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Covid, poverty, and hope for Sri Lanka



Covid pandemic has had a devastating effect on the economy of all countries, including the very rich. As a result, ninety-five million people have been newly brought below the extreme poverty line of USD 3.20 in 2020, and this may increase to 150 million by the end of 2021 (World Bank). In Sri Lanka 8.9% of people were below the extreme poverty line in 2019, and this is expected to rise to 13% in 2021. This means there will be 890,000 newly poor people that need to be reckoned with in the efforts to alleviate poverty. Moreover, this figure represents a five-year reversal of the poverty alleviation effort. A huge effort would be required to recover from this setback.

In 2019 the global extreme poverty figure was 650 million, and was expected to improve gradually with extensive welfare measures, but today the pattern is quite different. This figure may increase by about 5% at end of 2021. Income inequality will worsen in spite of global economic growth, which is expected to be about 6% in 2021. What this means is many countries are reluctant to adopt welfare measures to help the poor. The pandemic has helped the rich, while the poor were left to fend for themselves. No wonder a US Covid patient said “it’s a poor man’s virus”. The situation may improve for some, like the very quick V recovery in China, but for many, including people in the Western countries, there would be permanent scars such as malnutrition, susceptibility to disease, missed schooling.

Sri Lanka does not come within the first ten countries that have the most number of extreme poor people. Nigeria is number one in this respect and India is second, but the latter is expected to displace the former as the frontrunner due to the massive Covid wave that engulfed it recently. Among these ten are some noteworthy Asian countries such as Bangladesh and Philippines too. However, none of these Asian countries are within the ten countries that are expected to have the deepest long lasting effects of Covid. They are expected to recover to some degree. It is the African countries that are worst affected in this respect.

The Covid pandemic has killed 2.9 million people in the world to date, and the numbers would rise to more than 3.5 million by the time sufficient numbers are vaccinated and the virus eradicated. The deaths had been mainly in India, the US and Brazil. Death rate had been minimal in the country where it started and the country with the largest population, which by any standard is the greatest achievement in recent times. The quick V recovery China achieved in the economic sector is remarkable. China will contribute 1/5th of the global GDP recovery which may happen by 2026. During these five years Chinese GDP would grow by 6%. It would be the number one economy in the world, followed by the US, India, Japan and Germany in that order.

Thus, it is a good time to have China by one’s side! Sri Lanka is under an avalanche of natural as well as man-made disasters. There is the Covid, then there were the floods and storms, and there was the burning ship spewing poison into the ocean. The Western countries are passing resolutions against us in the UN, and the US is trying to resurrect the banned LTTE, in their effort to get us to fall in line and do their bidding like signing the MCC. SOFA and ACSA. Our economy is in doldrums. Can we be choosy regarding whom to turn to in this hour of great peril? Although the duty of the Opposition is to oppose every action of the Government, it cannot at this hour of need refrain from attacking the government on vital issues, unless the government is doing something very wrong. The Colombo Port City project is vital for us at this juncture. It is the only hope we have for survival. The Opposition could help the government on this matter by not making it too much of a political issue. Calling Colombo Port City a colony of China is uncalled for, and not acceptable from a responsible Opposition, which must demonstrate some respect for our benefactors.

What could be done to prevent Sri Lanka sliding further down the slippery slope? It could learn from Pakistan what they are doing to stay afloat. Pakistan has started a massive drive to transfer cash to the poor. They are using modern communication methods to find the needy and give them money to ward off extreme poverty. Pakistan, under advice of the World Bank, distributes cash among the poor people in substantial amounts. This is one way of not only preventing poverty, but also income inequality to some extent, and minimise the effects of Covid. Sri Lanka too helps the poor people during lockdown times. Perhaps it could do more to look after the poor and the vulnerable.

The IMF representative in Sri Lanka has advised the Government on what it should do to minimise the effect of Covid on the people. Apart from looking after the poor, it has recommended the Government to invest more in agriculture and improve food security of the country. Sri Lanka must aim at self-sufficiency in essential food items. This certainly may not be the time to attempt to convert to organic fertiliser. It could result in a substantial food shortage, and our poor economy may not allow large imports of rice and other essential foods, including vegetables that are grown locally.

The IMF has also recommended greater investment in people, particularly their health and nutrition and education. This is rare advice from the IMF, which usually relies on market forces to sort things out. Perhaps the unique situation created by the Covid has made it change its attitude towards the poor countries.

The other thing that the Government must do in earnest, is the vaccination of the people as quickly as possible. Other preventive measures provide temporary protection and lockdowns cannot be a long-term solution. In this regard too, it is China which could come to our rescue. Sino Pharm and SinoVac are both effective against most of the variants, and could prevent serious illness and death in 100% of cases. Government must aim to vaccinate at least 30% of people before it removes travel restrictions. There would be an adverse impact on the economy, but recovery would be quick and long-term effects of Covid would be minimised.



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An appeal to President



This is to request President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to allow burial of COVID -19 infected corpses of Muslims in the burial ground close to the residence of the diseased instead of sending them to Otamaavadi. It goes without saying that all Health protocols and regulations will have to be stringently adhered to for the burial at the existing burial grounds.

I hope that this request will be granted as the experts in Virology have confirmed that there is no ground water contamination with the burial of those dying of Covid-19.

This will reduce considerably logistic issues and cost to both the State and the family members of the deceased and at the same time expedite burial.

Mohamed Zahran


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Talk Shows



COVID-19 has opened up the doors for an umpteen number of “talk shows”: of various types, conveying different TV messages to our people on how to cope with the many daily problems faced by them, including the now prevailing pandemic.

At a time the public are very effectively advised by the relevant health authorities delegated with that task, and highly competent to educate the masses how to cope with this pandemic, what purpose these “shows” give our people hungry for news is left for anyone to guess.

Recently. I happened to watch two such talk shows telecast one after the other, where the same person was interviewed by two different interviewers on the same subject, as if competing with each other. More amusing was the pose shown to the camera by one of the interviewers at the end of the show, as if asking the viewers “how do you like my ‘show’?

These Talk Shows, similar to the virus, seem to be able to develop variants with time to cover other fields, too, such as economy, Port City, reforestation and lesser known local small industry entrepreneurs, diplomats and academics; and how to make Colombo a green city by a programme to plant thousands of trees to get off the ground immediately. Everyone knows that what is being planted are not trees but young plants, only a few weeks old, and no one knows when they will ever grow into a tree as imagined, if they survive the test of time and we are lucky to live till then. But repeating these shows as happening at the moment is a waste of time.

What I appreciated most in one special case was the liberal use of highly scientific jargon, even if the person to my imagination never studied science and more so the use of good English that was encouraging. But what worried me most was if someone else asked why these programmes are not conducted in Tamil?

Finally, the Telecom beats them all, where every call taken precedes a lengthy message on prevention of the Coronavirus pandemic, sometimes repeated twice. It all ends with the message only. But not the call.



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Protecting Sri Lanka’s maritime rights



Your editorial, Poaching: Grasp the nettle (The Island of 09 June), provides a good analysis of the issue concerning the poaching of fishery resources in Sri Lanka waters, particularly in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar.

The maritime boundary between Sri Lanka and India was settled by two agreements entered into by the two countries in 1974 and 1976. Accordingly, fishing vessels and fishers of the two countries were debarred from fishing in the waters, the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone of each other.

Subsequently, the Maritimes Zones Law, No. 22 of 1976 was enacted with provisions for the President to declare the limits of the agreed maritime boundary between the two countries, and different maritime zones of Sri Lanka, such as the historic waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone, pollution prevention zone and the continental shelf. This law prohibits unauthorised fishing in any of the maritime zones of Sri Lanka by any foreign vessel. The President did declare the maritime zones of Sri Lanka by a proclamation published in the Gazette 248/1 of 15-01-1977. Since then unauthorized fishing by Indian vessels on the Sri Lanka side of the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar became illegal.

However, part of the agreement relating to fishing has never been honoured by India, whose fishers continued to fish on the Sri Lanka side of the Palk Bay, and on the Sri Lanka side of the Gulf of Mannar, which jointly form the historic waters of Sri Lanka. According to the Presidential Proclamation, waters on the Sri Lanka side of the Palk Bay form part of the internal waters of Sri Lanka while those on the Sri Lanka side of the Gulf of Mannar form part of the territorial sea (provisions of the Law of the Sea Convention of 1982 relating to internal waters and territorial sea do not contradict such declarations provided they are made on the provisions of the customary international law). On the other hand, although prior to signing of the Maritime Boundary Agreement of 1976, Sri Lankan fishing vessels were fishing in the Wadge Bank, which fell in the EEZ of India since the Agreement came into effect, no Sri Lankan vessels has been found fishing in that area.

At present, three days a week more than 1,000 Indian trawlers fish on the Sri Lanka side of the maritime boundary in violation of the law relating to fisheries in Sri Lanka. Any Sri Lankan vessel, irrespective of the part of Sri Lanka where it is fishing, should have been registered as a fishing vessel of Sri Lanka and obtained a fishing licence. Further, no such vessel is allowed to engage in mechanised bottom trawling.

There have been many discussions between the two countries since the 1990s to stop this illegal practice by Indian trawlers. Such discussions only end up with agreed minutes, but no solution. Fisheries (Regulation of Foreign Fishing Boats) Act, No 59 of 1979 provides for a High Court Judge to impose a penalty of a fine of Rs. 1.5 million on any foreign vessels engaged in unauthorised fishing in Sri Lanka waters. However, this provision was never used against any Indian trawler caught in Sri Lanka waters with unauthorised fishing, owing to practical difficulties. Subsequently, in 2017, the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (Amendment) Act, No. 11 was enacted to impose a two-year jail term or a fine of at least Rs. 50,000 with a view to controlling this problem. Although the Sri Lanka Navy takes into custody Indian trawlers and hands them over with fishers to Fisheries authorities, the moment they get a letter from the Indian High Commission asking for their release, all are released. In this context, sinking unusable buses in the sea in this area appears to be a practical solution to the problem. For that also India has expressed objections. Sri Lanka has sovereign rights to take any decision in regard to its internal waters, and territorial sea (subject to the right of innocent passage of any foreign vessel) and historic waters (these form part of either internal waters or the territorial sea). Therefore, it is not necessary to stop this activity, just because India is objecting.

As regards the claim by India that Sri Lankan vessels also engage in unauthorised fishing in India waters, it should be noted that they are taken into custody rarely in very small numbers; that, too, mostly in the Indian EEZ, while they are returning after fishing in the Arabian sea. Any vessel has the right to navigation in the EEZ of any country. Even when innocent Sri Lankan fishers happen to be caught by the Indian authorities, they are made to suffer in Indian jails.

A few years earlier also, you expressed concern on this issue by an editorial, Saying it with fish, when Sri Lanka released all Indian fishers who were in jail in Sri Lanka pending trials, as a gesture of thanks for India’s vote at the UN in favour of Sri Lanka. Thank you for your concerns.



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