Getting out of ‘Covid cave’
Monday 30th August, 2021
State Minister of Money and Capital Market and State Enterprise Reforms Ajith Nivard Cabraal has tweeted, drawing everyone’s attention to the adverse consequences of lockdowns. He has highlighted the plight of more than four million people dependent on small and medium-sized enterprises for a living. They have been reduced to penury, the Minister has said, stressing the need to allow these businesses to function. He is sure to draw heavy fire from the proponents of lockdowns, but the concerns of those who run the economy must be appreciated. There is a limit beyond which the state coffers cannot withstand shocks.
Some economists have welcomed the extension of the current lockdown, here, and said the economy can absorb the losses it causes. However, protracted lockdowns hurt people and make economies scream so much so that even the rich countries have found themselves in a dilemma; they are unable to decide whether to go ahead with the elimination strategy (lockdowns, etc.,) or learn to live with Covid-19.
Britain made a bold decision to reopen amidst a surge in infections and despite warnings—of course, after inoculating a sizeable section of its population. A few weeks have elapsed since the experiment began, but, thankfully, the worst-case scenario health experts warned of has not played out. But it is too early to say whether the English experiment is a success, given the ability of coronavirus to spring surprises. All it takes to upend a country’s Covid strategy is the emergence of a virulent variant like Delta. Australia is planning to emulate the UK if Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent statements are any indication; he has rejected as absurd the idea of pursuing the elimination strategy indefinitely.
Morison says Australia will be able to claim back what Covid has taken away from it, provided it achieves 70% to 80% vaccination targets. In a recent op-ed carried in the Australian media, he has said Australia ‘must not be intimidated by the case number that will inevitably increase … we can’t stay in the cave, and we can get out of it safely’. He has sounded just like his British counterpart, Boris Johnson, who drew a lot of flak from his friends and foes alike for allegedly saying he would rather see bodies pile up than go for another lockdown.
Even New Zealand, which has gone into lockdown again owing to a Delta variant outbreak, and thereby earned pejorative sobriquets such as ‘mysterious socialist hermit nation’, ‘Covid prison’, and ‘isolated dystopia’, also does not think the elimination strategy it has adopted will be viable in the long run. Minister of Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins has said something to this effect.
One only hopes the English experiment will be a success so that others could also get out of the ‘Covid cave’ that way.
Sri Lanka ought to learn from the radical changes other countries’ pandemic prevention strategies have undergone, over the past few months, and realise that lockdowns are not a solution in themselves, and they are only a means to an end. Nothing is stupider than to behave irresponsibly, facilitating the transmission of the virus, and then ask for lockdowns. Playing hide-and-seek with the dangerous virus has to stop. The government has well and truly banjaxed the country’s Covid-19 prevention strategy, but the people must also take the blame for the increasing death toll; if they behave responsibly, abiding by what doctors and other health experts recommend, many lives can be saved even if the government continues to blunder.
Mere battening down the hatches will not do, for Covid-19 will not pass like a flu. A lockdown must be made use of to plan and execute the next offensive against the virus, and unless it is strictly enforced and coupled with aggressive testing and inoculation, it serves little purpose. Most of all, people must resolve to adopt preventive measures and save their own lives.
Friday 2nd June, 2023
Long lines of vehicles suddenly appeared near filling stations yesterday, evoking dreadful memories of a dark era and causing public panic. Pumps had run dry at most fuel depots, and people had to wait for hours to obtain petrol and diesel. Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera hurriedly issued a media statement denying rumours of a fuel shortage.
Minister Wijesekera tweeted that the country had adequate fuel stocks, but filling stations had not placed orders for petrol and diesel due to speculation about a downward fuel price revision. This is not the first time fuel station owners have done so. They have apparently become a law unto themselves, and the government takes no action against them. How does Minister Wijesekera propose to deal with them and ensure a reliable fuel supply? He should explore the possibility of revoking their licences.
Besides, filling stations are notorious for various malpractices, and cheat their customers with impunity. Most of them remain closed at night much to the inconvenience of the public though fuel should be freely available anytime of the day. The situation has taken a turn for the worse since last year’s fuel crisis. It is doubtful whether filling stations are regulated at all. How can a country achieve its development goals unless there is a reliable fuel supply?
The incumbent dispensation is all out to neutralise threats to its rule on the political front. It allocates resources for riot control generously, and thousands of police and military personnel are deployed at the first sign of a protest. It may be able to keep the meek Opposition in check, but its failure to tame the mudalali Mafia is bound to be its undoing. It cannot even control egg traders, who are apparently running a parallel government, defying as they do consumer protection laws.
More worryingly, now that the recent disruptions to the fuel supply have exposed the impotence of the Ministry of Power and Energy vis-à-vis the filling stations including those under the state-owned CPC (Ceylon Petroleum Corporation), the question is whether the government will have any control over the fuel stations to be set up by foreign companies.
The SLPP-UNP government has embarked on a crusade to protect Buddhism. It has caused a comedienne and a social media activist to be arrested for allegedly insulting the Buddha. Sri Lankan leaders claim to be guided by the tenets of Buddhism, and never miss an opportunity to make a public display of their religiosity? If so, how come this country has earned notoriety for cruelty to animals besides blatant human rights violations?
The suffering of an elephant here has received international media attention, which has prompted Thailand, which gifted the animal to this country years ago, to step in to save it.
Those who are responsible for looking after the poor Thai jumbo must be called to account for serious lapses on their part. The government of Thailand deserves praise for its concern for the poor elephant languishing here. Its efforts to have the ailing jumbo flown back home for treatment are to be highly appreciated however embarrassing they may be to the Sri Lankan authorities. This, however, does not mean that animals do not undergo suffering at the hands of humans in Thailand, which also describes itself as a Buddhist country.
Let the government of Sri Lanka be urged to intervene to ensure that the ailing elephant in the news is looked after properly, and tender an unqualified apology to Thailand and animal lovers who have rightly taken up the cudgels on its behalf.
Animals must be allowed to live in their natural habitats, which should be protected. They are not exhibits to be kept in zoos or paraded for human entertainment, especially in a predominantly Buddhist country.
Lanka’s Augean Stables
Thursday 1st June, 2023
The Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) always makes the headlines for the wrong reasons. Reams have been written about various deficiencies in its service standards, and various rackets such as baggage pilferage, all these years, but no remedial action seems to have been taken. Stinking to high heaven, it has become Sri Lanka’s Augean Stables.
A local television channel has exposed a foreign currency racket at the BIA. According to hidden camera footage telecast on Hiru TV, on Tuesday, racketeers approach passengers in the arrivals area, where the counters of commercial banks and authorised money changers are located, and buy forex at black-market rates on the sly.
The BIA forex racket is not of recent origin, we are told. It is believed to have been there for a long time. The racketeers are so influential that they are seen moving about freely inside the airport. They would not have been able to do so without political backing. This blatant violation of foreign exchange control laws under the nose of the airport authorities belies the government’s claim that it is doing everything in its power to channel the forex inflow through the local banking system. Millions of dollars, pounds, etc., must be finding their way into the foreign exchange black market annually through the racketeers at the BIA.
It will be interesting to see the government reaction to the exposure of the BIA forex racket. The leaders of the SLPP and the UNP are adept at cover-ups. They have earned notoriety for trying to defend the indefensible and trotting out atrocious excuses which insult human intelligence.
One may recall that in 2014, Hambantota Mayor Eraj Fernando was caught on camera brandishing a small firearm and running behind a group of UNP MPs menacingly, in Hambantota. When journalists asked then President Mahinda Rajapaksa what action would be taken against the violent Mayor, he claimed that Fernando had been carrying a toy pistol! No sooner had the first Treasury bond scam come to light, in 2015, than the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had the audacity to claim, in Parliament, that there had been no wrongdoing on the part of Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran. He flayed the Opposition MPs who took up the issue. So, unsurprisingly, the current SLPP-UNP government refused to order an investigation into an allegation that Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva had asked for a bribe from a Japanese company. The complaint against him was made by a Japanese diplomat and then taken up by the Opposition in Parliament. The government appointed a committee to conduct an inquiry, had de Silva cleared of the charges, and reappointed him the Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation! Now, it is requesting the Japanese to invest their hard-earned money here! If it is serious about attracting foreign investment, without which its efforts to straighten up the economy are bound to fail, it will have to have a Cabinet consisting of capable men and women of integrity. But the question is whether it will be able to find more than a handful of honest MPs in its ranks.
A country can never achieve progress unless it establishes the rule of law and battles corruption with might and main. The IMF is reportedly cranking up pressure on the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government to introduce tough anti-corruption laws. Even the bitterest critics of the IMF have welcomed this initiative. But it is one thing to make tough laws; it is quite another to enforce them properly.
The BIA is a microcosm of Sri Lanka. When the government in power reeks of corruption, and openly protects the corrupt, how can an airport be expected to remain clean. A fish is said to rot from the head down. Perhaps, one should stop worrying about its stinking tail. The entire putrid fish has to be discarded. Hence the need for elections.
Bogus religiosity and political legerdemain
Wednesday 31st May, 2023
The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government is in overdrive purportedly to protect Buddhism and preserve religious harmony. A comedienne has been arrested and remanded for making some derogatory utterances about Prince Siddhartha, and an unruly Buddhist monk notorious for spewing out streams of profanities via social media has been similarly dealt with for propagating incendiary messages and promoting religious disharmony. A controversial pastor, who is currently overseas, is to be arrested upon his arrival here, for insulting religions including Buddhism.
Whether the police have remained within the confines of the law in arresting the suspects they consider a threat to religious amity, or the offences the latter are said to have committed are so serious as to warrant such stern action, is a matter for the learned judges to decide. It however needs to be stated that all those who try to stir up the people with inflammatory rhetoric and thereby jeopardise religious coexistence have to be severely dealt with according to the law. Mired in an economic crisis of epic proportions, the country needs ethno-religious trouble like a hole in the head.
Curiously, the police, who lost no time in arresting the aforesaid suspects, lack such high-octane performance when the transgressors they have to deal with happen to have political connections. They have baulked at arresting State Minister Diana Gamage, who has been charged with violating the immigration and emigration laws even though the judiciary has held that there is no barrier to her arrest, and the CID does not have to seek court permission to take her into custody. Is it that the government thinks that all people are equal before the law but the ruling party politicians are ‘more equal than others’? The police would have gone flat out to handcuff Diana and haul her up before court in full view of the media if she had not crossed over to the government, which has sent a clear message to its political rivals by protecting her: the Opposition MPs who fear or are facing legal action for their past misdeeds will be safe if they join the ruling coalition.
Former Minister Mervyn Silva has also bellowed some combustible rhetoric, vowing to risk even his life to protect Buddhism. That he is trying to gain some media attention and political mileage is obvious. He has to be kept in check, given his violent past. He is a demolition expert, as it were, and has a history of storming places of worship and media institutions. Will the police explain why they have not taken any action against him for rabble-rousing?
Interestingly, some members of the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government, which has embarked on a much-advertised mission to protect Buddhism, are tilting at temples, so to speak. Hardly a day passes without Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera taking a swipe at Chief Incumbent of Mihintale Raja Maha Vihara, Ven. Walawahengunawewe Dhammarathana Thera, who has taken on the government for reneging on its promise to allocate funds for this year’s State Poson Festival at Mihintale. Wijesekera has gone to the extent of asking the Nayake Thera to manage temple funds frugally so that there will be enough money for future religious functions.
One cannot but agree with Minister Wijesekera that the practice of overtaxing the national grid for festive illuminations is no longer affordable and has to be stopped. But the government has to fulfil its pledge to allocate funds for the Poson Festival at Mihintale. It should make a policy decision thereafter to stop sponsoring such events.
Whenever a Sri Lankan government finds itself in trouble, its leaders make a public display of their religiosity to regain popular support. Stories of rays emanating miraculously from statues are circulated; relic expositions are held and the self-proclaimed patriots in power launch crusades to protect Buddhism. It is hoped that the public will not be distracted by their gimmicks.
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