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Don’t give up on Sri Lanka

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By Remy Jayasekere

Chartered engineer

Periodically, we have presidential and parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka. After each election, the supporters of the winners hope for a better future while the defeated lick their wounds. The winners try to support the government while the defeated criticise and obstruct every move of the government. After the last season of elections the situation was no different. However things have changed after less than a year of the new government. It is difficult to find any support for the government now. The people who supported the governing party are disillusioned. The pandemic has contributed a lot to this but there are many other factors involved.

More than 20 million people live in Sri Lanka, each needing food, shelter, education, healthcare and many other services. Most people work hard to get these, with differing levels of success. As in any other country, people complain when they fail to get what they want. Their frustrations are reflected in what they write in mass and social media. Somebody reading these may think that people have given up on the development of this country, because they paint such a bleak picture. Most people are disillusioned and downhearted. Among other things they highlight corruption, political, racial and religious divisions, poverty and lack of leadership. Country’s financial debt is a major concern as well. Most of these claims appear to be true and have contributed to the mess the country is in today. Many, are trying to get out of the country as quickly as possible. However, we cannot give up – we need to soldier on. If we gave up, the situation would become even worse – more violence, increase in poverty, hunger, frustration and chaos.

The brunt of such criticism is aimed at the government. It is hard to justify getting a member of the parliament, the latest luxury car when there are thousands of schools without toilets or running water or when hundreds of thousands of children in the country are malnourished. The bond scam, Easter Sunday bombings have been investigated but no culprits have been found and punished so far. Both sides of politics seem to be equally corrupt and incompetent. More importantly they seem to protect each other. French philosopher Joseph de Maistre said that countries get governments they deserve. One wonders how this applies in the Sri Lankan context. Are we corrupt as a society to end up with such corrupt governments? Do we have to bribe every step of the way to get things done? Principals of schools are caught taking bribes. Remembering giving bribes is equally as bad as receiving one, what can we do to get rid of this menace?

Then we have our divisions – political, racial and religious – each responsible for massive bloodbaths. It is hard to find another country in the world that has a continuing history of such violence – 1958, 1971, 1983 (1983 – 2009), 1989, 2009. Then, when we thought bloodletting had ended, 2019 happened. In all these events, Sri Lankans were killing other Sri Lankans – Tamil Vs Sinhalese, Government Vs Sinhalese youth and in 2019, Islamic terrorists attacking Christian churches and hotels. Some accuse foreign powers of inflaming prevailing tensions but successive governments and political parties have created and made use of these divisions for their political advantage. If we are to succeed, we need to rise above these petty differences and act as one nation under one flag and end these uncivil wars. Our differences do not have to be raging fires destroying everything in their paths. We will always have our differences but the challenge is to live in peace and harmony in spite of our differences.

As a result of the above and a multitude of other factors, our economy has suffered. In round figures, we are a nation of about 20 million people with a nominal annual GDP of about USD 80 Billion.

Therefore our per capita annual GDP is about USD 4,000. While this is high in comparison to our neighboring countries, it is very low by world standards. Singapore’s number is above USD 60,000. Even more alarmingly, the annual production in the agriculture sector is 8% of GDP or about USD 7 billion. This sector employs one third of the population (about 7 million people). Therefore, the annual per capita product in the agriculture sector is only USD 1000 (7 million people producing USD 7 billion ) and their incomes are at a similar level. This is one of our biggest problems – a third of the population doing things the same old way and being condemned to eternal poverty. To illustrate what is possible, in the Australian agriculture sector, 300,000 people produce AUD 60 billion worth of goods, annually – per capita product of AUD 200,000 or about USD 150,00. The difference between the two countries seems to be the size of farm, level of technology and mechanization, education, training and commitment. This also explains the difference in the living standards of farmers in the two countries.

Healthcare is the key sector at the present moment, because of the pandemic, and so it should be. In addition to what I have written above, to develop our country, there are so many other sectors such as education, infrastructure, services and unity of the nation that need to be addressed.

None of the above can be achieved without committed and competent leadership. The sad state of Sri Lanka’s socio- economic development since independence is a good measure of the success or lack of It, of all past leaders. The present political system does not allow outsiders or new leaders to get in easily – No Donald Trumps, Emmanuel Macrons or Jacinda Ardern. We saw what happened to Nagananda and Mahesh Senanayake. However good you may be, you cannot helicopter in and win elections in Sri Lanka. There were a few exceptions such as Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Sirimavo Banaranaike, where family connections were crucial in their victories. As history in Sri Lanka and elsewhere has shown recently, armed struggles are out of the question – they do not succeed but only cause suffering and death for many. Unless something unforeseen happens the only way forward to a successful future seems to be talented people, taking up politics, and becoming leaders.

As a member of the common man brigade of Sri Lanka, what will I do to help and not give up on Sri Lanka? Here is my wish list.

First of all, one will consider becoming a political leader, if one has the necessary attributes, especially a vision for developing the country. It is just one good leader a country needs – Lee Kwan Yew developed Singapore to be what it is today almost singlehandedly. Everybody cannot become the President but there are many in the teams who can influence outcomes. If I have the ability but do not take up the challenge, how I can I blame the others for messing things up.

I will become an activist and an agent for change. I will campaign vigorously for a just society through mass or social media or by any other means. The need of the hour is to build a united country of love, compassion and inclusion. I will campaign against corruption and division – racial, social, political and religious. I will set an example by living according to these values.

I will do an honest day’s work at work. If we all did this, our workplaces will be happier and our country will benefit through increased output. The people who deal with us also will be happier.

I will learn as much as I can, on as many topics as possible. It is education that enables people to widen their horizons, identify opportunities and succeed. If I have the will and time, learning is so easy now, with so much information available on the internet.

Keywords in development these days are mechanisation and automation. Automation is going to make life much worse for countries like Sri Lanka. As an example, imagine rich countries developing machines to make clothing automatically and hugely reducing the labour content. They are working on this already. The need for importing clothing will dry up as they can produce their clothing themselves. I will try to be an agent of change in this field – think of mechanisation and automation wherever we can. Mechanisation need not be fancy. They can be improved ways of harvesting vegetables, drying your clothes or making string hoppers.

Governments cannot develop countries by themselves. They can create the right framework for businesses to thrive. It is mostly the private sector that grows food, manufacture goods and provides services. The higher the output the higher the GDP. To contribute towards this, I will start a business when I can. Consider the impact it will have, if a million people started new businesses. In most countries, while big businesses are important, the engine of growth is small and medium enterprise (SME). Most of what we consume including food, manufactured items and materials and parts for our service provision are imported. I will look at the opportunities these present and start my business and become rich, contributing to the development of the country as well.

All the above will be irrelevant, if in a few years the world has problems due to climate change. Climate change is going to change our weather patterns and sea levels. It is the duty of everyone to contribute towards reducing the effects of climate change. I will be an activist on this front and do whatever I can do and encourage others to the same as well.

If we do all the above, Sri Lanka will gradually develop but we should not expect quick results. Even if our GDP grows at the unlikely but very attractive rate of 10% annually, at the end of 2025, our annual per capita GDP will still be around USD 6000 – still a developing country. Development is a long- term game and requires patience, persistence and perseverance. The challenge is not to be disappointed but to keep working at it.

Finally, I will help those who are less fortunate than me. Sri Lanka is the 6th most generous nation on the planet but we need to keep giving even at a larger scale to minimise the suffering of the poor.

We should take note of what President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”. We cannot give up now. The country needs a lot of “doing” by all of us. The future of our children, friends, relations and countrymen is at stake. We need to build a country that respects alternative viewpoints, inclusive of minorities and listen to all voices and accommodates the will of the majority. The situation seems grim but if we persist and work hard to achieve our goals, the results could be very pleasing.

May Sri Lanka prosper!



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Features

Playing politics with science!

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It is obvious that the only way out of this disastrous pandemic is through science––the use of vaccines that have been introduced in double quick time due to scientific ingenuity. It is the duty of politicians to refrain from playing politics with science.

 

By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

If you thought it was only our politicians who played politics with science, you thought wrong. Admittedly, ours are pretty bad as evident from the Dhammika peniya episode. We had our Health Minister freely advertising the concoction by ingesting it in her office and wasting the valuable time of academics by instructing them to test it for efficacy. Getting a pretty bad attack of Covid-19 demonstrated the idiocy of her action but she continues unashamedly to be our Minister of Health!

A Professor of Pharmacology turned politician did likewise. Forgetting what he taught his students, he supported the untested therapies, the explanation given by one of his colleagues being that he behaved as a politician, not a scientist! By implication, even scientists can forget science when they become politicians! Funnily, he was rewarded by being appointed the Acting Minister of Health the day the Health Minister was discharged from hospital, which was rather bizarre considering that during the Minister’s prolonged period of hospital-stay there was no acting appointment! Perhaps, fearing that he might take the bread out of her mouth, the Minister returned to office within a few days of discharge.

Although the first wave of the Covid-19 epidemic was very effectively controlled, the loss of efficiency as regards the second wave was due no doubt to allowing non-scientific ideas to creep in. The refusal of permission for the burial of Covid-19 victims in spite of a group of top scientists recommending it, made us look foolish and turned international opinion against the country.

The clamour for vaccination is a welcome sign, more so because the UK is continually producing evidence for the extreme efficacy of vaccination.

The UK was the first country in the world to start vaccination and has already vaccinated more than 21 million of its 66 million population. It started with the Pfizer vaccine, closely followed by the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. EU, which was a late starter, was critical of the Oxford AZ vaccine. The French President Emmanuel Macron is obviously guilty of playing politics with science as he was one of the vaccine’s most vociferous critics, calling it “quasi-ineffective” for the elderly. As a result of political comments of this nature, more than half of EU countries limited the Oxford AZ vaccine to those under 65 years, in spite of the European Medicines Agency approving it for all age groups.

Another political appointee, Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President, had a public spat with AstraZeneca over gaining more of its vaccine doses and introduced a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland; she was forced to reverse her decision, quickly. She then suggested the UK had compromised on “safety and efficacy” by approving the jab so early, despite the EMA reaching the same conclusions as the UK’s internationally-respected MHRA, which approved the Oxford AZ vaccine for all ages. Millions of doses of Oxford AZ vaccine, which they obtained in spite of criticism, remain unused in France and Germany. Why did they not have the generosity to give these to struggling countries like Sri Lanka?

Data released by Public Health England (PHE) shows that both the Pfizer and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines are highly effective in reducing COVID-19 infections among those 70 years and over. Since January, protection against symptomatic Covid-19, four weeks after the first dose, ranged between 57 and 61% for Pfizer and between 60 and 73% for the Oxford AZ vaccine.

In the over 80s, data suggest that a single dose of either vaccine is more than 80% effective in preventing hospitalisation, around 3 to 4 weeks after the jab. There is also evidence for 83% reduction in deaths from Covid-19 with the Pfizer vaccine and data for Oxford AZ vaccine is awaited.

European aversion to Oxford AZ vaccine is, no doubt, due to Brexit than to science. Very soon, all EU countries would be forced by science to allow all age groups to have the Oxford AZ vaccine which, by the way, is the cheapest vaccine that is easier to transport and store. Politicians who criticised Oxford AZ vaccine have had to eat humble pie but they will no doubt come out with some claim to justify their idiocy!

A Belgian minister, Budget State Secretary Eva De Bleeker, has angered vaccine manufacturers by revealing sensitive and confidential commercial information – the price that the EU has agreed to pay for the leading Covid-19 vaccines. Though her twitter message was deleted quickly, screenshots taken show that the EU agreed prices for the three vaccines used at present are as follows: Oxford/AstraZeneca: €$ 1.78, Pfizer/BioNTech : €$ 12 and Moderna: $18.

Moderna, a Bio-tech company, which has not been profitable so-far, is heading for wind-fall profits and the drug-giant Pfizer will get richer. No one seems to have followed the noble gesture of AstraZeneca, which agreed with the Oxford group to provide the vaccine on no-profit basis.

It is obvious that the only way out of this disastrous pandemic is through science––the use of vaccines that have been introduced in double quick time due to scientific ingenuity. It is the duty of politicians to refrain from playing politics with science.

As Dolly Parton sang with a rewrite of her famous song ‘Jolene’ whilst having her jab:

“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, I’m begging of you, please don’t hesitate. Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, because once you’re dead, then that’s a bit too late.”

 

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Who wants to live forever?

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The haunting lyrics of The Queen song and the almost plaintive tone in Freddie Mercury’s oh so unique voice, when he sang this song (particularly in his live performance at Wembley), echo through my mind these days. There are two main reasons why longevity is foremost these days.

The first, of course, being the pandemic that is among us. It may be the first time that the civilian population of the entire world is facing the possibility of sudden death, not from incoming fire or even suicide bombers but from an insidious, unseen, minute germ!

The second reason why the length of our lives and prolonging it for as long as we possibly can have been entering my thoughts, is when I see the scramble to get the anti-virus vaccine that I observe in the Pearl. Now, most of us are Buddhists and somewhere in those teachings is a belief that we come into this world with a certain amount of AYUSHA or length of life, and that when that is over the end happens and there is no choice. At least, that is the basic interpretation of undoubtedly very complex teaching.

If that is the case, why this scramble for the vaccine? Why are we using privileged positions (connections to rulers and politicians), connections to doctors, and even the Mayors of certain cities to short-circuit the waiting lists? Older people are complaining that they are being denied the vaccine, why? Those people have probably achieved all their objectives in life, completed successful lives, seen grandchildren or even great-grandchildren, why do they want to deny some young man or woman starting out on life with all those milestones to reach, the vaccine, particularly if they are devoted to the teachings of the Buddha.

Is it selfishness, greed, and avarice, things we should avoid according to these self-same teachings, or is it simply one-up-man-ship and the need to be able to boast that they got the vaccine when the “ordinary” man is still standing in queues and probably infecting each other due to the total chaos and non-observance of Covid protocols in these places of administering the vaccine? Think about it dear readers, especially those of you who have completed productive and useful lives, brought up “successful” children, and as is the way in our society provided them with houses, lands, dowries, and other ways of sustenance. Do we really need to join this scramble for the vaccine? Or, use our position of privilege to probably deny some younger person, with a life to live, the chance of getting it. Is it even our ego (something else we should control and make less significant in our lives and decisions) that allows us to justify our long existence in this world? They need my superior intellect, does this world and this society, therefore I must live as long as possible! Or, is it simply the basic animal instinct to live as long as possible, something that we as humans with our superior brains should be able to think around?

Here in Aotearoa, we have re-entered a level 3 lockdown in our most heavily populated city and a level 2 lockdown for the rest of our country. This has been due to certain non-observance of Covid protocols by people of a clearly identified community, living in a certain part of the city of sails, as Auckland is also known. This is the second time that the community, living in that part of the city has brought about an escalation of the pandemic and stricter lockdowns. It has brought more economic misery and spelled the end of the road to more businesses and enterprises. Now, in the Pearl, we may have resorted to attacking those communities and even rioting. All that seems to have happened here are of course the usual vitriolic racist attacks on the internet and a government decision to vaccinate those areas of the city first, in an attempt to control the pandemic. Wow! in the pearl either all these people would have been rounded up and locked up in a camp in the Vanni or locked down under strict curfew with the threat of being shot if violated. The jury with regard to if the Pearl alternative or the Aotearoa alternative of these should have been used is still out …

Maybe some readers are interested in the outcome of the threat that is looming over us from the upcoming United Nations action in Geneva? I have been trying to get some feedback from “intellectuals” currently living in the Pearl, but they seem distracted, and a feeling of helplessness seems to prevail. The incumbent Foreign Minister seems to think that a humble Indian Ocean Island with what strictly speaking, can be considered a failed or at least failing economy, can dictate terms to the UN, behaving like the proverbial bull in a china shop. Maybe our “new best friend” China, probably aided and abetted by Russia has lent strength to his arm.

Even a “victory’ for Lanka at the UNHCR to this resolution should not be cheered too vociferously, as the countries ranged against us will have long term plans. Every step of this government will be monitored closely. The loss of our garment exporting privileges to the first world could result along with other economic sanctions that would make the cost of living in the Pearl even higher.

One rather interesting possibility seems to be travel bans on certain individuals and freezing of their assets held abroad. Now that could be stimulating, especially if the numbers involved are made public! However, if that was the case, I believe the attempt to rectify the situation would have been given to a more competent person than “the bull in the china shop”!

I cannot resist putting this out dear readers and I apologise profusely in advance. What if someone like Ranil W, was in charge of foreign affairs? Do you think we would have had a more professional approach and had a better chance in dealing with the complicated nuances of handling UN diplomacy, in the long term? At least we may have not insulted and possibly humiliated the visiting PM of one of our allies, Imran Khan of Pakistan! On the other hand, Mr. Khan, you may rest assured that even if you had addressed our parliament, no member would have understood anything you said or even been able to decipher your immaculate Oxbridge accent. It is only those of us who have shut ourselves out mentally from the shenanigans or gone into voluntary exile who watch with dismay, who would have savoured your words and briefly wondered …what if … ?

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Thanks for quick vaccination; harmful dabblers in the occult should be severely dealt with

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There has been much in the daily press on vaccination against Covid-19 in this fair isle of ours, or rather in Colombo and its suburbs

Let’s put aside complaints and say praise be!

Most of what was media-written was on the ensuing chaos of not knowing where to go for the jab; how to get a token; which age group will be given it (apart of course from VIPs and politicians who were close behind frontline health workers). Mercifully, the authorities righted the initial wrong of deciding on prioritizing the 30-65 age group and neglecting the over 65s, who were placed second in the priority list in more enlightened countries following WHO strictures. And so lots have got the jab and we anticipate a drastic drop in infection and Covid death rates. Cass contributed her fair share of criticism in this column but not stridently nor unreasonably. She had not seen the privileged list that passed off as Municipal workers on Tuesday 24 February at the Public Library, Colombo 7, arriving in Mercedes Benzes and SUVs. If she had, her ire would have emerged in pure vitriol! One friend said she enquired from several sophisticates in the queue how they got there, but received mumbled replies. So, a Rose by any other name, even Do-Gooder, smells as bad when it goes unjust! Things got much better and the service worked smoothly once the MOHs came into their own.

What Cass notes in summarizing the issue today is thanks and gratitude to the government and the Health Services particularly, for vaccinating so very many so quickly. People who wrote about this issue, Cass included, were all praise for the actual data takers and vaccine givers. In certain centres, the old and disabled were queued in a different line and vaccinated within an hour.

The gratitude Cass renders is because only part of the total amount of vaccine was gifted by India and the WHO. Our government booked early and paid for the rest, and of the Oxford kind. This vaccine is admittedly relatively cheaper, but it had to be paid for, which cost the government bore. We have to appreciate the massive organization entailed and excuse inevitable hiccups. This fact struck Cass as a feeling of much needed security and elimination of fear was felt, and all for free. Also when a friend in Melbourne wrote they were as yet awaiting vaccination.

 

Black Magic and witchcraft in Sri Lanka

If you thought as Cass did that we would never ever resemble a dark Congo tribe resorting to occult cures or a re-enactment of shades of supernatural superstitious beliefs in witchcraft as in Salem, Massachusetts, USA, in 1692 (where some young girls caught prancing naked cooked up lies about good women in the village being witches), you and Cass were both mistaken. We’ve had these in different styles right here in supposedly majority Buddhist Free Sri Lanka with other religions holding people together, in the 21st century with some of our own doing brilliantly well in advanced scientific disciplines all over the developed world. Cass, as you now know, was born and bred in the hills of Kandy with its most sacred Dalada Maligawa and picturesquely situated quaint temples in peaceful green valleys with the sound of evening pooja bells, joined by Kovil tinkles and Sunday sonorous Church gantara and the cry of the Muzeen. We never had a bali or thovil ceremony. If an inauspicious time descended on the village or a household, it was pirith chanted by Bhikkhus. So to Cass what has been happening very recently is even stranger than to those who have village cousins who dabble in mantra and kodivina with kattadiyas in action.

I refer here to the stupidly preposterous belief in Dhammika’s peniya as both a prophylactic and cure for pernicious Covid-19. Where is that charlatan veda – oops sorry- Kaliamma devala kapurala now? Safe with his ill-gotten gains, we suppose.

The latest voodoo story, but with such a tragic ending, is that of the 9-year-old Delgoda girl who suffered an emotional (rather than mental) aberration and was subject to exorcism by caning her mercilessly. The exorcist could not be a woman; she must certainly be a sadistic aberration herself. Can you believe that she applied oil on the girl and used the cane on her till the kid went unconscious? Was the cane an ordinary one? At first I could not believe the story read in the papers – how cane a person to death, but it was a child receiving the torture and who knows what sort of ‘weapon’ was used. The mother definitely must be punished more severely. Maternal love, even in the animal kingdom, will never allow harming an offspring, so how on earth did the mother watch all that caning. One shot would have torn Cass to the defence of her child, or for that matter any child, with talons extended and blood now not turned to milk as the Sinhala saying goes, but to vitriolic fury. The woman exorcist with supernatural powers and the mother are in police custody. Why doesn’t she do a Houdini and astound handsome Police high-up Ajit Rohana?

People claiming superhuman clairvoyance and divine power crop up everywhere. Cass accompanied a friend to consult a girl in the suburbs of Kandy to find out where her hub had ‘donated’ a fairly large sum of money. This girl had given clear directions to find a lost Persian cat to a third friend; hence the visit. She was a pretty, soft girl of around 18. Once Cass and the other entered the room, the girl changed, was in a near trance and speaking in an entirely different voice, pronounced the reason for seeking her help and said “Look for a man always dressed in long sleeves and thinning hair parted in the middle.” The friend was baffled and defeated by this long shot, but finally she met a man of this description – the father of a girl in her husband’s office. She did not ask for the money!

Such ‘powers’ are temporary; maybe like poltergeist manifestations in a teenager’s home. But going for cures to them is unthinkable. Buddhist bhikkhus and maybe bhikkhuunis, so also certain Christian priests (the bulk of lecherous Father Mathew intrudes here) do have powers of exorcism. A medical doctor is the best bet, in any case, including even mental upsets.

 

Short Takes

Imran Khan’s all too brief visit was a successful veni, vidi, vici in spite of being snubbed ungraciously over the address to Parliamentarians (what a weak, threadbare excuse was offered – C-19 precaution!) and missing out two of our cricket greats: Michael Tissera and Anura Tennakoon from the list of cricket folk to say Hi to the great Cricketer at lunch at Shangri La. What was the success apart from charming everyone and showing off what a Statesman can look like and carry himself off? Why – the Muslims of Sri Lanka conquered. Burial was theirs or so it seemed. But hold it, is it gazetted or is this ‘yes’ like the Prime Minister’s definite ‘can bury’ pronounced in Parliament and then brushed aside and explained by the Gaman as “he was merely expressing his thoughts.”

Main headline in The Island of Wednesday 3 March:” PCol report on Easter Sunday carnage: AG won’t be given ‘sensitive’ volumes.” Why on earth? Is it X-rated and the AG underage?

Picture on page I of same issue of Dr Rajitha Senaratne arriving at the Colombo High Court to appear in a case involving two persons who accused then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa of various crimes. We have long forgotten even a single word of what they said. They will not get off free is Cass’ bet unlike Aluthgamage, who emerged very recently from a court house free as a bird, accused of corruption, Cass recalls.

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