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India’s COVID Crisis – Threat to the Entire World

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by Professor Jayantha Lal Ratnasekera

Vice Chancellor, Uva Wellassa University

The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, which started in the latter part of April, in India, continues to be threatening. Though there has been a significant decrease in the daily count of fresh corona patients, from 400,000 in the first week of May to 200,000 in the fourth week, the situation is still far from satisfactory. The total number of corona deaths has passed the 300,000 mark, and the total number of COVID-19 patients has exceeded 275 million as of May 28, 2021. Even though the vaccination process has been accelerated during the past few days, India’s healthcare system has not fully recovered yet. Still, there is a severe shortage of some drugs, hospital beds, oxygen, ventilators, etc., in many areas. Furthermore, the rapid spread of the black fungus disease (Mucormycosis) has aggravated the health crisis.

Obviously, a number of factors contributed to this unexpected surge in April, and the emergence of new, more infectious virus variants is considered to be one of the main reasons. Experimental data show that the variant B.1.1.7, first found in the UK, is the dominant virus variant in the state of Punjab. A new, more dangerous variant called B.1.167, first identified in India late last year, was found to be dominant in the state of Maharashtra. B.1.167 variant, which is already found in more than 50 countries, is said to be containing two mutations having an increased transmissibility. Further, the slow progress in the vaccination process till April, has been another contributory factor to the devastating second COVID-19 wave. India, while being the leading manufacturer of anti-COVID vaccine, has commenced the vaccination process in January 2021, but the progress has been rather slow. By mid-April, the first dose of the vaccine was administered to 10% of the total population, and both two doses were given to 2% of the population.

However, since the vaccination process got underway in January, the attitude of the majority of people in India including the political authorities towards the pandemic has changed significantly. The arrival of the vaccine made everyone complacent and there was a misapprehension among many that India had already tackled the COVID-19 pandemic. In February 2021, the Bharatiya Janatha Party passed a resolution praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his leadership in turning India to a “victorious nation in the fight against COVID-19”. Under these circumstances, travel restrictions were relaxed, and political rallies and religious ceremonies, with mass gatherings, were allowed. Elections were held in a number of states and thousands of people gathered at political rallies. In a rally held in West Bengal, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that he was thrilled to see such a large crowd. Simultaneously, a number of religious festivities were held and the Hindu pilgrimage, Kumbh Mela, drew millions of worshippers. As reported by The Hindustan Times, more than 9 million people bathed in the Ganga river during the period from January 14 to April 27, 2021, as a ritual of the Kumbh Mela festival. Thus, the false assumption that India had contained the pandemic contributed to the disastrous second wave of the pandemic.

However, what we should understand is that the current COVID crisis in India will not be limited to its territory; it is a real threat to the entire world. The first coronavirus patient was found in Wuhan city, Hubei Province, in China, December 2019, and, in January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, as the virus had spread outside China. Later in March 2020, the WHO declared the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 virus as a Global Pandemic.

Though the pandemic has been troubling the entire world for more than one and half years now, some of the countries, especially the so-called developed countries, were reluctant to accept its global nature. Instead of joining hands with the WHO to curb the virus, some countries have been trying to control the virus on their own. However, the current Indian COVID crisis has shocked the entire world and forced even the developed nations to change their approach and attitudes as regards the pandemic.

Firstly, we should not forget that with more than 1.5 billion people, India alone accounts for about 1/6 of the entire world population. This means the Indian crisis definitely will not be limited to its own territory. As emphasised by Dr. Saumya Swaminathan, WHO’s chief scientist, “the virus does not respect borders, or nationalities, or age, or sex or religion”. When the number of infectious persons increases in such a populous country, there is a high probability of the emergence of new virus variants. Every single infection provides the virus an opportunity to evolve and produce a mutation. In other words, when the number of COVID infections in a country is high, then the probability of emergence of new variants is also high. In turn, these new virus variants might spread into other countries. For example, it was reported that on a recent flight from New Delhi to Hong Kong, 50 passengers were tested positive for COID-19. As mentioned above, the more dangerous variant B.1.167 has is found in more than 50 countries.

It has to be noted that the threat of B.1.167 variant spreading from India to the neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka is even higher. In fact, a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 patients was observed from early May, in Nepal. The total number of corona patients in Nepal has already exceeded 540,000 and total number of corona deaths has reached the 7,000 mark. With a relatively weaker healthcare system, only 2.2% of the total population of Nepal has been vaccinated to-date. Dr. Netra Prasad Timsina, Chairman of the Nepal Red Cross Society has warned that if the present trend is not arrested immediately, Nepal will have to face a situation very much similar to the current Indian one, in a few weeks’ time.

Likewise, the threat to Sri Lanka also cannot be underestimated. A few weeks ago, it was reported that an Indian national was found infected with the B.1.167 variant in a quarantine centre. Also, there were news reports about attempts by Sri Lankans living in India, especially in Tamil Nadu, to come to Sri Lanka, illegally, by boat. With the deteriorating conditions in the refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, these illegal attempts might increase further. Furthermore, it has been a long tradition of Sri Lankan fishermen to have contacts with their Indian counterparts in the deep sea.

The negative impact of the on-going Indian COVID crisis is not limited to the possibility of the virus spread. More importantly, India is supposed to produce 70% of the world’s COVID vaccine requirement, and the Serum Institute of India was given the rights to produce AstraZeneca vaccine. India is supposed to provide a large quantity of the vaccine to low and middle-income countries under the Covax facility backed by the UN and WHO. However, India has temporarily suspended the export of the COVID vaccine due to its domestic crisis. Although the Indian authorities have announced that they might recommence the export of vaccines in October, the temporary suspension has already adversely affected vaccination roll-outs in many countries including Sri Lanka. Moreover, the pharmaceutical industry in India is the third largest in the world in terms of volume, and 20% of the global exports of generic drugs is done by India. Obviously, if the Indian pharmaceutical industry happens to be in jeopardy, it will have dire consequences for the healthcare systems around the world. In such a scenario, a severe shortage of drugs around the world could also be anticipated.

In addition, India is the fifth largest economy in the world and India’s contribution to the global economic growth is extensive. With a relatively high annual growth rate of 4 to 8% during last few years, India has had a significant impact on the world economy. If India’s economy contracts drastically due to the present crisis, it will have a devastating effect on the economies of many countries. If the travel restrictions in respect of India continue for a long time, they will affect many businesses around the world. Furthermore, India provides a large number of back-office staff for many sectors in Europe and the US. Considering all these issues, it is imperative that all countries help India come out of this crisis. US President Joe Biden was one of the first world leaders to announce the readiness to support India, and the US has already sent several flights with essential goods to India. It is noteworthy that even Pakistan has come forward to help India in this difficult time. Russia has sent a stock of its COVID vaccine, Sputnik V, to India and granted permission to India to produce its vaccine.

So, the current COVID crisis in India poses a threat to the entire world and has taught the world many lessons. It has demonstrated that Covid-19 is a real global health emergency threatening humanity, and as such a concerted global effort is needed to tackle it at this crucial moment. It has reminded us that all nations are interconnected as never before, and no one will be safe until everyone is safe.



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President picks up the gauntlet

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by Jehan Perera

By proroguing parliament President Ranil Wickremesinghe has given the parliamentarians, and the country at large, a reminder of the power of the presidency. There was no evident reason for the president to suddenly decide to prorogue parliament. More than 40 parliamentary committees, including important ones concerning public finances, enterprises and accounts have ceased to function. The president’s office has said that when parliament reconvenes on February 8, after the celebration of the country’s 75th Independence Day on February 4, the president will announce new policies and laws, which will be implemented until the centenary celebrations of Sri Lanka’s independence in 2048. Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew transformed Singapore from a relatively underdeveloped and impoverished agrarian society into one of the world’s most developed countries in the same 25 years that the president has set for Sri Lanka.

President Wickremesinghe has been getting increasingly assertive regarding his position on issues. Recently he attended a large gathering of Muslim clerics, where he was firm in saying that society needs to modernise, and so do religious practices. He has also held fast to his positions on reviving the economy and resolving the economy. There have been widespread protests against the tax hikes being implemented which have eroded the purchasing power of taxpayers. First they had to absorb the impact of inflation that rose to a rate of 80 percent at the time the country reneged on its foreign debt repayments and declared bankruptcy. Now they find their much diminished real incomes being further reduced by a tax rate that reaches 36 percent.

But the government is not relenting. President Wickremesinghe, who holds the finance minister’s portfolio, is going against popular sentiment in being unyielding on the matter of taxes. He appears determined to force the country away from decades of government policies that took the easy route of offering subsidies rather than imposing taxes to use for government expenses and development purposes. In Sri Lanka, the government’s tax revenue is less than 8 percent, whereas in comparable countries the tax revenue is around 20 to 25 percent. The long term cost of living off foreign borrowings rather than generating resources domestically through taxation has been evident for a long while in the slow growth of the economy even prior to the economic collapse.

13TH AMENDMENT

Another area in which the president appears to have taken the decision to stand firm is the issue of finding a solution to the ethnic conflict. This problem has proven to be unresolvable by governments and political leaders who give deference to ethnic nationalism. Being an ethnic nationalist in the context of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious divisions has been a sure way of gaining votes and securing election victories. No leader in Sri Lanka has to date been able to implement the compromise solutions that they periodically arrived at, the last being the 13th Amendment. Earlier ones included the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1965 which could not even be started to be implemented.

At the All Party meeting that he summoned to discuss the ethnic conflict and national reconciliation, President Wickremesinghe took the bull by the horns. He exchanged words with ethnic nationalist parliamentarians who sought to challenge his legitimacy to be making changes. He said, “It is my responsibility as the Executive to carry out the current law. For approximately 37 years, the 13th Amendment has been a part of the constitution. I must implement or someone has to abolish it by way of a 22nd amendment to the constitution by moving a private member’s bill. If the bill was voted against by the majority in the House, then the 13th amendment would have to be implemented. We can’t remain in a middle position saying that either we don’t implement the 13th amendment or abolish it.”

The 13th Amendment has not been fully implemented since it was passed by parliament with a 2/3 majority in 1987. Successive governments, including ones the president has been a member of variously as a minister or prime minister, have failed to implement it in a significant manner, especially as regards the devolution of police and land powers. When parliament reconvenes on February 8 after prorogation, President Wickremesinghe will be provided the opportunity to address both the parliament and the country on the way forward. Having demonstrated the power of the presidency to prorogue parliament at his discretion, he will be able to set forth his vision of the solution to the ethnic conflict and the roadmap that needs to be followed to get to national reconciliation.

IRONIC PERSECUTION

It is significant that on February 20, the president will also acquire the power to dissolve parliament at his discretion. By proroguing parliament, the president has sent a message to both parliamentarians and the larger society that he will soon have the power to dissolve parliament with the same suddenness that he prorogued parliament. On February 20, the parliament would have been in existence for two and a half years. The 21st Amendment empowers the president to dissolve parliament after two and a half years. Most of the parliamentarians belonging to the ruling party are no longer in a position to go to their electorates let alone canvass for votes among the people. Under these fraught circumstances, they would not wish to challenge the president or his commitment to implementing the 13th Amendment in full.

On the other hand, the taming of parliament by the president does not guarantee the success of an accommodation on the ethnic conflict and a sustainable political solution. The ethnic conflict evokes the primordial sentiments of the different ethnic and religious communities. Political parties and politicians are often portrayed as the villains who led the country to decades of ethnic conflict and to war. However, the conflict in the country predates the political parties. In 1928, in response to demands from community leaders in Ceylon as it was then known, the British colonial rulers sent a commission to the country to ascertain whether it was ready for self-rule. The assessment was negative—the Donoughmore commission wrote that the representatives of the biggest community held to the position that their interest was the national interest. All the representatives of the smaller communities who were divided one against the other were united against the biggest.

An important role therefore devolves upon civil society not to fall prey to the divisions that come down the years. There is a need for enlightened leaders of civil society to work with commitment to explain to the people the need for a political solution and inter-ethnic power sharing that the 13th Amendment makes possible. There were signs of this during the height of the Aragalaya when the youth leading the protests called publicly for equal citizenship and non-discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion and caste. They pledged not to be divided by ethnic nationalist politicians for their narrow electoral purposes. It is ironic that the government led by President Wickremesinghe has made these enlightened youth leaders the target of a campaign of persecution instead of making them a part of the solution by constructively engaging with them and issuing a general amnesty.

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Privatisation of education and demonising of students of Lanka

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Student union leader Wasantha Mudalige with prison guards

by Anushka Kahandagamage

Sri Lanka is trapped in debt due to decades of corruption and short-sighted economic policies. To come out of the trap or, I would say, escape the moment, the government is seeking loans from the IMF, or anybody else who is willing to lend, no matter the conditions. To this end, under the IMF’s tutelage, the government is seeking to privatise education, aware that it will face the wrath of the people. In this setting, to suppress the protests, the government has adopted a strategy of demonising students, in the public education system.

School children as “drug addicts”

A media empire, which has strong ties with the current Lankan regime, recently sent shockwaves through schools, and their communities, by reporting cases of school children hooked on harmful narcotics. Following these reports, there were many write ups, social media content and stories published on the menace of drug addiction, among Sri Lankan students. That media network even released a video, interviewing two schoolgirls who claimed to be addicted to harmful substances. In the midst of the media frenzy, the police carried out surprise checks in schools, searching students’ bags. The state humiliated and terrified school children by using the police to conduct surprise checks in the schools and peek into the students’ backpacks, instead of investigating the avenues through which dangerous drugs enter the country. After a week, the Minister of Education claimed he was unaware that the police were conducting surprise checks in schools, with sniffer dogs, adding that there was no need to deploy the police force for this purpose. If the Minister was not aware that the police raided schools, it is not surprising that the state would also turn a blind eye to how narcotics enter the country. While there is a risk of students addicting to dangerous drugs, the state cannot place all the blame on students. Instead of taking responsibility for the state of affairs, and acting to keep harmful substances off the island, the state places the burden on schoolchildren and simply refers to them as “drug addicts.”

Bhikku students as “alcoholics”

The next example is from the Buddhist and Pali University, in Homagama. Similar to the first story, the same media network reported some irregularities occurring in the University. Those irregularities included the student monks forcing incoming students, also monks, to consume weed, liquor and party. Following this news report, some investigations were conducted in the University and empty liquor bottles were found in an abandoned well. Then we witnessed several press conferences where University authorities questioned the student monk leaders. While one cannot and should not disregard students’ violence upon another student, it is interesting to note the way the government is taking up the particular incident, at this particular point of time. There was a massive social media campaign to show that the student-monks are immoral and unworthy of education. It cannot be a coincidence that the student monks, at this University, were actively involved in the Aragalaya. In other words, the government was trying to defame the University, and the students, by labelling them as oppressors and alcoholics.

The Rajapaksa regime continuously used Buddhist monks, in their political operations, especially to incite conflict and win elections. The state has frequently deployed Buddhist monks to further its nationalist agendas. When the state used monks for their agendas, including to instigate violence, the monks were not framed as ‘immoral.’ The higher Buddhist authorities did not take action against groups, like Bodu Bala Sena, or Ravana Balaya, or their violent activities. It is ironic that the Government seems to be concerned about the ‘morality’ or ‘discipline’ of Bhikkus at this moment when many student Bhikkus have joined hands with the people to protest against the state.

University students as “terrorists”

The last example is the most pressing at this moment. On 18th of August, 2022, the police arrested Wasantha Mudalige, the Convenor of the Inter-University Students Federation, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Along with him, the authorities detained Hashan Jeewantha and the convener of the Inter University Bhikku Federation (IUBF), Galwewa Siridhamma Thera. The state labelled the politically active university students as “terrorists”. Again, this cannot have happened by chance; we all know the Aragalaya against the Rajapaksa dictatorship was heavily influenced by the Inter-University Students Federation and the Inter University Bhikku Federation. The student unions were the muscle of the people’s protests against the oppressive and corrupt regime. The Ranil-Rajapaksa regime labelled the student leaders’ terrorists and started arresting them.

The state’s stamping of University students as terrorists is a folly. If the state labels its own youth as “terrorists,” it means that the state has failed miserably because it is its own actions that have pushed them toward what is labelled as “terrorism.” The state should take a step back and reconsider its decisions.

Privatization of Education

The government and the government-validating media demonize students, labelling them as drug addicts, alcoholics and terrorists. The government undermines and defames the country’s student body. By doing so, the government is strategically isolating the students from the larger society and eroding public faith in them. Ironically, drug addicts, alcoholics, and terrorists are all confined to the public school and state university system, not private educational institutions. The media propagates the idea that students enrolled in the state education system are ‘immoral’ and ‘disobedient’. Meanwhile, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the puppet President of the Rajapaksa allies, proposes a new economic system which he thinks will counter the current balance of payment crisis. The proposal includes establishing an educational hub in Sri Lanka, which promises to privatise higher education in the long-term.

The state agenda of privatizing education is not a recent one, but it has been reenergized by the Ranil-Rajapaksa government in the context of crisis. Well before demonising the students, in the public education system, in June 2022 the government, national education commission, came up with an education policy framework.

Biased towards Rajapaksa ideologies, the national education commission that developed the policy, proposed to expand the privatization of higher education. In their report, the committee presents a table demonstrating how Sri Lanka allocates less money on higher education compared with the other middle-income countries. The next section outlines the way Sri Lanka relies more on government grants for higher education than other middle-income countries, which is confusing and contradictory, perhaps reflecting the grossly inadequate overall investment in higher education in the country. Then the report goes on to analyse how the poor school education system creates an unskillful student who is unable to think critically. It finally recommends promoting private participation in higher education, not only through funding but also by matching the curricula to fit the market and increase the “employability” of students. While on the one hand government pushes for privatising higher education, on the other, it demonizes the students in the public educational system. The State has seized the problem by its tail. The government is unable to perceive its own flaws in short-sighted policymaking, law enforcement, and corruption, and instead accuses and defames students, to distract them from its concerted effort to privatise education.

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

(Anushka Kahandagamage is reading for her PhD in the School of Social Sciences, University of Otago)

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Janaka…Keeping the Elvis scene alive

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Janaka Palapathwala: Recreating the Presley era…through song.......

For the past three years, local performers have certainly felt the heat, where work is concerned, beginning with the Easter Sunday tragedy, followed by Covid-19 restrictions, and then the political situation

Right now, there seems to be a glimmer of light, at the end of the tunnel, and musicians are hoping that, finally, the scene would brighten up for the entertainment industry.

Janaka Palapathwala, whose singing style, and repertoire, is reminiscent of the late Elvis Presley, says he was so sad and disappointed that he could not reach out to his fans, around the world, because of the situation that cropped up in the country.

However, he did the next best thing possible – a Virtual Concert, early last year, and had this to say about it:

“The concert was witnessed by so many people around the world, in 12 different countries, and I take this opportunity to thank all those who showed a great interest, around the world, to make the show a mighty success. Lasantha Fernando of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the USA, went out of the way to pull a huge crowd, in the States, to make the concert a massive success. Lasantha, by the way, has done many shows, in Minnesota, including a concert of mine, four years ago.”

Toward the end of 2022, the showbiz scene started to look good, with musicians having work coming their way – shows, sing-alongs, events, overseas tours, recordings, etc.

Janaka added that the Gold FM ’70s show was back after six years, and that the music industry is grateful to Gold FM for supporting musicians with such an awesome event.

“Also, the unity and the togetherness of the Sri Lankan western musicians, scattered around the globe, were brought together, once again, by the guidance of Melantha Perera.

“The song ‘Baby Jesus Is Fast Asleep’, written, composed and directed by Melantha, was a true Christmas gift to people around the world.”

Referring to his career, Janaka said that these days he is involved in a mega video production project.

“I intend to do a road show for a total Dinner Dance Promotion package, titled ‘Janaka with Melantha and the Sign’.

“Phase One of the project is already completed, and we are now heading for the second phase, where we plan to get Sohan Weerasinghe, Clifford Richards and Stephanie Siriwardane involved in the cast”.

Janaka also spoke excitedly about his forthcoming trip to the USA.

“I’m so excited to tour the USA, after three years. The ‘Spring Tour USA 2023′ is going to be different.

“I’ve done formal concerts, in the States, but this Spring Tour will be a series of Dinner Dances where I would be seen in action, along with the top ranked DJ of Washington D.C., Shawn Groove, and some of the best domestic bands in the States, and I can assure all my friends, and fans, in the US, that this new venture is going to be doubly exciting.”

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