Thursday 4th February, 2021
The national flag is fluttering majestically and grand preparations have been made for today’s celebrations to mark the day when the British retroceded this land to its rightful owners. Patriotic excitement has reached fever-pitch. Newspapers traditionally strike a positive note in their editorial comments on a day like this, but why should depressing political, economic and social realities be ignored?
Sri Lankans are known for celebrating what they lack; they are celebrating Independence today. Their leaders, who never miss an opportunity to wrap themselves in the flag, suck in their king-sized pots, puff out their chests and belt out the national anthem with great gusto, religiously, on 04 Feb. They bellow rhetoric, making propaganda mountains out of the molehills of their achievements, year in, year out. The sobering reality dawns when the Independence hangover goes away. This, we have seen for more than seven decades under successive governments perhaps save the first couple of decades after Independence.
During the early years of Independence, students called Sri Lanka a developing country, in their school essays; seven decades on, their grandchildren are saying the same thing, as someone has rightly pointed out. If this is not an indictment on successive governments, what is it? However, it may be wrong to say the country has not achieved anything since 1948. There have, of course, been some achievements, most of which are in the health and education sectors, but sadly they are the exception that proves the rule.
Sri Lanka can be proud of some impressive health and education indicators. But whether they can be maintained is in doubt because the country’s economic performance has been below par, all these decades, as can be seen from the tumble of the rupee against major currencies, the alarming increase in national debt and the difficulties successive governments face in honouring debt commitments. True, a protracted war and two bloody insurrections took a heavy toll on the country’s economy, but it has been more than a decade since the war ended, and there had been no healthy expansion of the economy even before the commencement of the armed conflict. The current pandemic has only aggravated an extremely bad situation.
Those who are languishing in the political wilderness, aka the Opposition, having failed to live up to people’s expectations and been exposed for ineptitude, abuse of power and corruption, among other things, flay their rivals at the levers of power for not doing what needs to be done to develop the country! Rulers try to cover up their failure by criticising their rivals in the Opposition. This is the name of the game in Sri Lankan politics. It is thanks to these ‘leaders’ that the country is in a pretty pass so much so that it has had to beg for COVID-19 vaccines. President of the College of Medical Laboratory Sciences, Ravi Kumudesh, has recently told this newspaper that the Medical Research Institute, which once produced vaccines, is today without facilities even to test imported vaccines! So much for the progress the country has achieved in the fields of science and research! It is only natural that shamans go places during health emergencies, and superstition has taken precedence over science.
Perhaps, the way to make the Independence Day somewhat meaningful may be for all political leaders responsible for the unholy mess the country has got into, over the decades, to kneel at the Independence Square, on 04 Feb. and ask for forgiveness from the nation. Others, however, are not free from blame. Most of those whom people elect as their representatives are political dregs; the voting public has to take responsibility for this. A national work ethic is conspicuous by its absence; the state service is characterised by bureaucratic red tape, lethargy, inefficiency, and bribery and corruption. Trade unions do precious little to increase national productivity; they only make demands.
Sri Lankan leaders, both past and present, ought to learn from the experience of other nations that rose, under the guidance of visionary statespersons, from the depths of poverty. Let Lee Kuan Yew’s book, ‘From Third World to First’ be made mandatory reading for them.
No quick fix
That there is no quick fix to the globally raging Covid-19 pandemic is now all too clear. Countries worldwide seek to protect their populations as best as they could by inoculating them with vaccines hurriedly developed in some of the best scientific laboratories in the world. Billions of dollars have been poured into this research effort, thankfully marked by some significant successes, and the vaccination process is ongoing in most parts of the world including this small backwater called Sri Lanka. But the global supply of vaccine falls far short of demand and how this gap is to be bridged is a yet unanswered question.
However, it is very well known that untapped manufacturing capacity is available in many parts of the world. How such capacity can be harnessed to meet the crying need of humanity is not rocket science. The heart of the problem lies in the reluctance, nay unwillingness, of the world of commerce to share the research gains already made in an equitable manner and relax patents to enable maximum utilization of available manufacturing capacity, particularly in the Indian subcontinent, to break the back of if not significantly dent this problem that continues to confront mankind.
The global pharmaceutical industry, throughout its long history, has poured vast funds and resources, both material and human, to develop wide ranges of medicines to treat and protect living beings – human and animal – from the many illnesses that have always been a part of life. Many notable successes, ranging from penicillin to the various drugs and medicines that have defeated numerous scourges that have confronted humanity over the course of history, have marked this effort. It is well known that when new drugs are developed, their manufacturers recover the huge investments made in the research and development efforts to achieve the various outcomes, in pricing the various products they market. These are patent protected and such patents, most often ironclad, are zealously protected.
Unarguably, industry must be permitted to recover investments made in developing products and processes benefiting humanity. But this can, and often does, lead to profiteering and unjustifiable ripoffs of consumers. However that be, the immediate problem confronting the whole world is to find ways and means of relaxing the various patents and devices in force to maximize the production and availability of supplies of vaccines to fight the pandemic. It has been reported that the new head of the World Trade Organization has joined calls for pharmaceutical companies to share their coronavirus vaccine know-how and technology more broadly in the developing world. Whether this will happen or not, and the profit motive will remain the overriding consideration as has always happened in the past, remains to be seen.
The Associated. Press (AP), one of the world’s biggest news agencies, a non-profit organization owned by newspapers and broadcasters in the U.S., recently reported its findings in three continents that established pharmaceutical manufacturers could start producing hundreds of millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines at short notice if they only had the necessary blueprints and know-how to get started. But that knowledge belongs to the large pharmaceutical companies that have produced the first three vaccines authorized in many countries both in the developed and developing world including Sri Lanka. These vaccines now in use in countries that include Britain, the European Union, and the U.S. are products of Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca. Responses from the patent holders to requests to enable more broad based manufacture, are awaited.
The WHO which is supplying countries in need, including our own, with free vaccine to inoculate a proportion of their population, has called on manufacturers to share their know-bow to “dramatically increase global supply” to stop the virus before it mutates into deadlier forms. This issue must be obviously looked at from a non-commercial perspective. The vaccine was not developed utilizing only private resources. Billions of dollars of taxpayer funds, largely from the U.S. and European countries, were injected into the R&D efforts of pharmaceutical manufacturers to develop now patented vaccines. Such money came out of the pockets of ordinary people in some of the world’s richer countries. There is no debate that the benefits of such efforts must also be shared with people in poorer countries.
These vaccines were developed at unprecedented speed after the disease, first seen in China and thereafter in many parts of the globe, spread like wildfire worldwide. However, sharing the knowledge discovered has unfortunately not happened as speedily. Although contracts and licensing deals are being negotiated with producers on individual case-by-case basis on the logic that the intellectual property of the vaccine developers must be protected, manufacturing capacity worldwide is not being boosted at the needed pace. All over the world, the supply of coranavirus vaccines is falling short of demand. Much of the limited supplies that are available are going to rich countries. The AP report said that nearly 80 percent of the vaccine thus far administered had been used in just 10 countries. WHO is on record saying that more than 210 countries and territories with 2.5 billion people have not received a single shot by the end of last month.
The shortcomings in getting the urgently needed results of boosting the supply and distribution of the vaccine to parts of the world most in need have been highlighted ad infinitum. Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS recently said that “what we are seeing today is a stampede, a survival of the fittest approach, where those with the deepest pockets, with the sharpest elbows, grabbing what is there and leaving others to die.” The AP report said that governments and health experts have offered two potential solutions to the vaccine shortage. One, supported by WHO is a ‘patent pool’ modeled on a platform set up to fight HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis. The other is is to suspend intellectual property rights during the pandemic. But no progress in either direction is visible.
When ignorance kills
Saturday 6th March, 2021
Superstition can be dangerous when taken to an extreme. A female exorcist who mercilessly caned a nine-year-old girl in a bid to ‘expel an evil spirit’, thereby, causing her death, in Delgoda, and the victim’s mother have been remanded. They are not alone in resorting to occult practices that have survived in spite of scientific and technological advancements during the last several centuries; humans have failed to overcome their atavistic fears.
The Sri Lanka College of Psychiatrists (SLCP) has, in a statement published in this newspaper today, condemned the aforesaid incident, and scientifically explained the phenomena that crafty exorcists use to fleece the public. “These individuals who repeatedly go into trance and possession states should be referred for psychiatric assessments, following which they may be referred for psychiatric or psychological treatments. Today, every district in Sri Lanka has a general psychiatry and child psychiatry clinic that can investigate these abnormal behaviours and deliver treatment.” The SLCP has rightly said acts such as beating children to ‘expel evil spirits’ are an anachronism from the Stone Age. But it is doubtful whether the good doctors will be able to knock any sense into those with a Stone Age mindset.
Sri Lanka is said to be home to several great religions, but superstition apparently remains the prominent religion of feeble minds, and one wonders whether it even receives state patronage albeit unofficially. A few weeks ago, we saw a shaman being received by the Speaker, a group of ministers and some Opposition MPs at the parliament complex, where he distributed some herbal concoction touted as a cure for COVID-19. Even some doctors and scientists leapt to his defence when he came under fire for duping the public by claiming that a goddess had revealed the ‘cure’. Worse, a national university went so far as to grant ethical clearance for his product! Among the promoters of his potion was no less a person than the Health Minister, who contracted COVID-19 despite having ingested the concoction and performing what may be called a pot-dropping ritual to neutralise coronavirus.
It is generally thought that only crazy dictators such as Papa Doc, Baby Doc, Bokassa and Idi Amin let witchcraft take precedence over statecraft. Papa Doc of Haiti publicly cast a voodoo spell on the then US President John F. Kennedy, claiming that the latter would not live long. The assassination of Kennedy, which obviously had nothing to do with voodoo, helped the Haitian dictator frighten his people into submission even more effectively; his son Baby Doc followed suit. (The duo’s ascent to power would not have been possible without US backing!) There are, however, other countries where occultism holds sway, Sri Lanka being a case in point.
Influence that seers exert on superstitious politicians and even parliamentary affairs came to light during a vote of condolence on former Speaker W. J. M. Lokubandara in Parliament, the other day. SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella boasted that in 2004 the then UNP-led Opposition had enlisted the support of an astrologer to have Lokubandara elected Speaker though the UNP did not have a majority in the House. The JHU, which had fallen out with the Kumaratunga government, would have backed Lokubandara anyway, and stars certainly had nothing to do with his election as the Speaker.
The 2015 regime change occurred because the Rajapaksa government followed astrological advice and opted for a snap presidential election. Political leaders’ dependency on occult practitioners was clearly seen in the early 1990s, when a group of UNP rebels joined forces with the Opposition to move an impeachment motion against the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who did not leave any stone unturned in his efforts to defeat his enemies. The Opposition MPs said that the President had hired a famous kattadiya, who had some charmed oil applied on their seats to make them switch their allegiance to him. Not to be outdone, they took phials of lard oil into the House and applied it on their seats to neutralise the effect of the President’s oil!
A fish is said to rot from the head down. When political leaders and some scientists promote the occult, it is well-nigh impossible to rid the country of superstitious beliefs and practices that cause harm to the public. Perhaps, it is these irresponsible characters who deserve caning.
Judges in the dock
Friday 5th March, 2021
Judges do not take kindly to utterances that amount to contempt of court. They go all out to make the offenders concerned regret having made such statements. This, we have seen both here and overseas. But there are situations where judges themselves get into hot water for their unguarded remarks that irk the public beyond measure. Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde is under heavy fire for having asked an accused rapist if the latter would marry his victim, a schoolgirl, to avoid jail. Bobde’s suggestion is a textbook example of adding insult to injury.
Women’s rights activists in India have launched a signature campaign, urging Chief Justice Bobde to resign. Their protest is gathering momentum, and consternation is understandable; India has a very high rate of rape. They accuse their Chief Justice of having proposed something that is tantamount to condemning the victim to a lifetime of rape at the hands of her tormentor.
One cannot but agree with the protesting Indian women. It is doubtful whether any rape victim in her proper senses will ever want to spend the rest of her life with her tormentor. As for the aforesaid Indian girl, her rapist even threatened to burn her alive and kill her brother if she made a complaint against him. How can a girl live with such a monster? If the desperado had been allowed to get away with his brutal crime by marrying the victim, that would have set a very bad precedent. Such leniency would have rendered Indian women even more vulnerable. That would also have sent the wrong message to desperate men that they can marry women they dream of simply by sexually assaulting them!
What the Indian CJ should be asked is how he would have reacted if the victim had been his own daughter; would he have accepted the rapist as his son-in-law?
Callous disregard for rape victims’ feelings is apparently universal. It is reported from even supposedly enlightened societies that pride themselves on respecting women’s rights. CJ Bobde’s predicament reminds us of a Canadian Federal Judge—Robin Camp—who had to resign in 2017 for having asked a 19-year-old rape victim why she had not kept her legs together to prevent rape. Adding insult to injury, he told her ‘sex and pain sometimes go together.’ What a revelation!
Instances of rape victims suffering many indignities at the hands of lawyers abound in this country so much so that many girls and women, who suffer sexual assault, choose to suffer in silence. Unfortunately, this issue has gone unaddressed much to the benefit of rapists.
The female lawmakers in the current Parliament have sunk their political differences and come forward to safeguard the rights of Sri Lankan women, we are told. They have reportedly requested the Speaker to appoint a special Select Committee to address gender-based offences against women. Female local government members have also launched a similar initiative. They complain of harassment in their councils, where their male counterparts do not even allow them to speak freely. These female politicians can rest assured that they have the unstinted support of all right-thinking citizens. After all, women account for more than one half the country’s population. It is they who toil in factories, on estates and in West Asian deserts to help keep the national economy afloat. At least 50 percent of seats in Parliament, the Provincial Councils and the local government institutions should be allocated for women.
The members of the women’s caucus in Parliament ought to campaign for ensuring that women who become victims of rape, etc., are treated humanely in courts. Ideally, there should be separate courts to hear such cases. They are sure to have the ear of Justice Minister Ali Sabry, who has evinced a keen interest in giving the existing legal system a radical shake-up. They will also be able to convince President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa of the pressing need to hear rape cases expeditiously with the rights of the victims being protected.
We hope that the brave Indian women who have taken on their CJ will succeed in their endeavour.
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