Sri Lanka on the 18th of June. The destructive April spike in India was ample evidence of its severity. The medical community had been consistent: the Delta variant was more aggressive and more transmissible.

Unfortunately for many thousands of Sri Lankans, the preservation of human life had to be subordinated to the more urgent priority of keeping open an ailing economy to serve what is ostensibly the greater, national good. During his most recent national address, while the walls continued to close in on the citizenry, the President requested “everyone in the country to be prepared to make more sacrifices…” There was no empathy for sacrifices already made, no sign of compassion given the tragic loss of life.

Speaking to the media on the 13 August, Executive Director of the Institute for Health Policy, Dr. Ravindra Rannan-Eliya stated that based on current projections, the death toll in Sri Lanka could surpass 20,000 by end 2021. He also pointed to the rate of double vaccinations at the time, which was around 10%; far too low to make a significant difference to the overall transmission rate. He further stated that Sri Lanka was at the lower end of the spectrum when it came to test and trace capabilities.

Only a few weeks later, Sri Lanka has been able to rapidly increase the fully-vaccinated rate to 30%, a testament to the efficiency of the Sri Lankan military and their 24-hour country-wide vaccination centres. Thanks to these efforts, Sri Lanka today has a far better rate of full vaccination than many other lower-middle income countries; Bangladesh (3.8%), Egypt (2%), Indonesia (12%), Pakistan (6%), Kenya (1.5%), Iran (5%), India (10%).

However, in a fast moving global pandemic, timing is everything. While vaccination rates increase, case numbers and deaths continue to surge as well. As Dr. Rannan-Eliya points out, Sri Lanka lags behind some peer group countries when it comes to testing volumes and capacity. Daily tests per million in Sri Lanka were around 500 going into the final week of August. India (1,384), Iran (1,159), Vietnam (1,644) and the Philippines (520) are all testing at higher rates than Sri Lanka.

For context on just how dire the situation in the country currently is, over the seven days leading up to 30th August 2021, Sri Lanka had the fifth highest deaths per million in the world, at 54. The only countries worse off over those seven days were Botswana (57), Eswatini (64), North Macedonia (72) and Georgia (102).

Priorities: Public Health or Politics?

Through a quite exceptional vaccination drive, the military has provided significant cover for the government’s many missteps at crucial junctures. Most countries suffered high numbers of casualties during the initial months of the pandemic in 2020, yet Sri Lanka had one of the lowest death rates in the world at the time. At no point in 2020 was Sri Lanka’s health infrastructure at risk of being overwhelmed. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared victory against the pandemic, questioning why Sri Lanka was not being recognised as a model nation in this regard. Indeed by April 2020, the Global Response to Infectious Disease (GRID) Index by CMA Australia ranked Sri Lanka’s pandemic response as the 9th best in the world.

Colombo is not Dhaka or New Delhi; Sri Lanka’s dense urban populations are not of the same intensity or frequency as many other nations in the South-East Asian Region. Given the head start Sri Lanka enjoyed throughout 2020, there was much that could have been done going into 2021. Total deaths as at 31st December 2020 stood at 204, which given the current death toll is an indicator of just how poorly the pandemic has been managed since the turn of the year.

The current lockdown was not so much a decision taken by the government, but a decision forced upon it by a chorus of critics. Last week, the WHO’s Independent Technical Expert Group in Sri Lanka, consisting of some 14 specialists from the medical field including Dr. Padma Gunaratne, Prof. Saroj Gunaratne and Prof. Neelika Malavige, called for extending the lockdown and increasing restrictions within it. The group pointed to a study from Monash University, which calculated that locking down until 18 September would help save 7,500 lives.

Throughout 2020, Sri Lanka wasted valuable time and spent resources elsewhere instead of building the necessary test-trace-isolate infrastructure that many medical experts, including Dr. Rannan-Eliya, had been calling for. Instead there was a general election, major constitutional changes and political theatre morphing in to a scarcely believable telenovela about dynasty. International borders were opened, then closed and reopened again. At one point after the reopening of borders, Russian and Ukrainian tourists arrived in the country while case numbers and deaths in those respective nations were surging.

Vaccine Procurement: Too Little, Too Late

Despite these evidently sub-optimal decisions, Sri Lanka still had every opportunity to get ahead of the global curve. A revealing piece by Attorney-at-Law Dr. Gehan Gunatilleke laid out some startling facts pertaining to the timeline and process of vaccination procurement in early 2021.

Sri Lanka’s National Medicine Regulatory Authority (NMRA) approved the Covishield vaccine manufactured by Serum Institute India (SII), on the 22nd of January 2021. Cabinet approval was granted a few days later and on the 28th of January Sri Lanka received its first batch of 500,000 doses as a donation from India due to its ‘neighbourhood first’ policy.

The first purchased batch of 500,000 Covishield vaccines only arrived on the 25th of February, almost a month later. This crucial delay seems to have been caused by switching from a pre-authorised local agent to the State Pharmaceutical Corporation (SPC). Considering that NMRA approval was obtained by the local agent in January, the Government could have placed an immediate order with SII and received a large shipment by early February. Everything was in place for such an order until the need arose for SPC involvement.

Some reports claim that SII had requested procurement through the SPC, however as per Dr. Gunatilleke the NMRA report made no mention of this and further, SII had already delivered 5 million doses to Bangladesh through a local agent in January. Was it the Sri Lankan authorities that required SPC involvement? A fresh approval needed to be obtained by the SPC which meant going through the entire procurement process again including obtaining approval for the purchase agreement.

A Cabinet briefing revealed that the price per dose of Covishield was $5.25; Sri Lanka would eventually pay $15 per dose for the Sinopharm vaccine. In an article dated 19th February, the Hindustan Times quoted Indian officials as stating that Sri Lanka’s State Pharmaceutical Corporation had signed an order for 10 million doses which SII had set aside for Sri Lanka.

In a separate report from June 2021, Attorney-at-Law Ranil Angunawela stated: “In our opinion, if Sri Lanka was already receiving donations of an NMRA-approved vaccine by January 28, 2021, and the price of a dose of the said vaccine was predetermined, there is no further impediment in the procurement guidelines that prevent a ‘very urgent and exceptional’ procurement order to be placed within days of NMRA approval,” said Angunawela.

Cabinet approval for the procurement of Covishield through SPC was granted on the 22nd of February and the first purchased batch of 500,000 doses arrived on the 25th. The nearly one month delay left Sri Lanka at the mercy of unforeseeable externalities; a fire at the SII manufacturing facility was compounded by a serious spike in cases in India, leading to a temporary ban on exports of Covishield.

The facts point to a missed opportunity: had Sri Lanka taken delivery of a significant order of vaccines anytime during February, several thousands of Sri Lankans could have been saved from the Delta variant. Another point to consider: why did the Government not diversify its risk on vaccine procurement; was there an over-reliance on the Serum Institute of India and Covishield?

In the Public Interest

Decisions on public health have been coloured by economic and political considerations. Throughout much of 2021, the message has been clear; human lives are important but not as important as the economy. Health issues are important, just not as important as cultural considerations such as the traditional New Year or the Esala Perahera. The President is under pressure to call for an independent report into vaccine procurement but he must go further and consider the totality of Sri Lanka’s response to the pandemic, specifically public health policy and economic stabilisation and stimulus measures.

It is safe to say that the only aspect of Sri Lanka’s response that can be considered an unmitigated success is the vaccination drive. Questions remain over almost every other facet of the Government’s response. Vaccine procurement and pricing aside, were necessary investments made to expand ‘test-trace-isolate’ facilities? Were adequate measures taken to increase the number of ICU beds and Heavy-Dependency Units (HDUs)? Were there early orders of medical oxygen supplies, C-PAP machines and ventilators? Did the Government consider anti-viral therapeutics like Hydroxychloroquine or Ivermectin, which India has approved? Did the administration prioritize the elderly who make up the lion’s share of hospitalizations and deaths? Were lockdowns introduced in a timely manner with adequate time provided for citizens to plan and prepare themselves?

Given the sacrifices made by Sri Lankans, given the state of the economy and the growing death toll, the President must realise his legacy is now at stake.



Features

Form-ation of Higher Education in Sri Lanka

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By Hasini Lecamwasam

Improving higher education in Sri Lanka is not only important, but essential and long overdue. However, seeking to achieve higher ‘quality’ by ‘form-ising’ the performance of teachers (or the practice of forcing the entire teaching-learning exercise into forms designed to communicate exactly what and what transpires in a classroom) may not be able to bring about the desired change. A new set of four forms introduced recently to this end requires, among other things, drawing up a minutely detailed plan of each and every lesson to be delivered in class, aligned with the Course Learning Outcomes (CLOs), in turn, to be aligned with the Programme Learning Outcomes (PLOs), which should all then be tied to the graduate profile, or the kind of graduate we seek to ‘produce’ at the end of it all. This may, on the surface of it, sound reasonable enough and not encourage serious debate or resistance because, after all, it is only some forms that need to be filled.

Form by tedious form, however, the teaching-learning process at state universities is becoming increasingly constricted, fragmented, monitored, controlled. In this piece, I wish to briefly ponder on the implications of these requirements and the larger trends they signal, while also attempting to reflect on what instead we may do to ensure ‘quality’ in the delivery of higher education.

The problem with form-ation

The larger ‘Quality Assurance’ (QA) landscape in which these developments take place was discussed in detail in an earlier Kuppi Talk by Kaushalya Perera. In a nutshell, QA seeks to standardise education such that study programmes can be assessed against each other, assigned numbers, and ranked accordingly. The deployment of overarching yardsticks for programmes with hugely varying mandates, methods, and content has been the subject of much critique lately the world over, not the least due to its rather warped understanding of ‘quality’ as something that can be objectively established through metrics and audits.

While I do not question the bona fide motives behind the initiative taken with the aforementioned forms, I do think serious reflection on where these developments push us in the longer term is needed. My primary reservation here has to do with the impact of this lesson-wise breakdown on the creative and democratic exercise that the teaching-learning process is supposed to entail. When each topic is broken down into such fine detail prior to the actual occurrence of the ‘lesson’ (for want of a better word), outcomes are foreclosed rather than collectively and organically evolving in the course of the ‘lesson’, which is particularly important to many of the subjects offered in the Arts Faculties. Exactly how many of us are actually quite so democratic in our classrooms is a valid question in this regard, and one I will return to. The point for me here, however, is that for those who do have a sincere commitment to such a democratic classroom environment, such forms and the limiting of the teaching-learning experience they constitute, may be tantamount to strangulation.

Even if the majority of us admit to being very controlling in our classrooms anyway, does that justify going one step further with these forms and institutionalising such control? Should not our commitment be to the emancipatory ideal, rather than simply what most are on board with? There should be meaningful space for creative, organic, and democratic teaching-learning processes to unfold for teachers who wish to make that choice, and for students to explore and think beyond the teacher’s frame of thinking. Micromanaging beyond the general content of a course (laid down in enough detail in the course syllabus) is inimical to even a possibility of democracy existing in the classroom and within the larger university space.

This complete subservience of the teaching-learning process to red tape signals a larger and troubling trend of corporatisation. Corporatisation may be defined as the restructuring of a publicly owned institution to be managed as a business place would be, with a view to privatising in the long term. In state universities, this shift is couched in the supposedly ‘progressive’ language of student-centered approaches and interactive classrooms, hijacked from the democratic pedagogy of the likes of Paulo Freire, but bereft of any of the emancipatory politics within which these methods assume meaning. Despite the use of these catch-phrases, however, such minutely detailed forms signal a return to an extremely teacher-centered model due to the absence of the possibility for students to meaningfully influence the outcome of a lesson, as it is predetermined for them.

The result, as the Kannangara report worried with remarkable foresight some 80 years ago, is students “with much knowledge and little understanding. They have not read books; they have “studied” texts. They cannot write, they produce essays after a set style. They can answer questions but not question answers … Their imagination has been stunted, their originality suppressed, their capacity for thought undeveloped, their emotions inhibited.”

What alternative can we propose?

A valid question countering what little resistance there is to form-ation asks how we can ensure the education we currently deliver is of an acceptable standard, and that everybody observes such. There seems to prevail tacit and widespread agreement that the ‘democratic nonsense’ within universities is what has allowed many to hide behind debates, deliberations, appeals to creative freedom, and so on, without actually doing their work.

In my view, this is an arbitrary causation to draw. Blaming internal democracy for negligence of duties fails to take into account the highly anti-democratic practices at universities that may better explain such behaviour.

Specifically, I think it is the rigidly entrenched hierarchy within universities that blocks the possibility of even dialogue, let alone debate, particularly when it comes to holding those higher-up in the ladder accountable for their actions (or the lack thereof, as the case may be). Hierarchy is why, among many other things, students cannot question the content or the methods chosen by their teachers. As previous Kuppi Talks have endeavoured to show, hierarchy is silently, and therefore very effectively, observed at every level, ensuring the trumping of students by teachers, juniors by seniors, women by men, minorities by the majority, and originality by tradition. It impedes questioning, stifles dissent, and smothers alternative thinking altogether. The problem, therefore, is not that we have too much democracy in universities, but too little of it.

We must make a sincere and sustained effort to radically democratise the university space by relaxing the classroom to allow open and honest exchange between students and teachers; changing the relations of power between seniors and juniors, starting with undoing the practice of deferential treatment; refusing to tolerate snide and not-so-subtle references to ways of dressing and similar gendered remarks; questioning the exclusive use of the majority language in official communications, as a starting point. In doing so, we would be subverting the crippling hierarchy that inhibits thought and practice within the university. Such a radical change geared towards improved quality through mutual accountability, for me, is the only acceptable way of introducing accountability to a space that, admittedly, sorely lacks it.

(Hasini Lecamwasam is attached to the Department of Political Science, University of Peradeniya)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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THE LOGIC OF PRESIDENT’S PLEDGES IN NEW YORK

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by Jehan Perera

The significance of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s speech at the UN General Assembly, in New York, last week, was his use of the time allocated to him to provide an outline of the government’s policies towards the main challenges besetting the country. The President covered the main issues that confront the world with his focus on Sri Lanka. These included measures to contain the Covid pandemic, the economic crisis, environmental degradation and violence. In the final section of his well-crafted speech, the President went into some depth regarding the government’s approach to national reconciliation. However, the response within the country, has been muted and for good reason. Those who voted for the government, on an entirely different platform, which emphasised ethnic majority nationalism and anti-international sentiments, are quite probably at a loss.

It is only recently that the government has started to speak in terms of reconciliation and obtaining international support for it. At the two elections that brought this government to power, the Easter Sunday bombing and the consequent threat to national security, took centre stage. The majority, who voted for the government, did so to protect it from a variety of security threats they were told of, both within and outside the country. The wretched failure of the previous government to prevent the bombing, the first terrorist act of any magnitude since the war ended a decade earlier, was attributed to the personal weakness of the then government leaders. It was also attributed to the 19th Amendment which sought to give state institutions protection from use for partisan reasons by government politicians and to consequent disintegration of the system of command and control.

A second theme, at the two elections, was depiction of ethnic and religious minorities as potential security threats. This stemmed from the country’s experience of three decades of internal warfare with the armed Tamil separatist movements. This was followed by the Easter bombings by extremists from the Muslim community, who were feared to be having a vast support base both internally within the country and also externally. In these circumstances, the re-centralisation of power within the government hierarchy and greater role given to the security forces, received public acceptance as being part of the government’s democratic mandate. At the same time, by denying the equally legitimate concerns of the ethnic and religious minorities, the electoral results demonstrated the existence of an acute polarisation, and wound, in the body politic that continues to fester to the point of bringing in involuntary and imposed international interventions.

EU MONITORING

The challenge for the government is to represent the interests of all communities and not only the majority who voted it into power. The problem is that the government’s mandate comes, by and large, from the vote of the ethnic and religious majority in a country that has been polarised on ethnic and religious lines, for many decades. An ugly part of this reality is that in the prisons are several hundreds of Tamils and Muslims for the most part who are in custody for periods ranging from a few months to many years without trial. They are being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, ostensibly until the security forces find adequate evidence to put them before the courts of law. This contradicts the rule of law and the presumption in our legal system that we are innocent until proven guilty can have negative consequences.

In June this year, the EU parliament passed a resolution that the GSP Plus tariff privileges, made available to Sri Lanka should be withdrawn unless the government fulfilled its obligations in regard to the upholding of human rights. The resolution, expressing “deep concern over Sri Lanka’s alarming path towards the recurrence of grave human rights violations”, and makes specific reference to the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The resolution notes the “continuing discrimination” against and violence towards religious and ethnic minorities, while voicing “serious concern” about the 20th Amendment passed in 2020, and the “resulting decline in judiciary independence, the reduction of parliamentary control, and the excessive accumulation of power with the presidency”. It also highlights “accelerating militarisation” of civilian government functions in Sri Lanka.

A delegation from the EU is currently in Sri Lanka to meet with members of the government, Opposition and civil society, to ascertain whether the country is fulfilling its obligations to be a beneficiary of EU trade benefits. It is likely that the delegation will be provided with evidence of human rights violations and acts of impunity. There are hundreds of persons languishing in prisons without being put on trial, many of whom are Tamils, suspected to be LTTE members, and more of them are Muslims, suspected of having links with the Easter bombings. When questioned in parliament about the latter, the minister in charge justified those detentions on the grounds that Muslim youth, including the Muslim parliamentarian who had questioned him, could contain Islamic State ideology in their heads and therefore be security threats.

NEW DIRECTION

At the last elections, the most potent theme was the failure of the then government to act effectively to protect the country from the Easter suicide bombings and the pressures from human rights actors in Geneva. Among the issues that loomed large at the last election was also the charge that the previous government was giving in too much to the Muslim community within the country. The fact that the Easter attacks were by Muslim suicide bombers added force to this charge. The prioritisation of national security in the election campaign had popular support. The influential religious clergy, associations of professionals and mass media also joined the battle in earnest and their messages reinforced one another. The recent debate in Parliament suggests the government’s thinking continues to be in sync with the mandate it received at those elections.

However, in his speech in New York, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has shown signs of diverging from the politics of the past. The President said “Fostering greater accountability, restorative justice, and meaningful reconciliation through domestic institutions is essential to achieve lasting peace. So too is ensuring more equitable participation in the fruits of economic development. It is my Government’s firm intention to build a prosperous, stable and secure future for all Sri Lankans, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or gender. We are ready to engage with all domestic stakeholders, and to obtain the support of our international partners and the United Nations, in this process.” However, the President’s speech continues to be at variance with the ground realities at the present time and the general manner of governance since the President took office in November 2019.

So far the pledge of a new direction is articulated in words. The time for the government to make the President’s words real and act accordingly is now. This will help to overcome the deep and dark cynicism that has enveloped the country regarding promises made by politicians. The first step would be to apply the logic of the Justice Minister in Parliament. Replying to an Opposition Parliamentarian who called for the arrest of Minister Lohan Ratwatte who stands accused of entering a prison and threatening prisoners with his gun, the justice minister said that everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. This also applies to the hundreds of Tamils and Muslims in jail without evidence to charge them in a court of law. The better way to deal with the threats to national security is to win the confidence of all the communities in the Sri Lanka by treating them without discrimination, as children of one mother, as our national anthem proclaims.

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Face shields, sans masks, on TV shows!

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Face shield ONLY does not provide protection from Covid-19

Covid-19 has claimed many lives, in our part of the world. Quite a few musicians, too, have had to face the music, where this deadly virus is concerned.

However, one is perturbed with the setup seen on some of our TV shows, especially where musicians are concerned.

The Covid-19 guidelines are never adhered to – no masks, no social distancing, etc.

There were reality shows held, post pandemic, where judges were seen even hugging their favourite contestants – with no masks.

With the virus turning deadly, some of the judges took to only wearing face shields. And, we now know the results of their stupidity.

By their irresponsible behaviour (wearing only face shields), they seem to be setting a trend for others to follow.

The question being asked is what are the health authorities doing? Why haven’t such folks been taken to task!

If the man on the street is arrested for not wearing a mask, how come these law-breakers go scot-free!

If wearing a mask is a hassle in an air conditioned setup, then such shows should be put on hold, or held virtual…live stream, zoom, from home, etc., and not with the participation of several artistes, in a studio.

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