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Editorial

How to stop begging for vaccines

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Friday 2nd April, 2021

The government would have the public believe that a possible delay in Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine imports from India will not affect the ongoing vaccination drive here; there are enough doses for the booster shots, it says. Large stocks of Covid-19 vaccines are arriving from China and Russia. Will the government tell us to get the Chinese/Russian vaccines if Oxford-AstraZeneca jab is not available?

Our vaccine woes are of our own making. Time was when we met out vaccine needs thanks to the Medical Research Institute (MRI). The British may be blamed for many things, but their rule was not without any benefits for this country. The MRI is a case in point. They established it as one of the best medical research outfits in the region, and Sri Lanka was able to produce vaccines until about 1980.

President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science, Ravi Kumudesh, has been quoted by this newspaper as saying that at present the MRI cannot even test imported vaccines properly let alone produce them. The only thing the MRI is capable of doing is to test labels of the phials of vaccines, Kumudesh has said, adding that it is a task that can be done in an ordinary office. His claim has gone unchallenged.

Successive governments, whose leaders never miss an opportunity to wax eloquent on their contribution to what they call national progress, have neglected the MRI. If they had cared to continue with the good work of the British and develop the MRI, we would not have had to go begging for COVID-19 vaccines, and perhaps we would have been able to make a significant contribution to the world’s war on the virus by producing quality vaccines.

The pandemic will not go away, and the world will have to learn to live with it, experts warn. Nobody knows what other epidemics or pandemics the world will have to contend with, in time to come. Sri Lanka, therefore, had better do everything in its power to prevent itself from being at the mercy of other nations for its vaccine needs as far as possible. The need to revitalise the MRI, therefore, cannot be overemphasised.

The Jayewardenepura University lab, which was established to conduct dengue-related experiments, is now doing what the MRI should be doing in respect of coronavirus. It has acquired the Next Generation Sequencing technology to identify the variants of the runaway virus. If the J’pura lab can do so, why can’t the MRI? This is the question that the government ought to answer. Funds for acquiring technologies necessary for the country’s battle against COVID-19 will not be a problem. The government can curtail the cost of maintaining ministers and other politicians; if some of the V-8s or other such super luxury vehicles placed at the disposal of the ruling party grandees are disposed of, funds for developing the MRI will not be a problem. Or, the international lending institutions are sure to fund such projects because they know that, as the WHO has wisely said about the current pandemic and global health, no country will be safe until every country is safe. Will the government explain why it has not cared to equip the MRI properly and tap its full potential for the benefit of the country?

What is urgently needed is to develop the MRI as a premier medical research facility in keeping with its forgotten mission and vision so that the country will not be dependent entirely on other nations for its vaccine needs. This task requires a radical shake-up of the MRI and the reorientation of its focus, which is currently on medical testing, which can be left to other health institutions such as hospitals.

The incumbent government is sparing no pains to promote the domestic production of turmeric of all things. The question is why it is not making a similar effort to develop the MRI to resume vaccine production. Retracing our steps to find what went wrong with this vital institution is half the battle in developing it to meet the present-day challenges.



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Editorial

A pig in a poke?

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Tuesday 18th May, 2021

The government is all out to rush the Port City Economic Commission Bill (PCECB) through Parliament amidst a howl of protest from the Opposition, which insists that there should be ample time for it to be discussed extensively both in and outside Parliament. The Supreme Court decision thereon is scheduled to be announced in the House, today. One cannot but agree that there should be enough time for any bill to be debated before being put to the vote in Parliament. Haste is to be avoided when laws that affect future generations are made.

Sri Lankan leaders have the habit of making bad laws whenever they happen to obtain two-thirds majorities in Parliament. It is one thing to steamroller constitutional amendments or any other bills through the House, but making them workable is quite another, as is our experience. Judicial sanction and parliamentary majorities, special or otherwise, do not necessarily make a piece of legislation good and widely acceptable.

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution received the judicial nod and a two-thirds majority, but it was rotten to the core and antithetical to democracy. It became the undoing of the previous Rajapaksa regime. The same is true of the 20th Amendment, which is already having a corrosive effect on the incumbent government’s popularity. The 19th Amendment with several salutary features also led to confusion, if not chaos, with the President and the Prime Minister being at each other’s jugular, under the UNF government (2015-19), because it was made in a hurry, and calls for sensible changes thereto went unheeded. The 13th Amendment (13A) is another case in point.

In fact, a constitutional amendment seeking to devolve state power within a unitary state should have been approved by the people at a referendum besides being ratified by a two-thirds majority in Parliament. But the J. R. Jayewardene government, on whose watch the official residences of Supreme Court judges were stoned, managed to secure the passage of 13A with only a special majority, and plunged the country into a bloodbath and created a never-ending problem. The Provincial Council system not only failed to be a solution to the armed conflict but also became a white elephant, but Sri Lanka cannot do anything about it due to external pressure; this situation has come about because 13A was introduced in a hurry to humour India. The PCECB is aimed at pleasing China and could be equally problematic unless carefully studied and rid of certain provisions that are disadvantageous to this country.

Neither the government nor the Opposition has a leg to stand on anent some of their key arguments for and against the PCECB, respectively. The SLPP, true to form, is trying to make a molehill out of a mountain, so to speak, and the Opposition is doing it the other way around. Those who have put forth sensible arguments for and against the PCECB and sought to educate the public on the vital issue can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The public is confused. It is a case of a pig in a poke for them. Hence the need for more time for a public discussion on the PCECB! It will be a fatal mistake for the government to rush the controversial bill through Parliament in the hope that the issues it has given rise to will fizzle out in time to come.

It is popularly said that Sri Lankans have a woefully short memory span. True, in this country, all vital issues get forgotten fast. (Nobody is talking about the sugar tax fraud any longer!) But serious issues do not go away; they are like algae, which thrive unnoticed, in the Diyawanna Lake affected by eutrophication, and develop into a stinking bloom with the passage of time. Governments that take them for granted ask for trouble.

Most of all, Sri Lanka will make an irrevocable commitment through the PCECB, which will become a fait accompli when made law, and the government had better tread cautiously and work with the Opposition and independent experts to ensure that the interests of the country and generations to come will not be in jeopardy.

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Editorial

Mendicancy, rhetoric and sovereignty

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Monday 17th May, 2021

Much is being spoken about Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independence, these days, owing to the controversial Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill, scheduled to be taken up in Parliament shortly. We are not short of political leaders who never miss an opportunity to wrap themselves in the flag and declare their readiness even to lay down their dear lives for the sake of the country. While this kind display of patriotism is on, the Attorney General’s Department last week inaugurated a training centre and launched an electronic system to trace cases and legal files, as we reported on Saturday. Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC, has described the project, carried out with US support, as ‘another first in the 136-year history of the AG’s Department’. What have the patriots in both the government and the Opposition been doing all these years? They boast of having made a tremendous contribution to national progress, but the AG’s Department cannot have a training centre and a tracking system set up without foreign help!

US assistance at issue will, no doubt, go a long way towards helping the AG’s Department function efficiently, and should, therefore, be appreciated. But the question is whether the US taxpayer should be made to bear the cost of such projects here while the so-called leaders of Sri Lanka are wasting public funds, amassing wealth and living in clover. Their super luxury vehicle fleets alone have cost the state coffers billions of rupees, and the funds for the entire AG’s Department project could easily have been raised if a couple of their V-8s had been auctioned.

On the other hand, there is no such thing as a free lunch, especially when it comes to financial assistance from countries such as the US and China. Not even commercial loans are free from strings if the constricting aid conditions the internal lending agencies impose on this country are any indication. Hence the need for the State with a bunch of self-declared patriots at the levers of power to bear the costs of vital projects at least in crucial sectors such as justice.

The present-day Sri Lankan leaders, wearing their brand of patriotism on the sleeve, find themselves in a huge contradiction. They condemn the US, at every turn, for meddling with Sri Lanka’s internal affairs and telling them how to handle alleged atrocities during the final phase of Eelam war IV in 2009. They are also opposing the ACSA (Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement) and SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) tooth and nail as a Trojan horse from the US, but they have had no qualms about being servilely dependent on US funds for a project, which, Washington says, will ‘strengthen the ability of justice sector professionals to uphold the rule of law in Sri Lanka’.

Are the Sri Lankan leaders genuinely interested in promoting any project aimed at upholding the rule of law? If the rule of law is ever restored, how can they remain above the law and help the lower-rung lawbreakers, including killers and fraudsters in the garb of MPs, give Justitia the slip? Several rogues have already got away with their crimes by virtue of being in power.

Attorney General de Livera has said the aforesaid US-funded project is a notable, salutary achievement that meets a long-felt need for continuous learning and professional development, and will drive his department ‘from strength to strength’. If only that task had been accomplished with Sri Lanka’s own funds.

Computers used in Parliament have been sponsored by China, whose interests the current government is all out to further, through the Port City Bill, which the Opposition has condemned as a total sell-out. (Will Parliament be able to have the polluted Diyawanna lake around it cleaned without foreign assistance?)

In the House, the MPs often bellow anti-Chinese or anti-American rhetoric with gusto and call for safeguarding the country’s sovereignty and independence! One wonders why on earth these shameless worthies who have taken turns to ruin the economy and line their pockets with public funds should have their clothes on when they go ballistic, berating foreign forces that, they say, are bent on jeopardising the interests of this country.

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Editorial

Unmasked by virus

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Saturday 15th May, 2021

Coronavirus has both masked and unmasked the world, paradoxical as it may sound. It has frightened all humans into masking up and laid bare the true nature of global powers. The pandemic situation has somewhat improved in the rich countries, at long last, thanks to aggressive vaccination drives, but Covid-19 is surging in other parts of the world for want of vaccines, resources and proper political leadership, among other things.

International human rights organisations have expressed serious concern about the plight of the voiceless amidst the global health emergency. Amnesty International (AI) has called upon all States to remain focused on protecting the human rights of the marginalised and vulnerable groups at high risk, such as daily wage earners, prisoners, refugees and the internally displaced. Even when there are no health crises, the aforesaid sections of society, especially in the developing world, find themselves at a disadvantage; their voices and grievances go unheeded. They face a double whammy when health crises occur. The interventions of international human rights groups to have the rights and interests of the voiceless safeguarded are, therefore, most welcome. But these influential outfits must also address issues such as the inequitable vaccine distribution in the world, and the developed nations’ vaccine nationalism, which has put paid to the World Health Organization’s efforts to carry out an effective inoculation campaign across the world to achieve global herd immunity, the be-all-and end-all of humankind’s desperate fight against the pandemic.

Coronavirus seems to have iconoclastic tendencies, as it were; it has done to the so-called brand Modi what the entire Indian Opposition has failed to, all these years. Having totally mishandled the pandemic situation, PM Narendra Modi is struggling to shore up his image vis-à-vis the upsurge of Covid-19 and the failure on the part of his government to protect citizens, who are dying in large numbers. Coronavirus also brought the then US President Donald Trump, who thought no end of himself, down a peg or two, and has exposed leaders in several other countries, too, for what they really are––pathetic failures.

The developed world, which has taken upon itself the task of protecting human rights across the world and even bombs developing countries back into the Stone Age purportedly for that purpose, stands exposed for its hypocrisy. It has chosen to ignore the piteous appeals from other pandemic-hit nations for assistance and, worse, hoarded vaccines while tens of thousands of people are dying elsewhere. The pandemic situation in India would not have been so bad if the developed countries had responded to its appeal for jabs or vaccine raw materials.

AI has called upon the international community to fulfil its human rights obligations as regards cooperation and assistance by providing ‘lifesaving medical tools and removing legal uncertainties and barriers that may impede the production and supply of vaccines as the disease continues to ravage the region’. Its concerns and appeals on behalf of the poor nations should be appreciated, but mere words will not do.

The human rights outfits that bludgeon the developing countries at the drop of a hat out to mete out the same treatment to the rich nations that hoard vaccines and, thereby, endanger the lives of people elsewhere. UNICEF has urged the UK to share a part of its vaccine stockpiles with other nations. The US has pledged to part with 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab, but its much-advertised promise is far from fulfilled. One main reason why the world is short of vaccine doses is that the rich countries maintain huge stocks thereof. The US does not use the AstraZeneca vaccine, but maintains massive stocks of the jab while other countries such as its Quad partner, India, are crying out for help. Let it be repeated that thousands of lives in India could have been saved if the US had lifted the ban on the export of vaccine raw materials and released the spare vaccine stocks in response to New Delhi’s appeal several weeks ago.

The task before the international human rights organisations such as AI is to crank up pressure on the developed world to respect the most sacred of all human rights—the right to life—by parting with a fraction of its vaccine stockpiles, not as charity but at affordable prices.

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