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HOW DID THE MPS JUMP THE VACCINE QUEUE?

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by Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was so typical! None were too surprised when it was announced in the media that the 225 Members of Parliament (MP’s) were to be vaccinated against Covid19 ahead of many others whose exposure to the virus was significantly higher. A photograph of a government minister vaccinated at the Army Hospital was published in the media before this announcement. A few erstwhile cabinet colleagues justified this by saying the Minister had twice served quarantine time due to some of his close contacts being infected with Covid19. The presumption is that the Minister was unable to carry out his duties whilst being in quarantine?

I was somewhat surprised but delighted that the Host of Derana TV programme “360 degrees” decided to robustly question the youthful Deputy Minister of Health of Viyathmaga fame. Several questions were posed to the Minister seeking justification as to why the MP’s had jumped the vaccine queue. The Deputy Minister looked like a “deer caught in the headlights.” For once, a Minister looked embarrassed and gave the viewers the impression that he, too, did not believe what he was saying! It seems that not many MP’s have availed of the vaccine at the time of writing this article. Are we to believe that they have developed a conscience, or are they running scared of getting the jab?

It was only last week that a good friend of mine lamented that his wife, a doctor at a private hospital, had not been offered the vaccine yet. Ever since the pandemic commenced in March 2020, he has been worried that his wife might contract the virus while attending to her patients and inadvertently infect the family. He was anxious because his elderly parents, too, were living with him. I read a news report that the government has now decided to offer the vaccine to those working exclusively in private hospitals. I am somewhat surprised that they were not included in the initial group of frontline workers vaccinated. Those working in private hospitals and medical practice perform a commendable service and undoubtedly fill a massive vacuum in the country’s health service due to the poorly funded government hospitals.

I noticed from daily news updates that the number of vaccinations administered was relatively high in the first few days. After that, it gradually declined, and it was averaging about 1,500. The curve depicting the daily administration of people getting vaccinated took a sharp downturn. In most other countries it continues an upward trend. This was the case until the controversial decision to allow the MP’s to jump the queue was announced and the resultant negative publicity.

Now it seems various people from garbage collectors to fish vendors are being offered the vaccine. It begs the question of whether the government and the health ministry have a properly laid down criteria as to who should be vaccinated and in what order? In other countries, after the frontline health workers, the next on the priority list were people aged over 80 years and then came those over 70 years etc. Based on feedback received from friends living in both the UK and USA, the initial criteria is being adhered to.

Recently, the State Ministry of Primary Health Care, Epidemics and Covid Disease Control launched a website to enable those interested in getting the vaccine to get registered. Fortunately, I was able to register myself but within the next hour or so the website crashed. There is now a message saying the website is currently being updated and will be available shortly. I don’t think that the website was in operation for more than a few hours. A reflection of poor conceptualization and execution. Need we say more?.

We received 500,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured in India as a gift from the Indian government. According to newspaper reports, the Chinese government is also to donate 300,000 doses of a Chinese vaccine. Since the initial announcement, there have been no further updates. It is also reported that a purchase order for 18 million doses of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine from the Indian manufacturer has been placed by the State Pharmaceutical Corporation (CPC). No dates have been announced as to when at least the first consignment would arrive in the country. According to news reports, even the Attorney Generals Department had got involved in vetting the purchase agreement, and certain changes have been recommended. Invariably, these issues lead to delays, and many countries are scrambling to get their quotas. In such a scenario, manufacturers are not too amenable to change clauses in standard agreements. We must hope that no further delays will be encountered.

In some countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, there are concrete moves to allow the vaccine’s retail sale to those who wish to pay. In my view, this is a sensible move as those who can afford to pay and get the vaccine should be able to do so. I know that my perspective may be criticized by some saying that money should not be a criterion for getting the vaccine. We have had this same argument about the merits of private education. I and many thousands have seen our children benefit from private education. Even those who attend government schools pay for “tuition”, without which it seems none of our children will pass their examinations. So, the concept of paying for education is well entrenched.

I understand that several large organizations in the private sector are keen to import the vaccine at their cost through the local agents and offer them to their staff. This is a very sensible and laudable initiative given that both our manufacturing and the service industry need to be operated continuously. I am certain this is critical to the garment industry that exports and need to meet very tight deadlines. Given the proximity of the staff working in the manufacturing line, these workers should be vaccinated as soon as possible. These are export industries earning much needed foreign exchange and should not be overlooked. The government is short of funds and why the private sector has still not been allowed to import the vaccine at their cost for the staff is anybody’s guess.

Sri Lanka has so far approved only the AstraZeneca vaccine. It seems additional data is required with regards to a Chinese and a Russian vaccine. Pakistan has so far approved four vaccines. Unnecessary procrastination by the authorities will delay the recovery of the struggling economy and, notably, death due to the Covid19.

I have followed the global vaccination statistics with much interest. The state of Israel has been the best example. They have, to date, vaccinated over 75% of their population of nine million. Their approach has been exemplary and is a result of great initiative, planning and determination to resurrect the economy.

They claimed that they signed up with Pfizer for the vaccine supply long before many other countries did. There has been some speculation that they may have paid a slightly higher price for the vaccines, but this has not caused much controversy. The people of Israel understand the benefit of early vaccinations. The government has gone all out to ensure that the project would work like clockwork. The much-maligned Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu recently said that he spoke to Pfizer’s CEO on 21 occasions to secure the vaccine! Just imagine! It just about sums up what single-minded determination can achieve, and the guy certainly in my books is a visionary.

I read a Reuters report describing how a bar in Israel, designated as a vaccination site, has offered free non-alcoholic drinks to customers who agree to the take vaccine! The bar owner justified his marketing strategy by saying that lockdowns and social distancing restrictions have impacted his business significantly and that he is keen to promote the vaccination roll-out to see an end to the pandemic to get back to business as usual. I can imagine the controversy that such an initiative would cause in our country!

The initial data coming out of both Israel and the United Kingdom, where the vaccination programme has been proceeding smoothly, is very encouraging. According to the first real-world data, a recent news report states, “Vaccines appear to cut Covid transmissions and infections by two-thirds.” This is based on limited studies conducted in both these counties.

I am sure many of us would agree that using 225 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to safeguard our hard-working MP’s will not make a difference in terms of the overall vaccine strategy of our country. However, the optics do not look correct. It is said that a vital feature of a legitimate justice system is not only must justice be done, but it must be seen to be done. I think we can extend the same logic to the free of charge vaccination programme of the government.

 

 



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Port City Bill Requires Referendum

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by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne,PC

The Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill was presented in Parliament on 08 April 2021, while the country was getting ready to celebrate the traditional New Year. With the intervening weekend and public holidays, citizens had just two working days to retain lawyers, many of whom were on vacation, and file applications challenging the constitutionality of the Bill in the Supreme Court within the one-week period stipulated in the Constitution. One wonders whether the timing was deliberate.

Special economic zones are common. They are created mainly to attract foreign investments. In return, investors are offered various concessions so that their products are competitive in the global market. Several negative effects of such zones have also been highlighted. The sole purpose of this article, however, is a discussion on the constitutionality of the Bill.

The Bill seeks to establish a high-powered Commission entrusted with the administration, regulation and control of all matters connected with businesses and other operations in and from the Colombo Port City. It may lease land situated in the Colombo Port City area and even transfer freehold ownership of condominium parcels. It operates as a Single Window Investment Facilitator for proposed investments into the Port City. It would exercise the powers and functions of any applicable regulatory authority under any written law and obtain the concurrence of the relevant regulatory authority, which shall, as a matter of priority, provide such concurrence to the Commission. The discretion and powers of such other authorities under the various laws shall thus stand removed.

The Commission consists of five members who need not be Sri Lankan citizens, quite unlike the Urban Development Authority, the Board of Management of which must comprise Sri Lankan citizens only. One issue that arises is that the vesting of such powers upon persons with loyalties to other countries, especially superpowers, would undermine the free, sovereign, and independent status of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 1 of our Constitution. It would also impinge on the sovereignty of the People of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 3 read with Article 4.

The removal of the discretionary powers of the various regulatory authorities is arbitrary and violative of the right to equal protection of the law guaranteed by Article 12 (1).

Under Clause 25, only persons authorized by the Commission can engage in business in the Port City. Clause 27 requires that all investments be in foreign currency only. What is worse is that even foreign currency deposited in an account in a Sri Lankan bank cannot be used for investment. Thus, Sri Lankans cannot invest in the Port City using Sri Lankan rupees; neither can they use foreign currency that they legally have in Sri Lanka. The above provisions are clearly arbitrary and discriminatory of Sri Lankans and violate equality and non-discrimination guaranteed by Article 12. They also violate the fundamental right to engage in business guaranteed by Article 14 (1) (g).

Under clause 35, any person, whether a resident or a non-resident, may be employed within the Port City and such employee shall be remunerated in a designated foreign currency, other than in Sri Lanka rupees. Such employment income shall be exempt from income tax. Clause 36 provides that Sri Lankan rupees accepted within the Port City can be converted to foreign currency. Under clause 40, Sri Lankans may pay for goods, services, and facilities in Sri Lankan rupees but would be required to pay a levy for goods taken out of the Port City, as if s/he were returning from another country! The mere repetition of phrases such as ‘in the interests of the national economy’ throughout the Bill like a ‘mantra’ does not bring such restrictions within permissible restrictions set out in Article 15.

Clause 62 requires that all disputes involving the Commission be resolved through arbitration. The jurisdiction of Sri Lankan courts is thus ousted.

In any legal proceedings instituted on civil and commercial matters, where the cause of action has arisen within the Port City or in relation to any business carried on in or from the Port City, Clause 63 requires Sri Lankan courts to give such cases priority and hear them speedily on a day-to-day basis to ensure their expeditious disposal.

The inability of an Attorney-at-Law to appear before the court even for personal reasons, such as sickness, shall not be a ground for postponement. These provisions are arbitrary and violate Article 12.

Clause 73 provides that several Sri Lankan laws listed in Schedule III would have no application within the Port City. Such laws include the Urban Development Authority Act, Municipal Councils Ordinance, and the Town and Country Planning Ordinance. Under Clauses 52 and 53, exemptions may be granted by the Commission from several laws of Sri Lanka, including the Inland Revenue Act, Betting and Gaming Levy Act, Foreign Exchange Act, and the Customs Ordinance.

The Commission being empowered to grant exemptions from Sri Lankan laws undermines the legislative power of the People and of Parliament and violates Articles 3 and Article 4 (c) of the Constitution.

Several matters dealt with by the Bill come under the Provincial Councils List. They include local government, physical planning, and betting and gaming. Article 154G (3) requires that such a Bill be referred to Provincial Councils for their views. As Provincial Councils are not currently constituted, passage by a two-thirds majority will be necessary in the absence of the consent of the Provincial Councils.

The exclusion of the Municipal Councils Ordinance from the Port City area is not possible under the Constitution. When the Greater Colombo Economic Commission was sought to be established in 1978 under the 1972 Constitution, a similar exclusion was held by the Constitutional Court not to be arbitrary. Since then, under the Thirteenth Amendment under the 1978 Constitution, local government has been given constitutional recognition and included under the Provincial Council List. Under the present constitutional provisions, therefore, the Port City cannot be excluded from laws on local government.

The writer submits that in the above circumstances, the Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill requires to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and approved by the People at a Referendum. Quite apart from the constitutional issues that arise, such an important piece of proposed legislation needs to be widely discussed. It is best that the Bill is referred to a Parliamentary Committee before which the public, as well as citizens’ organizations and experts in the related fields, could make their submissions.

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Investigative Journalism?

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I usually end up totally exhausted when I finish reading the local newspapers from the Pearl. There are so many burning questions and so much is written about them but there are no conclusions and definitely no answers. For example, we seem to have three burning issues right now and this is not in order of importance.

We have a lengthy report that has been published on the Easter Sunday carnage. Everybody knows what I am talking about. However, no one, be it an editor, a paid journalist or a single one of the many amateurs who write to the papers, has reached a conclusion or even expressed an opinion as to who was responsible. At least not a believable one! Surely there are energetic and committed young people in the field of journalism today who, if asked, or directed properly will go out and find a source that would give them at least a credible hypothesis? Or do conclusions exist and has no one the courage to publish them?

At least interview the authors or should I use the word perpetrators of that report. If they refuse to be interviewed ask them why and publish an item every day asking them why! Once you get a hold of them, cross-examine them, trap them into admissions and have no mercy. It is usually geriatrics who write these reports in the Pearl and surely a bright young journalist can catch them out with a smart question or two, or at least show us that they tried? The future of the country depends on it!

We have allegations of contaminated coconut oil been imported. These are very serious allegations and could lead to much harm to the general populace. Do you really believe that no one can find out who the importers are and what brands they sell their products under? In this the Pearl, where everyone has a price, you mean to say that if a keen young journalist was given the correct ammunition (and I don’t mean 45 calibres) and sent out on a specific message, he or she couldn’t get the information required?

We are told that a massive amount of money has been printed over the last few months. There is only speculation as to the sums involved and even more speculation as to what this means to the people of the Pearl. Surely, there are records, probably guarded by extremely lowly paid government servants. I am not condoning bribery but there is nothing left to condone, is there? There are peons in government ministries who will gladly slip you the details if you are committed enough and if you are sent there to get it by a boss who will stand by you and refuse to disclose his sources.

I put it to you, dear readers, that we do not have enough professional, committed and adequately funded news organisations in the country. We can straightaway discount the government-owned joints. We can also largely discount those being run by magnates for personal gain and on personal agendas. As far as the Internet goes, we can forget about those that specialise in speculative and sensationalist untruths, what are we left with O denizens of the Pearl? Are there enough sources of news that you would consider willing to investigate a matter and risk of life and limb and expose the culprits for the greater good of society? Can they be counted even on the fingers of one hand?

In this era when we have useless political leaders, when law and order are non-existent when the police force is a joke, it is time the fourth estate stepped up to the mark! I am sure we have the personnel; it is the commitment from the top and by this, I mean funding and the willingness to risk life and limb, that we lack. Governments over the last few decades have done their best to intimidate the press and systematically destroy any news outlet that tried to buck the usual sycophantic behaviour that is expected from them by those holding absolute power.

Do you think Richard Nixon would ever have been impeached if not for the Watergate reporting? Donald Trump partially owes his defeat to the unrelenting campaign carried out against him by the “fake news” outlets that he tried to denigrate. Trump took on too much. The fourth estate of America is too strong and too powerful to destroy in a head-to-head battle and even the most powerful man in the world, lost. Let’s not go into the merits and demerits of the victor as this is open to debate.

Now, do we have anything like that in the Pearl? Surely, with 20 million-plus “literate” people, we should? We should have over 70 years of independence built up the Fourth Estate to be proud of. One that would, if it stood strong and didn’t waver and collapse under pressure from the rulers, have ensured a better situation for our land. Here is Aotearoa with just five million people, we have journalists who keep holding the government to account. They are well-funded by newspapers and TV networks with audiences that are only a fraction of what is available in the Pearl. Some of the matters they highlight often bring a smirk of derision to my face for such matters wouldn’t even warrant one single line of newsprint, should they happen in the Pearl.

Talking of intimidation from the rulers, most of us are familiar with the nationalisation of the press, the murder and torture of journalists, the burning of presses to insidious laws been passed to curtail the activities of Journalism. These things have happened in other countries, too, but the people and press have been stronger, and they have prevailed. We are at a watershed, an absolutely crucial time. It is now that our last few credible news sources should lift their game. Give us carefully researched and accurate reports with specific conclusions, not generalisations. Refuse to disclose your sources as is your right, especially now that the myopic eye of the UNHCR is turned in our direction.

All other ways and means of saving our beloved motherland, be it government, religion, sources of law and order and even civil society leadership seems to have lapsed into the realm of theory and rhetoric. Our last chance lies with the Fourth Esate and all it stands for. I call for, nay BEG for, a favourable reaction from those decision-makers in that field, who have enough credibility left in society, DON’T LET US DOWN NOW!

 

 

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The world sees ugly side of our beauty pageants

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Yes, it’s still the talk-of-the-town…not only here, but the world over – the fracas that took place at a recently held beauty pageant, in Colombo.

It’s not surprising that the local beauty scene has hit a new low because, in the past, there have been many unpleasant happenings taking place at these so-called beauty pageants.

On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.

My suggestions, obviously, have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the end result – our beauty pageants have become the laughing stock the world over; talk show hosts are creating scenes, connected with the recent incidents, to amuse their audience.

Australians had the opportunity of enjoying this scenario, so did folks in Canada – via talk show hosts, discussing our issue, and bringing a lot of fun, and laughter, into their discussions!

Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants.

And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.

I was witnessed to one such incident where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.

There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.

But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.

When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, her sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.

Come on, they are no babes!

On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.

It never happened and she had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.

Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.

The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice was crowned the winner.

The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.

I’m also told there are organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.

Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!

Right now, in spite of the pandemic, that is crippling the whole world, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!

Are the organisers adhering to the Covid-19 health guidelines? No way. Every rule is disregarded.

The recently-held contest saw the contestants, on the move, for workshops, etc., with no face masks, and no social distancing.

They were even seen in an open double-decker bus, checking out the city of Colombo…with NO FACE MASKS.

Perhaps, the instructions given by Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, mean nothing to the organisers of these beauty pageants…in this pandemic setting.

My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy.

For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.

In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’

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