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Foot-dragging on appointing new DGHS cause concern amidst fresh Covid flare-up

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BY SURESH PERERA

The vacuum created by the inordinate delay in appointing a new Director-General of Health Services (DGHS) — the highest technical position in the government health service –- has caused grave concern among medical circles, particularly at a time a fresh wave of the deadly Covid-19 virus has erupted with more than one thousand positive cases identified so far in a garment factory cluster in the Gampaha district.

Since the then DGHS, Dr. Anil Jasinghe, was moved out in a surprise development in mid August this year, the top position has continued to remain vacant for almost two months.

However, applications were recently called from prospective candidates with an October 16, 2020 deadline – a process that will take at least another month from the given date for shortlisting candidates, interviews, selections and follow-up paper work for Cabinet approval, health officials said.

Dr. Jasinghe, a respected consultant specialist cum senior medical administrator, who played a pivotal role in curbing the initial coronavirus outbreak in March this year, was shifted abruptly to the Environment Ministry as its secretary, a move that was described as being “kicked upstairs” to head an institution, where his medical experience and expertise were totally irrelevant.

As a Cabinet sanctioned appointment, the DGHS is the competent authority in enforcing a plethora of crucial health-related laws, including the Quarantine Act, Food and Drugs Act, Tobacco Act and Transplant Act.

Under the circumstances, a non functioning full-time DGHS or an acting appointment, which has not received Cabinet approval, could impede the full and proper enforcement of relevant laws pertaining to public health and safety especially at a critical time when quarantine regulations are being rigidly enforced, the officials asserted.

The appointment of a relatively junior medical administration in an “acting capacity” on the basis of a temporary “working arrangement” initiated by a health sector panjandrum has raised eyebrows because he cannot enforce the specific regulations as the competent authority without Cabinet giving the nod to his purported “acting appointment”, they said.

In terms of the medical services minute gazetted in 2014, the position of DGHS can be held only by a medical administrator of Deputy Director-General of Health Services grade. Under the marking scheme, three shortlisted candidates will face an interview and, thereafter, their names will be placed before Cabinet by the subject Minister in charge, who will make a recommendation for approval.

However, over the past 20 years, the medical services minute has been amended at least thrice with the selection procedure changed, the officials claimed.

With the exit of Dr. Jasinghe, who served as DGHS from 2017-2020, the senior-most medical administrator in line now is Dr. Amal Harsha de Silva, one of the most qualified consultant specialists in Sri Lanka.

However, with the powers-that-be having a big say in the appointment to the top administrative slot in the government health segment, as seen in many cases in the past, the possibility of Dr. de Silva being given what he deserves appears to hang in the balance, medical officials claimed.

Indications are that he may be edged out notwithstanding his academic achievements, seniority and competence as the most-senior medical administrator, they opined. “Tail- waggers should not be given precedence over conscientious professionals who have proven their worth”.

Prior to Dr. Jasinghe, senior medical administrators who served as DGHS were dental surgeon Dr. Jayasundara Bandara (2016-2017), additional secretary Dr. Palitha Maheepala (2012- 2016), Dr. Ajith Mendis (2008-2012), Dr. Athula Kahandaliyanage (2003-2008) and consultant gastro urinary surgeon Dr. A. M. L. Beligaswatte (2000-2003).

Meanwhile, the Government Medical Officers’ Forum (GMOF) said that Sri Lanka did tremendously well to contain the community spread of Covid-19. However, it is regrettable the DGHS position in the health sector still remains vacant especially at a critical juncture when the country is again facing a grave coronavirus threat.

“All these years, it was under the leadership of the DGHS that our country was able to overcome the threat of pandemics. Dr. Anil Jasinghe did a marvelous job until he was suddenly moved to a ministry alien to him”, GMOF media secretary, Dr. Niroshana Premaratne said in a statement.

At a time Sri Lanka is facing an unprecedented health crisis, the public expected the next-in-line to be appointed DGHS immediately. But, two months have gone by with no appointment still in sight despite the country plunging again into the throes of a severe Covid-19 crisis, the trade union stressed.

“At first, we welcomed the appointment of retired Major General, Dr. Sanjeewa Munasinghe as secretary to the Health Ministry in May this year because it is medical administrators who have largely guided the health sector to greater heights over the decades. As witnessed in the past, particularly during 2015-2020, civil administrators as health secretaries fell short of the expected performance”, the GMOF noted.

The incumbent health secretary is a big disappointment as even senior officials, including DDGs and directors, cannot access him. Unlike earlier, when senior staff could walk directly into the secretary’s office to sort out issues, they have to now kick their heels for hours outside his door. With an indifferent and inaccessible secretary coupled with the absence of a permanent DGHS has turned the whole health sector topsy-turvy, the statement asserted.

“This callous attitude of the health secretary doesn’t portend well for the forward movement of the country’s health sector in general and public safety and welfare in particular”, the GMOF complained.

“We believe that a conspiracy led to the ousting of Dr. Anil Jasinghe because, as a competent medical professional, he led from the front, called a spade a spade and did what needed to be done without ‘boru shows’ and dramas”, the GMOF noted.

If the then DGHS was moved out for a genuine reason, the health secretary should have lined up the next senior-most medical administrator to step in immediately taking into consideration the grave situation the country is now facing, the statement continued.

As a Cabinet approved appointment, the DGHS is vested with powers to enforce around 100 health-related Acts. However, for the past two months, neither a permanent nor an acting appointment has been made by Cabinet. What was done instead was the health secretary, who is not the appointing authority in the first place, making a temporary appointment to ‘oversee duties’, the statement further said.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is a deadly situation in the world. What Sri Lanka needs at this point of time is not a puppet as DGHS, but a clever and competent medical administrator who can guide the nation in its hour of need. An autocratic style of management is not the answer to the grave crisis at hand”, it added.

It is clear that there is resistance to appoint the most deserving senior DDG as the next DGHS. The country cannot afford to pay for the sins of an insensitive official best described as a “square peg in a round hole”, who lord over the unfolding scenario within the comfort of his ivory tower, the statement noted.

The GMOF said it was pathetic to see how the Health Ministry forced doctors to go on transfers at a time the country was on alert for the pandemic. This was done at the insistence of a certain trade union. In addition, the Ministry, in contravention of all norms, conducted a program at a cost of Rs. 4 million for those awaiting internships, while the trade union was allowed to charge Rs. 4,000 from each of the 1,500 participants, who were still not even employed.

Repeated attempts by The Sunday Island to contact the health secretary for comment since last Tuesday were unsuccessful as his mobile phone went unanswered.

“How can you get through to him when even those under the same roof cannot access him?”, a health sector official laughed.

“As an option, you can try your luck by coming over here and waiting outside his door for a couple of hours”, he suggested.



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PM: Sri Lanka negotiating with IMF as a bankrupt nation

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Challenges JVP Leader to present his miracle six-month recovery plan for consideration

By Saman Indrajith

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told Parliament yesterday that Sri Lanka was currently negotiating with the IMF as a bankrupt nation. Briefing Parliament on the government’s road map for economic recovery, he said the government had been able to complete several rounds of negotiations with the IMF successfully.

 The PM made the special announcement following the previous day’s challenge by Chief Opposition Whip Kandy District MP Lakshman Kiriella to the government to inform the House of progress in the talks with the IMF because the media had reported that the talks had failed.

 The Prime Minister said: “Once a staff-level agreement is reached, this will be submitted to the IMF Board of Directors for approval. But due to the state of bankruptcy our country is in, we have to submit a plan on our debt sustainability to them separately. Only when they are satisfied with that plan can we reach an agreement at the staff level.”

Full statement by the Prime Minister:

Today, in front of this Assembly and the citizens of this country, I am ready to outline the roadmap that we are following which will revive the economy that has collapsed.

We were able to successfully proceed with the round of negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Our country has held talks with the IMF on many occasions before. But this time the situation is different from all those previous occasions. In the past, we have held discussions as a developing country. In such a case, both parties have only to reach an agreement on the EFF or Extended Credit Facility. It is like moving along a straight line.

But now the situation is different. We are now participating in the negotiations as a bankrupt country. Therefore, we have to face a more difficult and complicated situation than in previous negotiations. Once a staff-level agreement is reached, this will be submitted to the IMF Board of Directors for approval. But due to the state of bankruptcy our country is in, we have to submit a plan on our debt sustainability to them separately. Only when they are satisfied with that plan can we reach an agreement at the staff level. This is not a straightforward process.

But we have been able to end the round of discussion effectively despite these difficulties. According to the IMF’s official announcement, “Positive and productive discussions were held on supportive economic policies and reforms. Significant progress was achieved.”

Now the next step is to submit to them the plan on debt restructuring and sustainability, which is being prepared by financial and legal experts Lazard and Clifford Chance. We hope to submit this report to the IMF by August.

Once this is done we will be able to reach an agreement. However, even after this agreement, it must be presented to the IMF Board of Directors for approval.  After approval for this plan is provided, a comprehensive loan assistance program will be prepared for a period of 4 years. We are now on that path.

After obtaining the staff-level agreement, we will organize a donor-aid conference by bringing together the friendly countries that provide us with loan assistance, such as India, China, and Japan. We hope to create a system where we can get loan assistance through a common agreement.

Among the problems we are facing today, the primary problem is the fuel crisis. At the same time, we are also facing the problem of food availability. In terms of fuel and food, our country was going to have to face this crisis at some point in time. Fuel was scarce. Food prices went up.

Due to the recent global crises, this situation has become more acute and we who were in the frying pan fell into the oven. Due to the Ukraine-Russia war, our problem has been made worse. What has happened now is the addition of an international crises on top of our crisis. This situation is not unique to us. This affects other countries as well. India and Indonesia are also affected by this global crisis. Therefore, India has had to limit the loan assistance that they have given to us.

This situation affects the whole world equally. As a result of this, the United Nations Secretary-General has warned that the gap between developed and under-developed countries will increase. He also warns that the gap between the upper class and the lower class within a country may increase. No country in the world can isolate itself from this world crisis. We all have to face this.

We have prepared this road map considering all the domestic and global challenges that are facing us. We can refuse to change our ways. But if things do not change, the whole country will collapse.

Therefore, we should strive to move forward on this path. It is not an easy journey. I have reminded you of that from time to time. This will be a difficult and bitter journey. But we can get relief at the end of this journey. Progress can be made.

Our economy is currently shrinking. We are trying to reverse it. According to central bank statistics, our current economic growth rate is between negative four and negative five. According to IMF statistics, it is between negative six and negative seven. This is a serious situation. If we make a determined journey along this road map, we can achieve an economic growth rate of a negative one by the end of 2023.

By 2025, our aim is to create a surplus in the primary budget. Our effort is to raise the economic growth rate to a stable level. Our expectation is to establish a stable economic base by 2026.

I would like to give you an idea of the debt we have to pay off so far. $3.4 billion between June and December this year.  $5.8 billion in 2023. $4.9 billion in 2024. $6.2 billion in 2025.  $4.0 billion in 2026. $4.3 billion in 2027.

The total debt burden of the government at the end of 2021 was Rs 17.5 trillion and by March 2022 it has increased to Rs 21.6 trillion.

This is the real situation. In addition, we are facing the effects of many problems that have worsened in the past two or three years.  These are not problems that can be solved in two days.  We are suffering from the effects of certain traditional ideas that have been followed in our country for many years. Therefore, as I mentioned earlier, we will have to face difficulties in 2023 as well. This is the truth. This is the reality.  Some may try to cover up this reality by showing the people a false image. But this reality will be confirmed in time.

Our plan is to control inflation. By the end of this year, inflation will rise to 60%. This is mainly due to the increase in the prices of goods in the world and the fall in the value of the rupee.

Due to the current inflation, the depreciation of the rupee has reduced the value of the money in the Employees’ Provident Fund and the Employees’ Trust Fund by 50% and the real value of pensions has also decreased by 50%. Think about how this situation affects our senior citizens. Poverty is spreading among all of them. The value of the money they receive has decreased by 50%. Their purchasing power has decreased by about 50%.  Presenting positive ideas is easy. But it is difficult to find answers to these problems.

What is the solution to this?  Stabilizing the rupee as soon as possible, strengthening the rupee without letting it fall. For that purpose, we have implemented a plan to limit the printing of money in the future.

In 2023, we will have to print money with restrictions on several occasions. But by the end of 2024, it is our intention to stop printing money completely.

We aim to reduce the inflation rate to between 4 and 6 percent by 2025.

Another top priority for us is to protect the banking and financial system. The pressure on these systems during an economic crisis does not need to be explained to this House. But due to this pressure, we will not allow the banking system to be pressured by poor policies.  The government has given priority to strengthening the banking and financial system.

Meanwhile, we pay special attention to state banks. They have been beaten from both sides. On the one hand, the economic crisis, on the other hand, the huge amount of loans they have given to state enterprises.

As of March 31, 2021, SriLankan Airlines owes Rs. 541 billion as of May 31, 2022, the Electricity Board owes Rs. 418 billion.  Petroleum Corporation owes Rs. 1.46 trillion.

When public enterprises continue to incur losses, the entire citizenry suffers.  People who have never traveled on a plane in their lifetime are suffering from the loss of SriLankan Airlines.  The people who have paid money for fuel all their lives are suffering from the loss of the petroleum corporation.  After hours, days, and days of waiting in queues to get fuel, they pay compensation to the oil company to cover the loss of the company. The people who get electricity by paying money all their life, sit in the dark for several hours a day and suffer from the loss of the electricity board.

Excuses have been used for a long time to cover up the sufferings, persecutions, and troubles of the people and the compensation paid for the losses of the institutions.  People’s resources, people’s property as well as the failure of the respective institutions are covered up by this mask. If these are real people’s properties and people resources, they should provide relief, convenience, ease, and profit to the people. But the people have inherited sufferings, troubles, and losses from these institutions.

Therefore, we have to think anew about such institutions which have become a burden to the country and the people. Is it fair to burden people like this for thirty or forty years? Should we continue to burden the people and run these institutions? Why can’t the services provided by these institutions be provided without burdening the people? Are there no other options for providing these services? Considering all these facts, we are taking immediate steps to restructure these institutions.  It will be ensured that they are maintained in a manner that does not burden the country.

There are a number of other issues that need to be addressed in our journey forward to overcome the current challenges.

One is to prepare the background of getting food without shortages and keeping the increase in food prices under control.

On the other hand, taking steps to increase food availability. We have now prepared the necessary background for the successful harvest of the next season. All measures have already been taken to provide chemical fertilizers without shortage. Provisions for seeds and planting materials are allocated through the interim budget.

Also, we have started a program to increase food availability in collaboration with the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization.  Currently, their delegation is studying the food crisis in Sri Lanka. At my invitation, the head of the Food and Agriculture Organization will visit Sri Lanka next week.

No matter how much we are in the middle of a huge economic crisis, we cannot forget the problems faced by the poorest sections of society regarding food. The upcoming interim budget will allocate money to provide short-term relief to the highest sections of society. This relief will be given to the people under the Social Welfare Benefits Act.

We are also launching activities to prevent malnutrition caused by a lack of food.

In parallel to these activities, necessary incentives are being provided for cultivation. Facilities are being provided. An island-wide cultivation program is being launched with the intervention of the Prime Minister’s Office along with the Ministry of Agriculture and other relevant ministries. The aim of this program is to increase food availability at a decentralized level. In this regard, the responsible institutions meet weekly and take necessary actions. We hope to increase overall food production in the next six to seven months.

We are taking steps to take a number of policy decisions to boost the export economy. The upcoming Interim Budget will include detailed information about it.

If we continue on this planned path, we can have hope for a brighter future. All of us should shoulder that task unitedly. We must all come together to lift the net we are tangled in and fly.

If we do so, we will be able to fulfill the expectation of reaching the situation we were in 2019 by 2025. This journey cannot be stopped from there. We have to continue this journey until we create a new economy.

We hope to prepare the necessary background for this progress through the interim budget.

When I assumed the responsibility of the Prime Minister, I made a written request from the opposition parties to come forward to work together for the country in this difficult and crisis situation. You all know about the responses received at that time.

The importance of this unity, the importance of getting out of this difficult time together, has been pointed out by a number of our Parliamentarians from time to time.

Remembering that, I once again request all party representatives in this House to come together to overcome this challenge.

Our ultimate goal is to create a highly competitive social market economy. Here we also have examples to take from countries like China and Vietnam. They are countries that successfully maintain competitive socialist market economies.

As far as I know, there are no shortcuts to achieving our goals. There is no magic or panacea.  Dr. Harini Amarasuriya MP also emphasized that the other day.  She said:  “We get an empty pot. This is not easy. We don’t think that everything will be solved once we come to power. Everything will not be solved just by coming to power. There are several things that need to be done. It will take time to get this right. It will be a difficult time for all of us.  You have to make commitments. You have to work very hard.”

As MP Harini Amarasuriya said, this crisis is not one that can be resolved in a few days or a few months.  A more serious one.

But if there is a more effective plan than the one we have presented, if there is a faster plan, then present it.  We can discuss it. Run it if it is the most effective path to recovery.

MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake has stated that if he is handed over the country, it will be restored in six months. Indeed, it would be a very good thing if it could be done. Taking a country whose economic growth has fallen from a negative six or seven to a positive economic growth rate in six months is an action that has never happened in any country in the world. But we cannot rule out Mr. Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s opinion that it has not happened so far. It would be great if he has a plan to restore the country within six months. With such a plan, we will be able to restore the economy in a short period of time. Not only that, but it also sets a good precedent for the world.

That is why I am asking MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake to submit this plan to the President. If you don’t want to go to the President, present it to this Parliament.  Let us discuss it in this Parliament. If that plan is better and more effective than the plan we are implementing now, we will implement it. Such a plan would be brilliant enough to win the Nobel Prize in Economics.

So if there is such a plan, I am ready to resign and let him take up this position. I am ready to give up my position and support that program. Because the positions I hold are not new to me. At a time when the country has become anarchic and no one has taken responsibility, I have not accepted this position out of a desire for the chair.

At that time the country was in an anarchic and dangerous situation. If that situation had developed further, the country would have turned into a sea of blood. There would have been an environment where no country in the world would look at us with friendship.

I accepted this position with the aim of saving the country from that situation. I took up the responsibility for the country, using my experience and connections to help the country recover from its fallen state. That’s why I took over this anarchic country without any conditions and now we were able to prevent the country from falling into the abyss.  Now we have to slowly raise the country again.

The main thing for me was not the power, but the country. Therefore, I have no desire or need for power. I only have a need to see this country recover. I would like to let this House know that we are moving forward in a planned and steady way towards meeting that need.

The journey we are on is a good opportunity to change the system that we followed in our country previously.  Past experience has shown us that no victory or progress can be achieved by changing persons or characters. The importance of implementing a common national plan has been confirmed through past experiences.

So if there are better ways than the method we are following now, please point them out, and put them forward. Let us all join in the effort to lift the country up. Let’s join together as one people to rise again from this place.  Let’s make this journey more acceptable through collective ideas and suggestions.

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Mahinda attends Parliament

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Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa attended Parliament on Tuesday (05). His eldest son, Namal Rajapaksa recently denied social media reports that the former leader was receiving treatment at a private hospital. (Pic courtesy PMD)

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Navy says it has enough fuel for patrol

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Navy headquarters yesterday (05) said that in spite of a crisis situation, the Navy had sufficient fuel stocks to maintain sea patrols.

 A senior official said so when The Island sought their response to SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera, MP’s, allegation that sea patrols had been suspended for want of fuel. Lawmaker Jayasekera warned that suspension of sea patrols posed a major security threat. (SF)

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