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Direct Relief: Lanka heading for a humanitarian disaster

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Direct Relief USA Emergency Response Manager Chris Alleway and Senior Communication Specialist Maeve O’Connor called on Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena at the Prime Minister’s Office in Colombo recently.

22mn Lankans lose access to medicine

Since Sri Lanka announced in April that it would default on its foreign debt, its 22 million residents have lost access to most medicine and medical supplies, setting them on course for a humanitarian disaster, according to a report published by the ReliefWeb, the humanitarian information project of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

It said: Unlike Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the recent hurricane batterings of Puerto Rico and Florida, Sri Lanka’s crisis grew slowly and has garnered few international headlines. But Sri Lankans are suffering amid the harshest economic crisis the country has confronted since gaining independence from the British empire in 1948.

With the country’s foreign reserves depleted, the nationalized healthcare system cannot afford to import medicine and medical supplies in sufficient quantities. Sri Lanka relies on imports for about 85% of its pharmaceutical needs and about 80% of its medical supplies. The country imported $815 million in medicine in 2021, but by May had only about $25 million in foreign reserves to pay for imports of any kind.

Last week in Sri Lanka, Direct Relief staff participated in an extensive series of meetings with Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and much of the country’s healthcare leadership while overseeing the arrival of what may be the largest donation of medicine to the country since the crisis began.

What they encountered was grim. “For the next six months, they’re expecting a catastrophic number of deaths,” said Chris Alleway, Direct Relief’s manager of emergency response and new initiatives, who led the Sri Lanka meetings.

The 3,500-bed National Hospital of Sri Lanka in Columbo, which usually has 1,300 medicines in stock, is now down to requesting only the 60 most essential medicines.

With anesthesia in short supply, most general surgeries in the country have ceased, including kidney transplants. Cancer patients have lost access to medications needed to fight the deadly disease. Diabetes patients must secure and bring their own glucose meters for blood sugar checkups.

Many hospitals are stocked out of basic items like bandages and cotton balls. The stockouts are forcing rural clinics to close their doors and refer patients to larger facilities in urban areas, which also are overwhelmed by the flow of patients.

Due to a severe fuel shortage, the country’s fishing fleets cannot go far out to sea, slashing the supply of fish that is a significant source of protein in the country, including at its largest children’s hospital.

In addition to Prime Minister and the Ministery of Health, Direct Relief staff met with the chairs of the country’s medical universities, including the colleges of oncology, psychiatry, nephrology, hematology, endocrinology, critical care medicine, anesthesiology, and maternal & child health.

Sri Lanka is also losing clinicians as they migrate to other countries with more opportunities, while its medical colleges see the number of applicants for medical education decline sharply.

“Every one of the medical college leaders informed us that they are in a dire situation, with major shortages across the board for everything,” Alleway said. “A lot of them were very emotional in our conversations. You could tell that they’re holding together the health care system to the best of their abilities with limited to no resources.”

Responding to the crisis spurred by Sri Lanka’s default in June of this year, Direct Relief has delivered eight humanitarian shipments totaling 27 tons and 16 million defined daily doses of donated medicine.

The largest shipment from Direct Relief to Sri Lanka—36,600 lbs. (18 tons) of medicine and medical supplies requested explicitly by Sri Lanka’s government—arrived in recent weeks.

“Direct Relief’s donation of $10 million worth of medicine will save many lives,” Prime Minister Gunawardena said in a statement.

The 18-ton shipment included medications to treat infections, wounds, seizures, mental health conditions, glaucoma, cardiovascular disease and respiratory issues.

These products were donated to Direct Relief by companies including Accord Healthcare, Apotex, Baxter International, Teva Pharmaceuticals and Viatris. One particularly considerable contribution from Accord included nearly 200,000 defined daily doses of IV furosemide, which is used to treat edema from heart failure and liver and kidney disease.

Other companies contributing donated medicine to Sri Lanka include AbbVie, Boehringer Ingelheim Cares Foundation, Eli Lilly & Co., Hikma Pharmaceuticals, Integra LifeSciences, Meitheal Pharmaceuticals, and Merck.

Partnering with Sri Lanka’s College of Endocrinologists and the Life for a Child program, Direct Relief has also donated and delivered two shipping containers of insulin that went to 25 health facilities for the benefit of patients under the age of 14 with diabetes.

Direct Relief works closely with Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Sri Lankan Embassy in the United States, the Medical Supply Division, and the National Medicines Regulatory Authority to deliver supplies and will continue to do so.

Direct Relief has also received invaluable assistance from Medical Help Sri Lanka, an organization formed by Sri Lankans in the United States.

“Direct Relief has established trusted relationships at all levels of the government and will continue to provide support as needed,” Alleway said.

In April, Sri Lanka suspended repayment of nearly $7 billion in foreign debt due this year out of a total foreign debt of more than $51 billion. On Sept. 1, the International Monetary Fund announced $2.9 billion in loans “to restore macroeconomic stability and debt sustainability while safeguarding financial stability, reducing corruption vulnerabilities and unlocking Sri Lanka’s growth potential.”

The loans, however, are not expected to restore Sri Lanka’s ability to import medicine quickly. In the meantime, Direct Relief will continue assisting the country to the fullest extent possible, with additional medical aid shipments already underway.



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Easter Sunday: “Accept guilt with contrite hearts,” says Kurunegala Bishop

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by Norman Palihawadane

If those responsible for the Easter Sunday terror attacks do not accept their guilt with contrite hearts, then nature will follow suit, says President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka and the Bishop of Kurunegala Catholic Diocese, Rt Rev Dr Harold Anthony Perera.

While delivering his homily at the Holy Mass offered on behalf of the children who received Sacrament of Confirmation at the Church dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes at Yakadapatha, Bishop Perera said that justice has not yet been meted out to the Easter Sunday victims.

“Nature will surely stand against those responsible. Nature will ruthlessly follow them at every step they take and their conscience will not keep them at rest. This is what I believe,” he said.

He said that Colombo Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith had stated that those responsible for the terror attacks on Easter Sunday must come forward and accept their guilt. “If those who masterminded this crime fail to do so, I strongly believe that Nature will follow suit,” Bishop Perera said.

“Perusing the pages of history we know well that kings and state rulers had been elevated to positions of power by many means. Also we know for certain that none of them ruled for eternity. None will rule forever.”

He said that if the present day rulers while hiding the truth of the Easter Sunday bomb attacks, do nothing to mete justice to the victims and their families, they will suffer immensely.

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TNA accepts president’s overture, MP suggests party ready to talk federal

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ECONOMYNEXT —Tamil National Alliance (TNA) will engage constructively in sincere attempts at resolving the ethnic issue, legislator M A Sumanthiran said responding to President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s overtures to the opposition, while also suggesting that the TNA was open to a federal solution.

“We will engage constructively in every sincere attempt as we have always done but will not allow any farcical process,” Sumanthiran tweeted Thursday November 24 afternoon.In a speech made in parliament the previous day, the Jaffna district MP said there can be no reconciliation by sweeping the truth under the carpet.

“It is only by the ascertainment of the truth that there can be true reconciliation,” he said.

“Your actions must be louder than words. All we have are words, words and words. As I speak, more lands are being acquired,” he added, highlighting an example that prompted a response from President Wickremesinghe that he would look into the matter.

Wickremesinghe on Wednesday re-extended an open invitation to opposition parties to a discussion on a permanent solution to Sri Lanka’s decades-long ethnic problem. Talks would begin after December 11, he said, with a view to agreeing on a solution by February 04 2023 when the island nation celebrates 75 years of independence from the British.

“We welcome the president’s initiative. He said everyone must agree on the solution. We want all the people of this country to be content and be satisfied and feel secure that this is their country,” said Sumanthiran.The MP said there is broad consensus already on the issue and that only a few things need to be ironed out.

“That can be done in a day’s sitting. You don’t require three months,” he said.

President Wickremesinghe agreed in his speech that there is nothing new left to talk about.If the president is looking at the South African example, said Sumanthiran, it must be noted that that country underwent a political transformation “before they could look at accountability issues”.

“That fundamental change must happen and must precede other measures,” he said.

Among the issues that Sri Lanka is confronted with with regard to reconciliation between communities is the matter of alleged human rights abuses, particularly during the final phase of the 26-year armed conflict. Missing persons, militarisation and alleged land grabs have also figured prominently in various international fora where Sri Lanka’s human rights record has come up for discussion.

“Of course you need to do many confidence-building exercises because there is a serious lack of trust because of the long history and what happened,” said Sumanthiran.

The MP said it is crucial that the core, root issues are settled first before considering issues of justice and accountability, which he said would provide the people a different outlook on resolving those issues.He also paid what has lately been a rare compliment to President Wickremesinghe from the TNA.

“We recognise that perhaps you are the only person in this House today — although you’re not a member of this house — who’s had the longest experience in this matter. You were part of the government negotiation team that negotiated with the TULF from the middle to the end of 1986, which ended with the Indo-Lanka accord, and the 13th amendment which we did not accept as a meaningful scheme of devolution,” he said.

The 13th amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution emerged out of the controversial Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 as a purported solution to the worsening ethnic conflict. Provincial councils came in the wake of this amendment, but land and police powers have yet to be devolved to the provinces as originally envisioned. Both Sinhalese and Tamil nationalists have opposed the 13th amendment, the former claiming it devolved too much, the latter complaining it didn’t devolve enough.

Wickremesinghe knows “everything that is to know about the resolution of this”, said Sumanthiran. He also acknowledged the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) appointed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

“Though we did not participate in the APRC, that’s a good report. Many members in the front row today in the government were members of the cabinet in August 2000 when President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga brought a constitution bill to parliament. The UNP at that time led by President Wickremesinghe opposed it only because of a transitional provision with regard to executive presidency, not because of the devolution arrangements in that,” he said.

The UNP government notoriously burnt the draft bill in parliament when the Kumaratunga government presented it. Analysts have revisited that event as a possible misstep in Sri Lanka’s path to a lasting peace, though others disagree.Sumanthiran said consensus is already there and all that is required is for decisions to be made.

“That is what has been entrusted to the president now,” he said.

The president’s call for a permanent resolution by the 75th Independence Day celebrations is a good ideal to work towards, but there isn’t much time, the MP warned.

“So we are willing to work with you constructively to achieve the objective you have enunciated. We’re willing to achieve the reasonable and legitimate aspirations of our people and indeed all the people that live in this country,” he said.In his speech, Sumanthiran was emphatic that his party does not wish to do anything behind the back of the majority.

“Everyone must feel secure. That is our desire as well. That the majority of this country must accept it.”

The MP then said that more than 40 percent of the world’s population live in federal countries. (There are 25 countries with a federal form of government).

“Those are the strongest countries in the world,” the MP claimed.

“You have others who are quasi federal, who sometimes call themselves unitary, like Great Britain, where the extent of devolution is far more than even in a federal form of government.

“We don’t ask for something that is not found anywhere in the world. We’re asking for something that is reasonable and is practised all around the globe. That will ensure that all our people will live with dignity and self respect in this country. We want the majority people to accept and understand that. You are, after all, a preponderant majority. No one can shift that. It was Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike who in 1926  introduced the idea of federalism to this country, not the Tamil leaders,” he said.Sumanthiran recalled that it was in fact the Kandyan chiefs who had asked for a federal form of government on two separate occasions in the early 20th century.

“So it can’t be bad for the Sinhala people, it was the Sinhala people who asked for it,” he said, noting that over time wrong messages have been communicated to the country.

“There are suspicions those must be allayed. We must resolve this in a just way, so that we can all can then stand up as the president envisages by Feb 04 2023 as the children of one mother,” Sumanthiran said.

Federalism has been a highly controversial and politically inflammable idea in Sri Lanka over the years, with many nationalist or even some moderate parties in the south vehemently opposing the very suggestion of it. It is unclear whether this stance has softened over the 13 years since the end of the war, but to date no Sinhalese-dominated party has come out in support for it.

Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) MP Gevindu Kumaratunga who now sits in the opposition responding to Wickremesinghe’s invitation on Wednesday cautioned that they can only support a proposal that will honour Sri Lanka’s unitary character.

“If you’re asking for a consensus within a unitary Sri Lanka, we’ll agree. Outside of that, I don’t think a majority of people will agree. There is a ground reality here. Our soldiers laid down their lives to protect the unitary state,” said Kumaratunga.

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Women MPs to wear orange on Dec 1 to protest gender based violence

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Women MPs will attend parliament on Dec. 1 in line with slogan ‘Let’s unite to end gender based violence’ of the UN-led global campaign – 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence (GBV).Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus (WPC) Chairperson, Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle said that a wristband with the message “Let’s Unite to end Gender Based Violence” will also be worn as a solidarity measure with the global campaign against GBV.

She said: “The global theme of the campaign 2022 is ‘UNITE! Activism to end violence against women and girls.’ It emphasizes that without unity, GBV cannot be fought. It calls on governments, development partners, youth, media and all other stakeholders to come together to fight against GBV.

“Therefore, the 16 days of activism against GBV is an important advocacy period for our goal to advocate for and ensure equal grounds for women in Sri Lanka,” Fernandopulle said.

She said that a recent survey on Women’s Well-being by the Department of Census and Statistics had reported that during their lifetime, 20 percent of the ever-partnered women have faced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner and that 25 percent of women have experienced physical or sexual violence by a partner or a non-partner after 15 years of age.

Eighteen percent expressed that they were subjected to economic abuse by a partner in their lifetime while 21 percent of the women who experienced violence by a partner had never expressed it to anyone before the interviews.

WPC’s Deputy Chairperson, Matale District MP Rohini Kaviratne said that GBV was nothing new to women in Sri Lanka. “We as women have had to face it always. As women parliamentarians we always face verbal abuse based on our gender,” she said.

Kaviratne said that during elections, and whenever someone needs to disgrace the female candidates, the most common weapon used is their gender roles. “The stereotypical thinking stigmatizes our roles in the public sphere and stepping out of the house to be a leader in politics as a female parliamentarian. We should fight this. We should fight any form of GBV.”

JVP-led NPP MP Dr Harini Amarasuriya said that the WPC was in the process of supporting the drafting of a Women’s Bill to be presented to parliament.  “However, we are conscious that laws alone do not effect change. There is a lot of work that needs to be done both institutionally and politically to ensure that the Bill when passed will make a meaningful difference in the lives of Lankan women.”

Tourism State Minister Diana Gamage said: We urge all Lankans to have zero tolerance for any kind of violence or sexual harassment committed against any human being. We should act, not be silent and passive observers.”

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