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Editorial

Herd immunity and lockdown

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Thursday 15th October, 2020

It looks as if the world had been left with no alternative but to learn to live with coronavirus, which shows no signs of going away anytime soon, until a vaccine is found. The task of producing a vaccine is likely to take longer than expected.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned against pursuing herd immunity, which is said to come about when a pandemic is allowed to spread freely until everyone is infected. The proponents of this controversial approach are some western nations which did not care to take any precautions at the early stages of the pandemic, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths. The WHO says this approach is ‘unethical’, and herd immunity is something to be achieved not by exposing people to the disease but by protecting them against it. The way some countries have sought to gain herd immunity is not only unethical but also criminal, one may say, given the sheer number of lives lost due to their failed experiment. Those who pursued herd immunity, the wrong way, have wised up, at last.

The WHO has also highlighted the ill-effects of lockdowns, which many countries hastened to impose at the early stages of the pandemic. It has said, “Lockdowns just have one consequence that you must never ever belittle; and that is making the poor people an awful lot poorer.” The poor were the worst hit during lockdowns, as we saw a few moons ago, here, but lockdowns also reduced many middle-income earners to penury. These are the socio-economic costs of lockdowns, and they have made governments fight shy of re-imposing them or resort to them selectively as a pis aller, the way Sri Lanka has done in dealing with the latest wave of infections.

The WHO says it does not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of controlling COVID-19. Dr. David Nabarro, WHO Special Envoy for COVID-19, has gone on record as saying, “The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganise, regroup, rebalance your resources, protect your health workers who are exhausted, but by and large, we’d rather not do it.” What the WHO has left unsaid is that we have to employ other methods such as quarantine and physical distancing to combat the virus if we are to prevail.

Sri Lanka apparently got its act together, during protracted lockdowns and quarantine curfews, thanks to the health workers, the military, the police, and the political leadership. It succeeded in preventing the healthcare system being overwhelmed and reduced infections to a bare minimum. That was no mean achievement for a developing country. But those gains were lost a couple of months later due to complacency, and now the country is reeling from a resurgence of infections. Desperate attempts are being made again to contain the virus with lockdowns and curfews in areas with surging case loads. The garment factory cluster of infections has been blamed on a group of workers brought here from India. It is also believed that infections had been spreading, for about two months before being detected thanks to a recent random PCR test on a garment worker at a government hospital.

Besides the threat of a tidal wave of COVID-19 ripping through the country, lockdowns and curfews in some parts of the Western Province have caused a huge loss to the economy now in tatters. It must, therefore, be found out whether there is any truth in the claim that the aforesaid workers were not properly quarantined upon their arrival here. If it can be proved that they triggered the present wave of infections, those responsible for bringing them here must be made to bear the cost of the ongoing operations to contain the disease.

Punishing those who endanger the lives of the public and cause losses to the country will make others act responsibly while the country is struggling to deal with an increasing case load. After all, the government has introduced laws to fine and even imprison those who violate the anti-COVID-19 health regulations.



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Editorial

Thugs and porters

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Saturday 18th May, 2024

Lessons that the 2022 mass uprising provided have gone unlearnt if the ruling party politicians’ unruly behaviour is anything to go by. Those who went into hiding fearing aggressive mobs that pursued them have crawled out of the woodwork; they are exuding hubris and flexing their muscles, again. Old habits are said to die hard.

State Minister Prasanna Ranaweera (SLPP) has incurred much public opprobrium for slapping a baggage handler at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA). He is seen in a video, which is doing the rounds on social media, roughing up the worker in full view of others.

He has sought to justify his violence by claiming that he accompanied his wife to the BIA, and the porter concerned refused to accept Rs. 700 for carrying her bags and demanded Rs. 1,000 instead. He has said he lost his temper but did not do anything other than giving the baggage handler a piece of his mind. However, the video clip belies his claim.

So, a thundering slap across his face was what the BIA worker got for demanding Rs. 300 more! This incident reminds us of the 1980 general strike, which a collective of trade unions launched, demanding that state workers be paid Rs. 300 more each per mensem. The then UNP government sacked tens of thousands of strikers, and issued a dire warning that the ‘elephant’ (meaning the UNP) had only swung its trunk.

The workers who lost their jobs demanded justice, which was never served. Similarly, the BIA worker who asked for Rs. 300 more and became a victim of a member of the SLPP-UNP government has been denied justice. He has not been able to have the police act against State Minister Ranaweera, according to media reports. Maybe the police are scared of confronting Ranaweera for fear of being assaulted or coming under a chilli powder attack.

A few weeks ago, the police swung into action, after watching a social media video where a fast food vendor is seen scolding a foreigner in Colombo, and arrested the culprit in double quick time. They did not wait for a complaint to be made. But that kind of high-octane performance was sadly lacking on the part of the police over Tuesday’s incident. Will they explain why they did not arrest Ranaweera?

That said, it needs to be added that the BIA porters, save a few, are a law unto themselves. They fleece passengers with impunity. They have the audacity to demand payment in foreign currency. Passengers have no one to turn to and therefore suffer in silence.

The BIA will have to be given a radical shake-up if Sri Lanka is to improve its image and promote tourism. However, nobody should be allowed to go about slapping and kicking baggage handlers. What is needed is disciplinary and/or legal action against them.

State Minister Ranaweera must be made to face the full force of the law for assaulting the BIA worker. He has a violent disposition as evident from his involvement in fisticuffs in Parliament, especially during the 52-day government in 2018. He was one of the pro-Rajapaksa MPs who wreaked havoc on the House, and even threatened Speaker Karu Jayasuriya with bodily harm, and attacked the police inside the chamber.

Similarly, action should be taken against the porters who are a nuisance to passengers at the BIA and disgrace to the entire country.

The ruling party politicians seem to think they are out of danger and can do as they please. But let them be warned that public resentment is welling up, and they might have to head for the hills again unless they learn from the 2022 political upheavals and mend their ways.

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Editorial

Multiple whammies for democracy

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Friday 17th May, 2024

A government move to set up ad hoc community level advisory committees to handle election-oriented development work, etc., has run into stiff resistance. Its plan to appoint former SLPP and UNP local councillors to the outfits to be established has gone awry due to a legal snag.

There is hardly anything that a sinking regime does not do to retain its hold on power and avoid disastrous electoral defeats. The incumbent SLPP-UNP dispensation may have thought that it had been able to safeguard its interests by postponing the Local Government (LG) polls, which it did not want to face for fear of suffering a crippling electoral setback, but now it now finds itself in a bind.

Political parties are dependent on their local councillors to mobilise grassroots support for them. Most LG members elected in 2018 were from the SLPP and the UNP, and they cannot take part in election campaigns at present as they are still candidates although the LG polls have been put off. This is not a situation the government bargained for.

Hence its efforts to cancel the nominations for the LG polls in limbo and clear the way for the participation of their former local councillors in political work and their appointment to the so-called advisory committees in the works. Its trial balloon in the form of a ministerial statement that it is contemplating the cancellation of the LG nominations has provoked a howl of protests and given rise to a legal issue.

Nominations for an election cannot be cancelled simply at the stroke of a pen although the government seems convinced otherwise. President Ranil Wickremesinghe cut the Gordian knot when it became legally difficult for the government to postpone the LG polls; the government claimed that it could not allocate funds for an election at the height of an economic crisis because it had to prioritise the task of making essential goods and services available to the public over everything else. The SLPP and the UNP seem to think they can surmount the legal hurdle pertaining to the LG polls nominations in a similar manner.

Former Chairman of the Election Commission Mahinda Deshapriya has recently told the media that the LG nominations at issue can be cancelled only by Parliament, and a bill seeking their cancellation can be challenged before the Supreme Court. The government can muster a parliamentary majority for such a bill, but that will be politically counterproductive. The Opposition has pointed out that one billion rupees spent on the nomination process will go down the gurgler in such an eventuality. Thus, it will not be a walk in the park for the government to cancel the LG nominations.

Meanwhile, some government politicians have questioned the eligibility of Mujibur Rahman, who handed in his nomination for Colombo mayoral candidate, to be a member of Parliament. He resigned from Parliament to run for Colombo Mayor and submitted his nomination, but the LG polls were postponed. Government politicians are of the view that there is no legal provision for the resignation of candidates after the submission of nominations, and therefore Rahman’s appointment to Parliament via the National List can be challenged legally. It will be interesting to see whether this argument is valid.

Sri Lanka is facing an unprecedented situation, which is the antithesis of democracy. An unelected President is controlling all three tiers of government—something that even elected Presidents failed to do. President Wickremesinghe has Parliament under his thumb; the Provincial Councils and the Local Government authorities stand dissolved and are therefore under the Governors appointed by the President.

It is against this backdrop that the government’s efforts to establish a parallel local administration in the form of community level advisory committees should be viewed. If the government succeeds in its endeavour with its former local councillors serving in the outfits to be set up to compass its ends, democracy will suffer another whammy.

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Editorial

Vroom mania

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Thursday 16th May, 2024

The Parliament of Sri Lanka can hardly have a sitting without its members resorting to slanging matches and even coming to blows. They seldom see eye to eye on anything of national importance. But they readily sink their differences and work as one to further their own interests and safeguard their privileges. The government has reportedly decided to grant the MPs duty-free vehicle permits (DFVPs) while the people are struggling to meet their basic needs.

Never do the self-righteous MPs miss an opportunity to harangue public officials on the need to manage state funds frugally in view of the current economic crisis. A few weeks ago, they tore into the Central Bank employees over a triennial pay hike, which, they said, was unconscionably high. Their rhetoric and diatribe may have resonated with the irate public. Speaking in Parliament the other day, President Ranil Wickremesinghe said in no uncertain terms that the public sector workers must not expect pay increases this year as the government was without sufficient funds. The Local Government elections have been postponed on the grounds that funds cannot be allocated for them. Curiously, never do such pecuniary woes of the government stand in the way of the MPs enhancing their perks and leading the high life.

The MPs consider themselves ‘more equal’ than others and therefore they are likely to find ways and means of circumventing the rules and regulations that prevent the import of vehicles for private use. The superrich are known to have deep pockets when it comes to brand-new super luxury vehicles, which they cannot import at present. They will pay many times the market prices of such vehicles, and the MPs will be able to make a killing if they are allowed to import duty-free vehicles.

A group of civil society activists held a protest opposite the Presidential Secretariat, yesterday, against the government’s decision to issue DFVPs to the MPs. The police disrupted their agitation, and they had to go whence they had come after handing over a petition to a presidential aide. Their voice, we believe, is representative of all Sri Lankans who are struggling to keep the wolf from the door. Most people cannot even afford bus fares, which have been jacked up, but the MPs are given DFVPs and other perks.

A camel, in one of Aesop’s fables, empties its bowels while walking in a stream, and seeing its dung racing past it, it wonders how come what should be behind it is going ahead of it. Sri Lankans must be thinking likewise when they see the politicians they elect zing past them in luxury vehicles.

Sri Lanka, which has resorted to a debt default, must stop pampering the MPs who are leading whiskey lifestyles on the country’s toddy income. Their perks, which cost the taxpayer an arm and a leg, will make their counterparts in the developed world green with envy. The members of the present parliament cannot absolve themselves of responsibility for the current economic crisis, which did not come about overnight; the signs of it had been felt for a long time, and Parliament should have used its powers to ensure that remedial measures were adopted. So, its members are without any moral right to receive DFVPs.

The law that provides for the sale of DFVPs immediately after their issuance must be abolished; previously, it was illegal to transfer DFVPs before five years from the dates of their issuance. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government legalised that unlawful practice. The status quo ante must be restored.

Politicians had better stop testing the people’s patience, which is wearing thin.

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