Saturday 1st August, 2020
Everyone is concerned about the loss-making state-owned enterprises (SOEs) such as the Ceylon Electricity Board, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and SriLankan Airlines. International lending institutions and economists, both local and foreign, never miss an opportunity to recommend restructuring or divestiture as the panacea. However, none of these economic whiz kids ever express any concern about the colossal losses the economy suffers due to Sri Lankans’ tobacco addiction.
Executive Director of the Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC) Pubudu Sumanasekera has pointed out that last year the state raked in Rs. 92.9 billion by way of taxes on tobacco while tobacco addiction cost the health sector as much as Rs. 214 billion. Never mind the health and social cost of the tobacco menace, even the staggering losses the economy suffers due to tobacco addiction have escaped the attention of economists. Curiously, these losses never get highlighted in budget speeches.
We are not short of smooth-tongued politicians who wax eloquent in Parliament and outside on the need to curtail SOE losses that are weighing down the economy, but never do they address the issue of tobacco addiction and its ill-effects.
Raids conducted by the police, the Excise Department and the Navy, during the past few weeks, have yielded huge consignments of narcotics including party drugs that are widely abused in nightclubs. These ‘designer drugs’ are colourless, odourless and tasteless and can be mixed with drinks. The police have also taken into custody a hawk-eagle, believed to have been used by a notorious drug czar to deliver narcotics. Public awareness of the dangers of narcotics is relatively high thanks to extensive media coverage that drug busting ops receive, and campaigns carried out by anti-narcotic outfits. But the people, especially parents who want the country rid of narcotics to ensure the safety of their children, are apparently not aware that tobacco products act as gateway drugs.
As we have discussed in a previous comment, smoking accompanies illicit drug use, and medical experts have linked nicotine to cravings for stimulants and opiates. A study, conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US, has proved that tobacco products act as gateway drugs and open the door to the use of illicit drugs. Nicotine, the NIH researchers say, makes the brain more susceptible to cocaine addiction. The NIH findings suggest that lowering smoking rates in young people might help reduce cocaine abuse. (The NIH is a part of the US Department of Health and Human Services and America’s medical research agency, making important discoveries that improve health and save lives.)
The ADIC Executive Director has revealed that more than 35,000 deaths that occur in this country annually are due to tobacco and alcohol. COVID-19, which has carried off only 11 persons so far, has been declared a national health emergency—and rightly so. The highly contagious coronavirus has to be battled with might and main. The health regulations in place must be followed and we must not lower our guard under any circumstances. Some politicians and civil society activists have even called for another polls postponement in view of the detection of some new infection clusters although the health authorities insist that the situation is under control. But nobody seems so concerned about the twin killers—tobacco and alcohol—that snuff out so many lives annually!
The ADIC has urged the candidates in the current election fray to address the issue of tobacco and alcohol addiction and the attendant problems, but none of them seem to have heeded its request. Instead of focusing on national issues, they are busy slinging mud at one another and holding political dog and pony shows. The question is whether any of these characters deserves to be elected.
Tears of little use
Saturday 24th July, 2021
The police have gone into overdrive to get to the bottom of the tragic death of Ishalini, 16, who is believed to have committed self-immolation at SJB MP Rishad Bathiudeen’s residence. They arrested the MP’s wife and father-in-law yesterday over the incident. There have been demonstrations in some parts of the country, demanding justice for the victim.
Unfortunately, Ishalini’s death has come to be politicised. Perhaps, it would not have become a mega issue if her employer had not been MP Bathiudeen, embroiled in several other controversies. The government is using the girl’s death as a bludgeon against the SJB. It has taken moral high ground, demanding to know why the SJB is silent. True, the Opposition would have taken to the streets if the suspects concerned had been connected to the government. But no one must stoop so low as to make political capital out of the poor girl’s tragic end, which has shaken the conscience of the nation.
If the government politicians who are shedding copious tears for Ishalini are so considerate towards girls and women as they claim to be, will they explain why they did not demand action against a UPFA local government chairman who deflowered scores of women and girls and even celebrated his criminal acts by throwing parties during a previous Rajapaksa government. The late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera publicly called upon the yahapalana government to take legal action against the rapist, but his call went unheeded, and the monster subsequently joined the SLFP, which was part of the so-called National Unity government, and is currently a constituent of the ruling SLPP coalition.
The government is said to be planning to raise the minimum age for domestic workers to 18. One cannot but agree that no one below this age should be allowed to work as domestic helpers. However, increasing the age limit alone will not help these workers who are exploited in every conceivable manner. Even some of those aged over 18 years suffer cruelty at the hands their employers. The need to enhance punishment for such offences cannot be overemphasised.
The problem of child labour is best stopped at source. Underage domestic workers mostly come from the families of plantation workers who earn meagre wages and live in abject poverty. Low literacy levels and lack of skills prevent most of the estate youth from being gainfully employed elsewhere, and it is not surprising that children in the plantation sector opt to work at a tender age. Ishalini also volunteered to work in Colombo because her family was up to its neck in debt, and loan sharks were threatening her parents.
There must be thousands of domestic helpers like Ishalini throughout the country, starving, slaving away and suffering sexual abuse. Let the ongoing campaign to have justice served for Ishalini, posthumously, be extended to achieve the emancipation of all these hapless children. It may not be difficult to trace them and ensure their return to their families, but who will feed and clothe them? Their families cannot do so, and that is why they have started working. The state will have to look after these children if it really wants to deliver them from suffering. There are various organisations championing child rights, and they must be willing to contribute to this worthy cause. The government may be able to enlist their support.
The best place for a child is his or her home. If the underage workers from the poor families are to return home, their families will have to be economically empowered. As for the plantation workers, their lot will have to be improved significantly through a state intervention to ensure that their wages are commensurate with their work. If children have enough food on the table and access to education, there will be no need for them to work. The tragic death of Ishalini and the suffering of other such children reflect the failure of the state to look after the poor.
The National Child Protection Policy has remained unimplemented for over two decades, as we reported the other day. So much for the concern of successive governments for children! The onus is on the incumbent government, which has so many bleary-eyed members within its ranks, making a public display of their love for children, to implement this vital policy urgently.
A flaw in jab drive
Friday 23rd July, 2021
The national vaccination campaign is gaining momentum with more vaccine doses coming in and a significant number of them being administered daily. It has received a tremendous boost from the armed forces’ involvement in the inoculation process. A senior medical doctor, in a letter published on the opposite page today, pays a glowing tribute to the Army, which deserves accolades for its good work. Government health personnel are also working tirelessly to inoculate as many people as possible to help the country achieve the much-needed herd immunity.
There is however a flaw in the ongoing vaccination drive and it needs to be rectified urgently. Thanks to the vaccine war the western bloc has declared on China, etc., the Sri Lankans who have not received the vaccines produced by western multinationals have to pay through the nose for quarantine when they travel to the developed countries.
The government has, with the help of the Army, launched a programme to give Pfizer and Moderna jabs to the students scheduled to migrate to the countries that refuse to recognise the efficacy of other vaccines. This is a welcome move, which has stood thousands of students in good stead. But, curiously, there is no such scheme for the Sri Lankans who migrate for foreign employment. They will have to pay colossal amounts of forex for quarantine in the host countries unless they are given Pfizer or Moderna jabs at this end.
Sri Lanka is facing a grave foreign crisis, as is public knowledge, and restrictions have been imposed on the outflow of foreign currency, and, therefore, there is no way those who are scheduled to migrate for foreign employment can carry the required amounts of foreign exchange even if they are ready to pay for quarantine after reaching their destinations. If they are given Pfizer/Moderna jabs here, the government can prevent millions of dollars being taken out of the country for quarantine.
Sri Lanka is heavily dependent on remittances from its expatriate workers. Therefore, the Sri Lankans leaving for foreign employment should be given Pfizer or Moderna jabs on a priority basis. Why the government has not realised the need to do so is puzzling.
It is said that a proposal has been submitted to the Health Ministry for including the Sri Lankans to be employed overseas also in the category of those eligible for receiving Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. If so, the Health Ministry must act fast. Perhaps, a presidential intervention may be necessary because some health bigwigs are not well disposed towards the military involvement in the vaccination campaign, which they consider their preserve.
Meanwhile, it defies comprehension why the developed world has chosen to promote the vaccines produced by some western pharmaceutical corporations that have earned notoriety for questionable business practices. In September 2009, The Guardian (UK) reported that Pfizer had been hit with the biggest criminal fine in US history as part of a $2.3 bn settlement with federal prosecutors for ‘mispromoting’ medicines and paying kickbacks to compliant doctors. Pfizer pleaded guilty to misbranding the painkiller Bextra, withdrawn from the market in 2004, by promoting the drug for uses that were not approved by medical regulators. Besides, it took 15 years for Pfizer to make the first compensation payment to the families of the Nigerian children who died or were disabled in a disastrous meningitis drug trial in 1996. This tragedy has made the Nigerians express serious concerns about the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine rollout at home.
One of the main reasons why the world has failed to end the Covid-19 pandemic is the hypocrisy of the Global North. The People’s Vaccine Alliance has said that the self-interest of the G-7 countries is the biggest obstacle to overcoming the Covid-19 crisis, for these nations block proposals for waiving patents and sharing life-saving technology. They have also stockpiled vaccines, causing a jab shortage in the rest of the world. The prevailing world order reflects the law of the jungle.
The developing world is left with no alternative but to follow the vaccine rules set by the rich nations. One only hopes the Sri Lankan government will act wisely and ensure that all Sri Lankans leaving for foreign employment receive the jabs acceptable to their host countries so that they will be spared the trouble of paying huge amounts of dollars for overseas quarantine.
Do they want bodies to pile high?
Thursday 22nd July, 2021
Protests against the Kotelawala Defence University (Amendment) Bill continue. Media reports that Parliament will take up the bill for debate soon seem to have made its opponents intensify their agitations. Mass gatherings are sure to give a turbo boost to the spread of Covid-19. Nobody seems to care two hoots about the dire warnings medical experts have been issuing about an explosive spread of the Delta variant of coronavirus. The Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) and several senior physicians have urged the government and the public to do their utmost to prevent the community level transmission of the Delta variant, which is capable of sending the pandemic-related death toll through the roof, as evident from the destruction it wreaked on India.
The government remains maniacally focused on securing the passage of the KDU bill, and its opponents are making a determined bid to shoot it down. Mass protests are super spreader events, but the organisers thereof do not give a tinker’s cuss about the danger they expose the hapless public to.
Ironically, all universities remain closed because of Covid-19, which has also caused the closure of schools. The GCE A/L examination has also been postponed. But the government and its rivals are clashing over the defence university. Teachers expressed grave concern about their own safety and wanted themselves vaccinated on a priority basis before the reopening of schools. But they are seen conducting protests in violation of the health guidelines! The government is asking the people to adhere to Covid-19 protocol, but at the same time, it drives them to protest. Both parties to the KDU dispute seem to be emulating British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who reportedly said, ‘Let the bodies pile high!”
What possessed the government to take up the KDU bill amidst the worst ever health crisis, and trigger street protests? It may have duped itself into believing that the pandemic situation could be used to prevent the opponents of the Bill from staging public protests, or it would be able to make use of the quarantine laws to detain them. Its plans fell through. Even those who are not opposed to fee-levying university education will take exception to the haste with which the government has chosen to proceed with the KDU bill.
Australia promptly placed about one half of its population under lockdown, the other day, following the detection of some Delta variant cases in Victoria (13 infections) and New South Wales (98 infections). Melbourne and Sydney were closed. This shows how concerned other countries are about the Delta variant. In Sri Lanka, the Delta variant accounts for about 30% of the new Covid-19 cases detected in some areas, but the government, the public and trade unionists do not care. What we are witnessing could be considered a case of fools backflipping where angels fear to tread.
There is no gainsaying the fact that Sri Lanka cannot afford protracted lockdowns, given its economic difficulties. Such restrictions may help hold the virus at bay, at least temporarily, but starvation may drive the poor to suicide. The only way to curb the spread of Covid-19 without resorting to lockdowns that make the economy scream is for everyone to follow the health guidelines strictly. But public support for pandemic control remains woefully inadequate.
Clausewitz has famously said that war is a continuation of politics by other means. The current Sri Lankan government seems to think that politics is a continuation of war by other means, if its confrontational approach is any indication. There would not have been so many mass protests if the government had acted wisely without trying to rush controversial Bills through Parliament much to the consternation of other stakeholders.
Whether we should promote private universities is not an issue that can be sorted out with the help of special parliamentary majorities; nor can it be resolved through trade union muscle-flexing. It is far too serious to be left to politicians and trade unions alone. The public must have a say in such matters. But one thing is clear. This certainly is not the time for sorting out the issue. The focus of everyone must be on curbing the spread of the pandemic, especially the tranmission of the much-dreaded Delta variant. Everything else must wait.
As for the KDU bill, both the government and protesters must step back for the sake of the public, whose rights they claim to champion.
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