Friday 16th April, 2021
Former Finance Minister and newsmaker, Ronnie de Mel, has attracted media attention, again, at the age of 96. He is reported to have said, during a recent conversation with Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, that the Sri Lankan economy should be repositioned with a tilt towards socialism. He has also stressed the need for equitable growth, and other such pro-poor measures in keeping with the tenets of Buddhism.
It is being argued in some quarters that de Mel, who presented 11 budgets consecutively under the better-dead-than-red J. R. Jayewardene government, has faced about, but going by what he is heard saying in a video clip of the aforesaid conversation, which is accessible on the Internet, one can see that he only opines how capitalism can emerge stronger and remain relevant, especially in this country. Speaking boastfully about the epochal economic change the country underwent in 1977, he says there is a pressing need for another such momentous event for the Sri Lankan economy to come out of the doldrums.
Ironically, there was no love lost between de Mel and the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, while they were in the JRJ government as the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister respectively, but the former is now of the view that the latter’s son, Sajith, is the only hope for the country!
We had two epoch-defining elections as regards the national economy. In 1970, the SLFP-led United Front (UF) government, which secured a two-thirds majority in Parliament, adopted a statist approach to economic management and threw in its lot with the socialist bloc in a bipolar world. It took things to an extreme in experimenting with its autochthonous politico-economic model. The state’s vise-like grip on the economy retarded the growth of the private sector much to the resentment of the capitalist bloc. Many arguments have been put forth in defence of this kind of state control over the economy, stringent regulations, etc., under that regime; they are not without merit, but the UF government became hugely unpopular, as a result. In 1977, the UNP, made a stunning comeback and formed a government with a five-sixths majority in the House with de Mel as the Finance Minister and upended the UF’s economy policies, triggering an open-market tsunami as it were; that revolutionary change led to the evisceration of many vital state institutions. Both regimes failed to maintain a balance, and their economic reforms, therefore, did not yield the desired benefits for the country. If only they had heeded the classical, oxymoronic adage, festina lente (‘make haste slowly’).
Those who expected capitalism to flourish following the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) only cherished a delusion. Capitalism has been in crisis; this situation is mostly due to the fact that the capitalist state has to carry out two mutually contradictory functions—accumulation and legitimisation. The process of legitimisation basically requires maintaining social harmony, which cannot be achieved unless the ill-effects of the unbridled capital accumulation are mitigated for the benefit of the ordinary people. Hence attempts by the capitalist state to give its policies a socialist flavour with social welfare and pro-poor schemes. (The JRJ government went so far as to call this country a ‘Democratic Socialist Republic’, in the Constitution it introduced. (Emphasis added.) It is against this backdrop that former Finance Minister de Mel’s aforesaid advice to the Opposition leader should be viewed.
Besides, critics of capitalism inform us that the current free-market model has led to a triple crisis for capitalism—financial instability, lack of environmental sustainability and political unpopularity. “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative,” H. G. Wells has said. This aphorism applies to economic models as well. Even the US has had to make dramatic course corrections over the decades. Some of these measures run counter to its unsolicited advice to the rest of the world; Washington opted for a massive bailout package to save the American banks, etc., during the 2008 financial meltdown, which marked a turning point in capitalism and modern economic theories. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which emerged in 2011, was another manifestation of the crisis of the capitalist state; the protesters who took to the streets were young Americans enraged by intolerable economic inequalities.
President Donald Trump had no qualms about openly practising protectionism to boost the US industries at the expense of other nations, especially China, through controversial tariff hikes. His successor, Joe Biden continues with, more or less, the same policy. All US Presidents have been closet protectionists.
Biden has recently got a 1.9-trillion-dollar stimulus package approved by the Congress to jump-start the economy, facilitate the ongoing Covid-19 vaccination drive, and grant relief to the pandemic-hit Americans. These measures are part of the legitimisation process aimed at bringing about social harmony.
One can only hope that the present-day political leaders and economic policymakers will take note of the fact that one of the main architects of the Sri Lankan version of market economy has owned that things are far from copacetic for capitalism in its present form; the key takeaway for the incumbent government from de Mel’s advice to Sajith, in our book, is the need to ensure equitable growth, which, however, is not attainable through occasional cash handouts and politically-motivated poverty alleviation projects.
Beds and talkathons
Thursday 13th May, 2021
The government has bowed to the inevitable at last. Countrywide travel restrictions are now in force. Belated as this measure may be, it will go a long way towards curtailing the rapid spread of the pandemic. If only the government had summoned the political moxie to do so during the recent festive season. It is hoped that the unruly government politicians who think they know better than doctors will desist from bulldozing the health authorities into lifting movement restrictions in their constituencies purportedly for the sake of daily wage earners.
The ruling SLPP has undertaken to manufacture 10,000 beds for the Covid-19 treatment centres. This campaign has drawn heavy criticism from the Opposition and a section of the media; it is viewed as an exercise aimed at gaining political mileage and covering up the many failings of the ruling coalition. True, nothing is devoid of politics in this country, and the bed-manufacturing mission smacks of a political project intended to shore up the government’s crumbling image, but its importance and usefulness cannot be discounted. The demand for more beds is bound to increase exponentially as infections surge. What other political parties should do is to stop scoffing at the SLPP project and make a contribution to the country’s fight against the pandemic. They can get together and provide pillows, bed sheets, pillowcases and other such materials for the benefit of the Covid-19 patients receiving residential treatment.
Meanwhile, there has been a call for an all-party conference to discuss ways and means of tackling the national health crisis. Parliament continues to meet, and it, we reckon, is the best forum for matters of national importance to be discussed and decisions thereon to be taken. After all, that is what those in the current Opposition demanded when the last general election was postponed for months on end due to the pandemic. They even demanded that the dissolved Parliament be re-convened to help solve the health crisis. A new Parliament was elected in August 2020, but the country’s problems have not been solved. So, the question is whether there is any need for an all-party conference, which, in our book, will end up being a political circus. The leaders of the political parties worthy of the name are in Parliament and have the ear of the Prime Minister. The President also visits Parliament and they can meet him there, if they care to.
Most political powwows are NATO (No-Action-Talk-Only) events, where politicians who have got talking hind legs off a donkey down to a fine art display their oratorical skills to the point of queasiness. It may be recalled that nothing came of such gatherings even in the aftermath of the worst ever natural disaster that shook the country—the Boxing Day tsunami (2004). So, why waste time on talkathons?
There are however several other ways in which the main political parties and their leaders can help the public in this hour of crisis. They receive colossal amounts of funds for elections, and, as is public knowledge, only a small portion of them is spent on electioneering, and the balance simply disappears. The last parliamentary polls were held less than a year ago, and the main political parties that are making a public display of their concern for the public should contribute a part of their surplus campaign funds to the fight against the pandemic. They can help look after the needy.
Hospitals and quarantine centres require manpower, the demand for which is increasing, and it is not fair to overtax the military personnel, who are rendering a commendable service. Frontline health workers are also exhausted due to the increasing caseloads. Will the patriotic political party leaders and their backers volunteer to do whatever they can at these health institutions under severe strain? Having talked the talk, shouldn’t they now walk the walk?
If political parties can make their leaders and rank and file behave responsibly, that will be the greatest service they can render. They should also prevail on their supporters to follow the Covid-19 protocol strictly and help stop the spread of the pandemic.
Stop playing blame game, heed expert advice
Wednesday 12th May, 2021
There is a lot of brouhaha over the government’s claim that it influenced the World Health Organization (WHO) decision to approve the emergency use of China’s Sinopharm vaccine; the WHO is reported to have denied this claim. Government propagandists cannot resist the temptation to perform foot-in-the-mouth stunts that embarrass their masters beyond measure. However, the real issue is not how the WHO approval was granted for Sinopharm, or any other vaccine for that matter. The issues that warrant public attention are whether enough vaccine stocks will be available; how effective the jabs will be against the new variants of coronavirus, and how to face the socio-economic issues caused by the pandemic.
Thankfully, some vaccine stocks are arriving here while the pandemic transmission and death toll are increasing steadily although there is a shortage of AstraZeneca vaccine for booster doses. Inoculation is a prerequisite for beating the virus, and given the ever-worsening health crisis, one does not have the luxury of picking and choosing vaccines, especially in respect of the first dose. If the people (as well as the government) had behaved responsibly during the recent festive season, they would have been able to wait until the arrival of the vaccines of their choice. On the other hand, all Covid-19 vaccines currently in use have been found to be highly effective in preventing severe disease and hospitalisation although their efficacy rates are said to vary.
The WHO says everyone has to get the Covid-19 jab fast, and the world must strive to attain global herd immunity through vaccination as soon as possible if the transmission of the virus is to be curbed. WHO lead scientist Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove has, in the weekly epidemiological update, said, “We do not have anything to suggest that our diagnostics or therapeutics and our vaccines don’t work.” This may be some good news in these troubled times, but the situation is far from rosy. One should not lose sight of the fact that Dr. Kerkhove, on Monday, announced that the WHO had changed its classification of the B.1.617 coronavirus variant first found in India last October from a ‘variant of interest’ to a ‘variant of concern’; it has already spread to several countries including Sri Lanka and is wreaking havoc.
Some scientists are of the view that certain coronavirus variants may have the potential to evade antibodies induced by natural infection or vaccination. This, however, does not mean that one should not get inoculated. Instead, one ought to realise that one should not lower one’s guard simply because of the ongoing vaccine rollouts. Nothing should be left to chance in fighting the virus. One should bear in mind WHO chief scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan’s wise counsel as regards India.
Dr. Swaminathan is reported to have said that the Indian variant is not vaccine resistant, but India has to depend on its tried and tested public health and social measures to curtail the transmission of the pandemic in addition to boosting its national vaccination drive. This, we believe, is applicable to Sri Lanka as well. Hence, measures such as the ban on interprovincial travel are welcome albeit long overdue. The government has apparently begun to take expert opinion seriously. If such travel restrictions had been imposed during the recent April holidays, the transmission of the virus could have been reduced to a manageable level.
Head of the National Operations Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak and Army Commander, Gen. Shavendra Silva, has warned that unless the pandemic situation improves, district borders too will have to be closed. Chances are that far more stringent measures will have to be adopted unless the public fully cooperates with the health authorities to bring the pandemic under control and prevent the projected death rates from becoming a reality. The Association of Medical Specialists (AMS) has already urged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to impose ‘lockdowns’ at the district level with immediate effect.
The country is in the current predicament because both the government and the public acted irresponsibly. They have to stop blaming each other for the explosive spread of the pandemic they have jointly brought about, share the blame and act responsibly. There is no other way out.
From shaman’s syrup to docs’ pills
Tuesday 11th May, 2021
The Covid-19 morbidity and mortality rates have been on the rise steadily since the conclusion of the recent avurudu celebrations. What we are experiencing at present looks the early warnings of a viral tsunami, whose landfall is only a matter of time. The national healthcare system has reached breaking point, as a collective of professional outfits––the Sri Lanka Medical Association, the Government Medical Officers Association, the Association of Medical Specialists, and the SLMA Intercollegiate Committee––have pointed out in a letter to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Unless urgent action is taken to reduce the worsening caseloads, people will start dying here in their numbers on roads without treatment, as in India. The first thing that needs to be done to prevent the rapid transmission of the pandemic is to impose movement restrictions, which the good doctors have recommended in their letter. If travel among districts had been banned, or at least restricted, during the recent festive season, the country would not have been in the current predicament. The government allowed the public to do as they pleased, for political reasons, and we are where we are today.
The doctors’ associations have, in their letter, made some science-based recommendations such as the imposition of movement restrictions, the isolation of areas depending on density of caseloads, the strengthening of the curative sector by supplying adequate facilities, especially oxygen, ICU facilities and laboratory services countrywide for diagnosis of COVID-19 with PCR testing, and the acceleration of the national vaccination drive.
Some of these recommendations may not find favour with the government, which tends to lay everything on the Procrustean bed of political expediency. But they are the proverbial stitch in time, which, if implemented urgently, will spare the government and the country a lot of trouble in the future. The pills that docs have prescribed are bitter but have to be swallowed.
It is popularly said in this country that when politicians have power, they have no brains, and vice versa—mole thiyanakota bale ne, bale thiyanakota mole ne. So, the problem with most government politicians is that they consider themselves far more knowledgeable than experts such as doctors, engineers, scientists and environmentalists. One may recall that a minister of the current administration once asked what the use of having oxygen was, during a heated argument with an intrepid female Forest Officer who opposed a move to destroy a mangrove forest, pointing out that environmental degradation would reduce the oxygen level in the air. He demanded to know whether oxygen could be eaten—oxygen kannada. A ministerial colleague of his did something cretinous, the other day, exposing the public to Covid-19.
Piliyandala, a populous section of the conurbation of Colombo, accounted for nearly one half of 755 Covid-19 cases reported from the Colombo District, yesterday. The health authorities’ decision to impose movement restrictions in the Piliyandala police area, last week, has been vindicated by the rapid increase in infections there during the past few days. If the restrictions had not been lifted at the behest of Minister Gamini Lokuge, the situation could have been brought under control. Lokuge has sought to justify his intervention to have the decision of the Director General of Health Services (DGHS), who alone can decide on lockdowns, movement restrictions, etc., countermanded, by claiming that such action would have affected daily wage earners in Piliyandala, which is his electorate. True, the vulnerable sections of society have to be protected, but an explosive transmission of the pandemic will have a far more devastating impact on them as well as others than a lockdown. Of economic hardships and an increase in the pandemic death toll, which is the worse? It is not only the residents of Piliyandala who undergo economic hardships owing to lockdowns and other such Covid-19 preventive measures. What if the ruling party politicians in other parts of the country emulate Lokuge? The DGHS will not be able to have any area locked down, in such an eventuality.
Meanwhile, other countries battling the new variants of the virus have adopted double masking, which has proved quite effective in curbing the spread of the pandemic. Why it has not been made mandatory here is the question.
One can only hope that the doctors’ letter at issue will knock some sense into the ruling party politicians and their officials in charge of the anti-Covid-19 campaign. There is no reason why a government that chose to do as a crafty shaman said, and even promoted his peniya or syrup, touted as a cure for Covid-19, should not take the views of respected medical professionals on board and act accordingly.
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