We repeat today in the print edition of our newspaper an article titled “How Joe Biden could vaccinate the world” reproduced from a U.S. publication, The Week for the benefit of those of our readers who may not have read the epaper we were compelled to limit ourselves to last Sunday on account of the Covid restrictions. Given the scale of the devastation this fast-spreading virus has caused on this planet, mankind is necessarily focused on all matters relating to the pandemic. Thus, together with people the world over who cheered President Biden’s recent election, most Lankans silently applaud the new American leader’s support for a waiver of patent rights on corona vaccines. Ryan Cooper, the popular columnist who wrote the article under reference said that Biden surprised the world by his administration favouring the intellectual property waiver requested by India and South Africa.
The U.S. is, after all, the most business friendly country in the world and the citadel of capitalism; so its president advocating such a waiver can be considered surprising by many. However, whether it would come to pass, in the context of concerns of the global pharmaceutical industry and, notably, the European Union, is a matter of grave doubt.
Achieving the desired objective is certainly not going to be easy. International news reports have said it has already hit a EU roadblock. Germany’s Angela Merkel has expressed reservations; and given that one of the key vaccine firms in the world is German, obtaining the required consensus on what’s called Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) at the World Trade Organization (WTO) will be a formidable task. Nobody can sensibly advocate a profit-driven dog-in-the-manger attitude on this matter. Admittedly massive investments have been made in developing the vaccines within an unprecedentedly tight time-frame; and the patent holders must be fairly compensated for giving up their intellectual property rights. There is no dispute on that. But other arguments have been adduced for not waiving these rights. Merkel is on record saying she does not believe giving patents away is the right solution for making vaccines more available. One report quoted her saying: “If a patent is given away and the quality is no longer controlled, I see more risk than chance.” It is not only Merkel who pushes that view. French President Emmanuel Macron has also echoed it saying recently: “The current issue is not really about intellectual property. Can you give intellectual property to laboratories that do not know how to produce and will not produce tomorrow?”
But third world pharmaceutical laboratories, notably in India, have been successfully producing anti-Covid vaccine. The Serum Institute of India is a major produce to the AstraZeneca vaccine and Sri Lanka is among the countries that procured supply from there. Unfortunately domestic compulsions in India, today perhaps the worst virus-hit country had made it impossible for that laboratory to honour export commitments made. We too are among those affected with our health sector now scrambling to find alternative supply sources to give the second dose to those who have already had the first jab of that AZ vaccine. Cooper says in his article that there are factories in Bangladesh and Canada “ready to go.” Obviously no fan of Big Pharma, he has advocated that “if the international community can’t get behind vaccinating the world, Biden should go it alone.”
There is no escaping the reality that medicines are incredibly expensive to develop. Most experimental drugs fail at some point during years of laboratory work that must be followed by animal and human testing. Thereafter regulatory approvals must be won and that can take time. We have seen this in the case of the Sinopharm vaccine that WHO has now approved for emergency use and is presently being administered here in Sri Lanka. When the costs of failures are factored into what may become an eventual product, they can run into astronomically high figures. In the case of the Covid vaccine, tax money in the U.S. and most probably other countries were pumped into the research and development effort for reasons that are self evident. A TRIPS waiver can certainly help to boost production of desperately needed vaccine. The most frequently used pandemic slogan is that “nobody is safe until everybody is safe.” That goes for countries too and makes the best case for a waiver.
Fortunately objections to intellectual property rights waivers of Merkel and Macron are not shared by all European leaders. Reports said that Italy and Spain had reacted more positively to the U.S. government’s initiative not to wait for WTO to reach a consensual decision. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has at the recent EU summit in Portugal proposed incentives for pharmaceutical companies to enter into voluntary licensing agreements and pool knowledge using existing WTO platforms. He has demanded that full use be made of existing manufacturing capacities and called for the removal of trade obstacles to ensure that supply chains function optimally. Although some European leaders have expressed vaccine quality concerns, this question should be viewed in the context of the best known Western pharmaceutical companies licensing third world laboratories to manufacture their products. This has been done to take advantage of lower production costs. That is a clear admission of the capabilities of third world manufacturers who have the ability to do the job. The EU has not slammed the door shut on this burning question of intellectual property rights waivers. It says it is ready for talks but insists that the measure needed to be part of more extensive discussion.
Hopefully, the humanitarian factor will take precedence over concerns of profit. Nobody is asking the vaccine manufacturers to give away the fruits of their labour. They can be fairly compensated for waiving their rights at a time of a global emergency affecting all mankind.
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.
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?
Make lockdown work
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.
‘Prosperity and Splendour’
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.
People to get fuel price shock soon
Dates announced for India’s tour of Sri Lanka
Record breakers in a Covid disaster
7-billion-rupee diamond heist; Madush splls the beans before being shot
The Burghers of Ceylon/Sri Lanka- Reminiscences and Anecdotes
Unfit, unprofessional, fat Sri Lankans
news5 days ago
Private banks closed from yesterday due to lockdown
news4 days ago
Covid time bonanza: Luxury SUVs for MPs coming, after all!
Features3 days ago
‘Fertilizer Saga’ in Sri Lanka: A Considered Opinion
news7 days ago
Eminent Group of Lankans fire a battery of tough vaccination questions to DG, Health
Sports7 days ago
Lessons learnt as Avishka returns
Features7 days ago
CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY DIFFERENT ROLES – Part 9
Sports3 days ago
Bhanuka Rajapaksa outburst and possible repercussions
Features3 days ago
Big scene for Sri Lankan in the States