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Covid-19: The Epidemic and the Economy

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Dr. Vitarana very simply explains the basic facts about the virus, its current level of transmission in Sri Lanka, the difficulties Sri Lanka will face in obtaining a vaccine for the entire population within a short-time frame, and calls for “community action” to end the pandemic. He calls the current mode of transmission, “uncontrolled community spread.” He suggests there could be 80% asymptomatic transmission and cites a figure of 30% test positivity from a random PCR study in Colombo by the CMOH.

by Rajan Philips

“What I have learned about pandemics is you have to be very humble. There is no mission-accomplished moment.”

Dr. Vin-Kim Nguyen

Perhaps every medical professional would agree with the sentiment in the above comment by a Vietnamese Canadian doctor, who is affiliated to two international hospitals, one in Montreal, Canada, and the other in Geneva, Switzerland. Unlike doctors who would give you the unvarnished truth, governments and politicians generally have different arrangements with truth and humility. Lack of humility and premature celebrations of victory are all too common in government and politics in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. The country seems to be now paying the price for the government’s premature declaration of victory over Covid-19 and prodigal distractions thereafter – changing constitution just for the heck of it and changing the heck out of the positions of doctors in public health agencies. The infection total is now past 21,000 and the death toll is reaching 100. A sevenfold increase in both in just over seven weeks. What is worrisome, apart from the rate of increases, is the absence of any indication that the government is in control and is able to arrest the trend, let alone reverse it.

 

Sri Lankan numbers are still peanuts in the global context. At Sri Lanka’s rates, the US should have under 400,000 infections and 2,000 deaths. But the superpower has a staggering 13 million infections and over a quarter million deaths. But the finally-on-his- way-out Donald Trump, after single handedly leading America to become the super spreader of the coronavirus, maniacally believes that but for his brilliant stewardship tens of millions of more Americans would be infected by now and a million of them would have died. Americans have managed to get rid of Trump, thanks to their unsung heroes who faithfully counted nearly 160 million votes in the most contentious of situations and the judges who boldly rebuked and threw out every one of Trump’s vexatious pseudo-legal challenges. But America is stuck with the coronavirus which is still spreading in its deadly mutation. And the vaccines, though the result of globally coordinated scientific efforts at the highest level, are not going to be overnight panaceas. Again, every medical professional is saying that.

 

Logistically, there are several hoops to pass through even after one or more of the three lead vaccine candidates are approved for use. Their mass production, storage and transport are all huge challenges, which can be done but not in any hurry. And worldwide vaccination thereafter will be an unprecedented health intervention on a global scale. Then come the challenges of keeping records for multiple inoculation, verifying vaccine effectiveness, and tracking virus transmission after vaccination by pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers. According to experts the now ongoing clinical trials alone are not sufficient to be conclusive about any of this, given the speed at which vaccine development is necessarily being undertaken. The consensus upshot is that masks and physical distancing cannot be dispensed with easily or quickly even after vaccination programs get underway in different countries. All of this would invariably lead to delaying the resumption of economic activity to pre-pandemic levels. Sri Lanka is not alone in this, but there are many things that individual countries will have to do themselves on their own.

 

From Infection to Recession

 

Last week I mistakenly left out what would have been the last paragraph in my article. The paragraph was about Dr. Tissa Vitarana’s statement entitled, “Community action can end the Covid-19 pandemic,” that appeared in the Sunday Island on November 8. That statement is by far the best and the most comprehensive, if not the only, public health policy paper on the subject by anyone who is associated with the present government. There should be no surprise about such a statement coming from a former Director of the MRI and a respected professional and academic. He has also been a Minister in the previous Rajapaksa governments, briefly Governor of the North Central Province, and now a National List MP. What is surprising is that Dr. Vitarana’s expertise and thinking for dealing with Covid-19 are not able to find any resonance at any level in this government.

Dr. Vitarana very simply explains the basic facts about the virus, its current level of transmission in Sri Lanka, the difficulties Sri Lanka will face in obtaining a vaccine for the entire population within a short-time frame, and calls for “community action” to end the pandemic. He calls the current mode of transmission, “uncontrolled community spread.” He suggests there could be 80% asymptomatic transmission and cites a figure of 30% test positivity from a random PCR study in Colombo by the CMOH. He fears that waiting for the vaccine to control the virus could be a “distant dream.” The reason is that apart from logistical delays, Sri Lanka should be in a position to buy the available vaccine for 60% of the population in addition to the expected WHO’s free vaccine for 20% of the population, to vaccinate 80% of the population – the threshold “to break the chain of transmission in a population.”

Until then, it is “community action” that should be relied upon, along with the public health infrastructure and a knowledgeable population observing basic health practices, to contain the community spread of the virus. Dr. Vitarana is confident that “if a good example is set from the top (no large gatherings etc.) and the people follow the health guidelines, the country can get rid of the Covid-19 scourge.”

In fairness to Dr. Vitarana, he is not asking to be in charge of this community action plan, and he is confident in the abilities of doctors in the Epidemiology Unit and of the armed forces for tracking and tracing. And if Dr. Vitarana is just a retired professional without political involvement, no one would be suggesting that he should be recalled from retirement to head this or that coronavirus task force. The only reason that some of us are puzzled about his apparent exclusion, is that he has been so much a part of the PA/UPFA/ULF/SLFP/SLPP governing political formation for 26 years – all the way back from 1994, when some of the current bigwigs were in and out of the country and would not have known the difference between a parliamentary system and a presidential system.

Put another way, the mystifying exclusion of Dr. Tissa Vitarana and the inexplicably ridiculous transfer of Dr. Anil Jasinghe from Health to the Environment, are not signs of a government that is prepared to utilize the best available people and the all the available institutional resources to “methodically” (to borrow presidential terminology) deal with the current pandemic crisis. Equally, if things have been working, and there is no surge of infections, nobody will be talking about Dr. Vitarana or Dr. Jasinghe. And there is no certainty either that everything about containing Covid-19 is going to get better. At least, there are no encouraging signs that things are indeed getting better.

The saving grace for everyone is that the recovery rates are high and the death rates are still low. It would also seem that the symptoms of infected are people are not as severe in Sri Lanka as elsewhere, and hospitalization is not currently overwhelming. Will all these factors hold at their current manageable levels, or can they get out of control? I have not come across any discussion about future projections either through technical modelling, or based on experience and commonsense. The overall uncertainty affects decision making about the levels to which social and economic activities can be allowed to open up or resume. In the absence of certainty and determination, it will not be possible to plan for or promise economic growth, let alone prosperity. Even if Sri Lanka is somehow able to resume significant economic activities, it still will have to face a very sluggish world outside.

It is a sign of the times that the British government has officially declared that it is heading towards its worst recession in three centuries. That last one was in 1709 and was caused by a fierce European winter which ravaged economies and caused famine. This time the British economy is expected contract by 11.3%, worse than every country in Europe other than Spain which is staring at a 12.4% GDP drop. Rishi Sunak, Britain’s Punjabi-Hindu Chancellor of the Exchequer, told the House of Commons last week, “Our health emergency is not yet over, and our economic emergency has only just begun.” The emergency could apparently get worse if Brexit goes wrong. In any event, the British government is not expecting the economy to return to pre-pandemic levels until the end of 2022. That generally is the sentiment in most countries. And China cannot play the same saviour role it played during the 2007-2008 global financial crisis.

This is also the context in which Sri Lankan government leaders should rethink and revisit many of the premises and projections that were included in the new budget. If it is “day-dreaming” to think of buying vaccine to vaccinate 60% of the population, by what yardstick of reality can one expect 60% market capitalisation? Until Covid-19 is brought under reasonable control, it would not be realistic to expect the economy to return to anywhere near full throttle. Clearly, a total lockdown is not the answer, even though it would be the easiest to implement and to claim victory.

Economic targets and infrastructure investments that are inappropriate for the current situation, that are environmentally harmful, and do not carry long term benefits should be avoided. Inappropriate examples include construction of highways and mass paving of 100,000 kilometres of currently unpaved rural roads. The latter would be a drainage disaster. Potential projects that deserve investment green light, are helping garment factory workers to build their own houses, urban and rural water supply and sanitation schemes, countrywide drainage control, and water management as part of agriculture and food production. Such targeted economic activities can go hand in hand with “community action” to contain Covid-19.

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Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation

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By Jehan Perera

Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.

Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.

Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”

Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.

 

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE

 

The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”

It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.

International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.

 

 

SEQUENTIAL IMPLEMENATION

 

In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”

As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.

The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.

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Album to celebrate 30 years

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Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.

However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.

All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.

Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.

Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.

Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.

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LET’S DO IT … in the new normal

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The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)

Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.

But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.

Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.

Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.

However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.

And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.

Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.

“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”

The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.

“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”

Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.

In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.

Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.

Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!

Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.

 

 

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