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Government should declare A Year of Tolerance

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This year 2021 Easter Sunday falls on 4th April. Two years ago, in 2019, it fell on 21st April 2021. All of you who are reading this will recall exactly where you were and what you were doing on that fateful day in 2019. Easter Sunday 2019 was such an impactful day that it came to define us as individuals, families, communities, nations and humanity itself. In brief, it not only showed the world the best of humanity and worst of humanity but to this day continues to do so. It is also the type of day that all of us will remember for ever and pass on to our children and grandchildren, as a lesson in life. The carnage which took place on that day should never be forgotten and never should be allowed to be forgotten for any reason. The remembrance of this day should be dedicated to the memory of the victims of this heinous terrorist crime and equally to survivors of it and most of all dedicated to the loved ones of those who lost their lives on that day, who have to live every single day with only memories.

Whatever the background and circumstances, which led to this terrorist act, let us acknowledge and accept one thing which is indisputable. The Easter Sunday 2019 act of terrorism was carried out by a group of misguided Sri Lankan Muslims. It is my opinion that the ideological, political, and social infrastructure which gave rise to the Easter Sunday Carnage of 2019 is still not only existing but thriving in Sri Lanka, thanks to identity politics of the majority Sinhalese and minority Muslim communities. Politicians to clergy and all in between will exploit this situation for their individual expectations and agendas at the cost of all peace-loving Sri Lankans.

Since the Easter Sunday Carnage of 2019, what have we, as Sri Lankans, done to bring justice to the victims? What have we done to punish the perpetrators and the puppet masters of this crime? What lessons have we learned to come together as true Sri Lankans and move to create a more inclusive and tolerant future for all of us? I am not qualified to answer these questions, though I have tried to initiate some action towards answering the last though my call for the government to declare A Year of Tolerance since June/July 2019.

There have, of course, been reams of paper-based reports produced which documents, analyses and recommends what the writers of these reports thought happened and what the writers think ought to happen. I sincerely hope future generations will know what really happened.

What really ought to happen is we Sri Lankans should find ways and means to accept each other for who we are and learn to live in a tolerant inclusive democracy which treats all Sri Lankans equally while recognizing that we are indeed racially, culturally, religiously, politically and ideologically different from one another. We should find ways to appreciate this diversity but at the same time unite as one – E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many One). One of many fundamental ways of creating one out of many is to plan and create an environment of Tolerance among all Sri Lankans. It is in this context that I renew my call on the government to seriously consider declaring A Year Of Tolerance at its earliest convenience.

The concept of TOLERANCE one must understand is NOT A NATURAL STATE FOR HUMANS. It is an attitude and virtue which needs to be cultivated. Research shows that tolerance helps governments maintain law and order and exercise power effectively.

Let me summarize, in a few sentences, the questions which Sri Lanka will need to address in convincing the majority Sinhalese the need for tolerance. It will indeed be fair for any Sinhalese Sri Lankan Buddhist to ask ‘Why should we Sinhalese tolerate the Muslims and Tamils? We have tolerated them for thousands of years and see what they have done and continue to do to us? Why can’t the Tamils and Muslims tolerate us, the Majority Sinhalese of this country, after all we are indeed the dominant race, religion and ethnicity in Sri Lanka?’

It is precisely this dialogue which we need to have as SRI LANKANS. We may have different ethnic, religious, regional, cultural social and political views but what ought to be uniting us is the common denominator all of us share – OUR SRI LANKAN IDENTITY. This may I cite as first the justification for declaring A Year of Tolerance.

I am sure there are much more technically competent experts in the field of tolerance from a sociological perspective but let me share six practices and attitudes which captures the spirt of tolerance-

1. Empathy

2. Compassion

3. Dialogue

4. Conflict resolution

5. Resilience

6. Teamwork

 

Most of these I believe are already part of our diverse religious teachings and cultural practices as Sri Lankans, but for some reason our moral compass has been disrupted by religious, political and ethnic extremist from all sides for personal, political and economic advantage.

Lord Buddha said we need to follow the middle path, and I believe that is precisely what we should do and the most important justification for calling on the Sri Lankan Government and Sinhala Buddhist Majority to support the call for declaring A Year of Tolerance for Sri Lanka.

Liberal democracy is rooted in the rights of individuals, and not the rights of groups or fixed communities. It is this theoretical background which leads people in liberal democracies to believe how they want to believe what they want to believe when they want to believe in it. This belief mechanism is rooted in the psychological theory called the five Enemies of Rational Thought, which are listed below.

1. Informal Fallacy

2. Formal Fallacy

3. Cognitive Bias

4. Cognitive Distortion

5. Self-Deception

(Reference: . By Neel Burton, MD)

Reality is always different to theory and in keeping with that reality the above mentioned five enemies of rational thought will always be exploited to prevent the right thing being done at the right time for the right reason. More importantly these five enemies of rational thought will always be used to justify and do the wrong thing, for the wrong time at the wrong reason.

Liberal democracy cannot exist without a national identity that defines what citizens hold in common with one another. Given the de facto multiculturalism of contemporary democracies, that identity needs to be civic or creedal. It needs to be based on liberal political ideas that are accessible to people of different cultural backgrounds rather than on fixed characteristics such as race, ethnicity, or religion. – Francis Fukuyama

Human beings have a fundamental need to belong—a need that their collective identities, be they racial, ethnic, religious, regional, or national, often satisfy. Such affiliations, which psychologists call “social identities,” serve multiple psychological functions. These include, for example, the need for a sense of safety, which social identities satisfy by reducing uncertainty and providing norms that help people navigate everyday life. At times, identities provide a sense of purpose and meaning and a basis for esteem and regard that is larger than people’s individual selves. Identities efficiently satisfy the human need for respect and dignity.

I believe Identity, in the recent past has begun to focus on the rise of right-wing nationalist populism or vice versa. This development threatens liberal democracy because populist leaders seek to use the legitimacy they gain from democratic elections to undermine liberal institutions such as courts, the media, and impartial bureaucracies which minorities rely on for a sense of equity and all citizens rely on for fair play.

We in Sri Lanka have an unparalleled and unique opportunity to exploit. With the election of the populist SLPP which used identify politics of the majority (thus reverse engineering the traditional interpretation of identity politics often associated with politically marginalised minority groups) to establish a politically stable governing environment, the state should use this platform to solidify liberal democracy in Sri Lanka by working towards creating a national identity that defines what citizens hold in common with one another. Not doing so at this point of time will lead to a situation of identity politics going on steroids!!!!!

I conclude by once again quoting Fukuyama who warns that ‘fragmenting into segments based on ever-narrower identities, threatens the possibility of deliberation and collective action by society as a whole’. If we go down the current path of identity-based politics, we in Sri Lanka are most likely to fulfil this prophecy.

People will never stop thinking about themselves and their societies in terms of identities. But people’s identities are neither fixed nor necessarily given by birth. Identity can be used to divide, but it can also be used to unify. That, in the end, will be the remedy for the populist politics of the present.

We need a national level effort and programme to address these issues in a Sri Lankan manner and I firmly believe that a state-led declaration of a Year of Tolerance will be a good starting point and foundation to use identity as a tool to unite all Sri Lankans to become one, out of many.

Dear reader, please consider extending your considerable influence as a Sri Lankan towards calling on the government to declare A Year Of Tolerance at its earliest possible convenience.

Dr Ruvaiz Haniffa

Consultant Family Physician



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Opinion

Today’s call for ‘Health Promotion’

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As a nation, we have reached a really critical stage with the corona pandemic. This is what The Hindustan Times reported on the 2nd of May, 2021: “Sri Lanka’s health authorities have issued new tough guidelines, including banning wedding receptions and gatherings at religious sites, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as the Island nation continued to record a spike in daily infections”. The time has come for all citizens of the country to understand the gravity of the disaster. Anyway, we have witnessed a section of Sri Lankans enjoying, despite many restrictions. It can be seen that people travel here and there without face masks, and organising events and parties amidst this situation. There is a problem with discipline. Also, I have observed that there is a segment of people who violate health guidelines and post messages on social media criticising the authorities. This “duplicity” must be interesting social research for investigators to read people in a different microscope.

Ownership and Empowerment:

At the moment we could not see any “ownership” of this disaster among Sri Lankans. Still, we can see only “health education” in the country, and we need to change this to “health promotion”. The country needs to consider this as top urgent, under these circumstances. The government should carefully use some stakeholders in this mission of “Health Promotion”. Refer to the following diagram for some selected sectors to take the initiative.

The role of the Health Promotion Bureau should be redefined. And the role of the Ministry of Education should not be underestimated in this context, to communicate messages to relevant parties — including schoolchildren and parents. In this task force, there can be community leaders, experts in the industry, representatives of the media, and some researchers as well. All members should have a Clear Plan (short-term strategy and long-term objectives) to address this pandemic situation. We have seen many times the media reporting how people violate health guidelines. But rather than concentrating on the ‘negative’ side, there can be ‘positive’, reporting as well. (As an example, a worker in the Colombo Municipal Council adhering to all guidelines by showcasing an example for the community). This is the time we need to have positive news. ((http://www.ft.lk/columns/Negative-and-positive-news-Rare-corpse-flower-set-to-bloom-at-Royal-Botanical-Gardens-Peradeniya/4-658936) for better immunity of people!

Also, there are many success stories that need to be followed by a task force of “health promotion”. In this context, we can discuss the success story of Vietnam. As the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reports, on 10th March 2021, “Swift introduction of containment measures, combined with aggressive contact tracing, targeted testing, and isolation of suspected COVID-19 cases helped keep recorded infections and death rates notably low on a per capita basis (IMF,2021). “Also, as per fitchratings.com “Vietnam’s economy has been more resilient than most other markets in the Asia-Pacific, as the local authorities have had greater success in containing Covid-19. It was one of the few economies in the region to report GDP growth in 2020 (fitchratings.com, Thu 22 Apr, 2021). More importantly, like in Vietnam, we also should have a successful communication strategy. Refer below:

“Vietnam’s successful communication strategy catalyzes the active participation of both governmental and private sectors as well as communities. The government centers its people in an active role with the slogan translated as “every citizen is a soldier”. In addition, non government-led initiatives, including the donation of funds and personal protection equipment by entrepreneurs and individuals, have contributed positively to social stability. For example, “the rice ATM” – a free rice dispenser reserved for the most vulnerable people, including those who lost income due to the pandemic, the elderly, students and disabled people. Students have been mobilized to assist in epidemic control by engaging them in various roles, such as data entry, sample collection or provision of phone counselling for COVID-19 suspected people. However, the number of students who joined the COVID-19 taskforce was very small (124 volunteer medical students) compared to its capacity. At the central level, a relief bill of approximately 80,600 VND billion was signed by the government to address the financial burden resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 62,000 VND billion of these funds were allocated to individuals who were poor, near poor, with meritorious services or under social protection schemes. The remaining funds were allocated to support small to medium production and business establishments.” The COVID-19 global pandemic: a review of the Vietnamese Government response – https://www.joghr.org/article/21951-the-covid-19-global-pandemic-a-review-of-the-vietnamese-government-response)

 

The time has come for Sri Lanka to think differently, learn, and work with responsibility. This is a disaster in which we need to stop the “blame game” and understand the situation with more responsibility. If we can use “health promotion” in an effective way, it would be one of the success stories for the world, always helping for long term sustainable development of the nation.

Prof. NALIN ABEYSEKERA

(Professor of Management Studies, Faculty of Management, Management Studies, The Open University of Sri Lanka

– nalinabeysekera@gmail.com )

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Opinion

Political interference aggravating Deadly Pandemic

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Humankind is in the middle of the deadly COVID pandemic, the worst ever seen in our lifetime. The virus, with all its ongoing mutations, is causing havoc all over the world, leading to untold misery and death. In the absence of any effective curative medication, and inadequate vaccine cover, prevention, with strict public health measures, based on sound scientific evidence, remains the fundamental way out of this impending catastrophe.

Larger countries, where politicians ignored professional advice, based on science, and took politically popular decisions, saw the inexorable spread of the disease causing much preventable deaths. Brazil, the USA (during the Trump presidency), and India, at present, are classic examples of this unfortunate situation. Countries like New Zealand, Australia, Israel and South Korea, taking decisions based purely on scientific advice, despite causing temporary hardship and restrictions on the people, have managed to return to near normal pre-COVID status.

Sri Lanka has a literate population.It also has a well-established public health service responsible for prevention and even eradication of many diseases, which are still ravaging many South Asian countries. The country is held out as an example of a success story in this regard by even the World Health Organization (WHO). As such, we should have succeeded in controlling the epidemic by now.

What went wrong in Sri Lanka, still causing the epidemic to escalate on a daily basis with ever increasing morbidity and mortality? The associations of doctors, other healthcare professionals, and even the laboratory technologists have been giving well considered advice and issuing guidelines to curtail the epidemic. But mostly, such advice appears to have been ignored by the political authorities, taking their own decisions instead. The COVID Control Task Force, being headed by the Army Commander, and the Vaccine Task Force, being under an elderly non-medical administrator, are classic examples of this ignorance. It is obvious that both these positions, as well as a majority of the membership of the task forces, should be held by medical professionals. The initial apparent success was hailed by politicians taking full credit, leading to them doing well at the elections. Most such decisions were directed at increasing the popularity of those in power or financial gain for people close to them. This has led to much bungling in decision-making, summarily listed below.

1. Health regulations were not strictly enforced . There was an escalation of the number of cases soon afterwards.

Health regulations were not strictly enforced during the general election last year.

2. The controversy on disposal of dead bodies; the scientifically correct decision to allow burial was taken by the politicians only after much heartburn of the community and even humiliation in the international scene.

3. Allowing and openly promoting unproven native medication, making the people ignore public health guidelines.

4. Conducting the Lanka Premier League (LPL) cricket tournament in Hambantota, bringing in players from countries with a roaring epidemic. One of the players found to be PCR positive then is alleged, though without proof, to have brought in the UK variant of the virus.

5. Entertaining tourists from Ukraine, where authorities had no control over the fast spreading disease. It is an open question whether the quarantine procedures were properly implemented. Same mistake is being made now, with Indians being allowed to come in for so called quarantining purposes. It is well known that the financial interests of acolytes took precedence over the health of the people.

6. Messing up the vaccination process. Notwithstanding the somewhat unforeseen situation in India, timely action should have been taken to obtain adequate supplies of approved vaccines. The authorities appeared to depend on the donation of an unapproved vaccine from a friendly country. The priority list for vaccination was disrupted, thus exhausting the supplies of the vaccine. As a result, only an insignificant proportion of the people have received the first dose, with no guarantee of the second.

7. Allowing free movement of people during the festivals, largely ignoring recommended preventive guidelines. These were openly patronised by the kith and kin of the political leaders.

8. In many meetings and other gatherings organised and attended by the politicians at the highest level, scant regard is given for public health precautions.

9. Claiming success until a few weeks ago, and reducing the PCR testing and other measures until caught unawares with a rapidly rising case load.

10. Restriction of movement and isolation of areas is hampered by political interference. This was well illustrated by what happened recently in Piliyandala, where the isolation of the area, on medical advice, was reversed within a few hours at the behest of a political bigwig.

11. All social gatherings were banned a few days ago. However, it was comical how largely attended weddings were allowed for a few days more, obviously to accommodate someone close to the centers of power. Though rumours abound, the beneficiary of this anomaly is still not known for certain.

To what extent the hierarchy in the medical administrators of the Health Ministry contributed to this dismal situation is open to question. The general impression is that they are succumbing to political pressure, without standing their ground. It is widely suspected that even the correct statistics are not divulged to avoid embarrassing the politicians. However, knowing how overpowering the politicians could be, it may be unreasonable to blame the hapless officials doing a thankless job under trying circumstances.

 

SENIOR MEDICAL CONSULTANT

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Opinion

Making O/L English literature more accessible

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In his feature article, titled “Reduce O/Level STRESS”, appearing in The Island of 03 May, Anton Peiris makes a timely intervention to introduce an alternative mathematics course for O/L students, which will be tailored to suit the capacity of a considerable number of students who find the customary mathematics paper too challenging. This is surely a more pragmatic and student-friendly approach, because for the past few years we have been trapped in the split between two extremes: either in support of a pass in math to be made compulsory for all A/L students or the exemption of Arts students from this requirement. “Maths Studies” would be a happy compromise between the two extremes, which would stand in good stead for many O/L students. with a gift for Arts subjects to pursue their goals without math being an undue hindrance or, conversely, its total exemption turning out to be a free license for laxity.

O/L English literature seems to be another subject not available to many students due to at least two reasons: first, the want of qualified teachers and, second, the standards being set too high for the average student, as in the case of math. This deters many students who are not competent enough to meet the high-end demand for “appreciating literary texts” from gaining many other benefits literature would otherwise offer them, if provided as a more watered down package, as in “Maths Studies.” In short, the introduction of a less daunting variant such as “Literature Studies” for the average student, for whom the regular “English Literature” is virtually a taboo, can ensure the same gains “Maths Studies” intends to bring to those less proficient in math.

Such leniency would not be wholly out of tune with the learning outcomes of O/L English Literature, enunciated in the relevant syllabus issued by the NIE, which states:

The national goal of making an informed reader means a critical thinker as well. The learner must be able to appreciate any “well written” book and recognize a “good book” when he sees one. It is a training for life. But the whole enterprise of studying literature has been coloured by non-educational, even non-humanistic objectives. For most students and more for their parents, English literature has become a symbol of prestige, culminating in a fantasy of a distinction pass at the GC.E. (O/L) examination. (http://www.nie.lk/pdffiles/tg/e10tim130.pdf)

This goes to provide at least two good reasons for introducing a less demanding option like “Literature Studies” for the average student. As the latter part of the above paragraph admits, for many students, as well as their parents, studying English literature has become a “symbol of prestige.” This is sad because promoting such snobbery flies in the face of all the lofty ideals contained in the first three sentences, such as making the student well informed, critical and sensitized enough to appreciate good literature, etc. As such, it would not be undesirable, in the least, to aim at moulding a reasonably broadminded and sensitive person, by adjusting the syllabus to focus more on increasing their general awareness of the richness of world literature, without making the study of O/L literature a strenuous exercise of gaining a set of “skills,” which may be more suitable for the purpose of grooming critics rather than making students read for pleasure. Arguably, the emphasis on critical appreciation of the texts might be one reason why the students end up becoming stuck-up, as described in the above passage.

There is no doubt that the regular O/L literature course prepares the student to study literature at the A/Ls – hence the need for its continuation. However, a more student-friendly variant intended for encouraging the average student to read literature, without the unnerving prospect of having to write a critical essay on each of the prescribed texts she has to read, is sure to cultivate the reading habit among students. The performance evaluation defined in the NIE syllabus cited below proves the rigid test-oriented and technical nature of the process:

Appreciation of English literary texts is tested as a component of the G.C.E. (O/L) examination formatively as well as summatively at the end of a two-year course of study. At school level, it is assessed formally at term tests. It is also assessed informally in the classroom using a variety of techniques, both oral and written. Conventionally literature is tested by written examinations. The test items most frequently used are the context question and the critical essay. The context question is more effective since it directly tests the candidate’s familiarity with the texts.

Undoubtedly, a more student-friendly and less formulaic syllabus intended for coaxing the average student to read for pleasure, may ideally minimize the focus on critical writing aspect and the emphasis on a knowledge of the textual mechanics. Instead, such a syllabus may include a prudent selection of interesting biographical details of writers and their famous works, their dominant themes and the relevant social contexts, short samples of texts not intended for critical evaluation but for familiarizing them with various writing forms, etc. – anything that will stimulate the reading habit of the student who may even be encouraged to read the translations in their mother tongue, if time permits.

The most important outcome would be to make them keen readers. The essential fine-tuning with regard to the selection of teaching materials and testing can be done by the syllabus designers and teachers who know the terrain well. Thus, as in the case of math, the modified syllabus of literature would help students who are not adequately proficient to follow the standard literature course, to find a more manageable way of developing a liking for literature.

 

SUSANTHA HEWA

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