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Lanka’s path to recovery: Restoring human capital in a post-pandemic world

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COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on human capital and has reversed valuable gains made over the past decade. Recovery efforts require a renewed commitment and further investments in human capital, which focus on strengthening education, health and social protection systems for increased shock-responsiveness, protection and productivity, especially among the poorest and most vulnerable, said a World Bank report.

It said: Comprehensive and integrated solutions that build on past and current interventions can help restore and accelerate human capital.

“2021 has been the hardest year of my life,” says 38-year-old Abirami.

Abirami is a domestic aide. Daily wage earners like her have been hit hard by the pandemic. Abirami has been out of work since April 2020, barring a few odd jobs that came her way. Her husband Kumar used to operate a food cart, but that too ended abruptly during lockdown. Unable to make ends meet, the couple was compelled to sell the cart, the only asset they had in their name. They now survive on a few thousand rupees a month and have no stable income to rely on.

Insecurity is a familiar feeling for Abirami. As an informal sector worker, she has no employment benefits, or social security. She lives day to day, using her meagre income to cover their daily needs. She does not have the luxury of planning for her future. That is a challenge for another day.

Abirami’s priority is to educate her two sons. A school dropout herself, she is determined that her boys do not have the same fate. Despite her best efforts, she may be unable to give them the future she hopes for. Though Sri Lanka provides free education, disparities in the quality of education often result in unequal employment opportunities, making it harder for children from poorer households to climb out of poverty.

Abirami is also responsible for her elderly mother who was recently diagnosed with cancer. Though she receives free treatment from public hospitals, Abirami is left with many additional costs associated with her care. For a family that survives on a daily income, this cost is overwhelming.

With so much on her plate, Abirami has never had room for her own dreams. “I always wanted to become a beautician,” she says, sounding almost guilty to admit that she once had aspirations for herself.

Sadly, Abirami’s story is not uncommon. It is a story of lost potential, which speaks volumes about the power of investing in human capital. She leaves us with four key takeaways on how best to understand and approach human capital challenges.

Human capital challenges emerge throughout the lifecycle:

From raising healthy, educated children, and providing jobs for adults, to supporting social security and healthcare for the elderly, human capital challenges occur at all stages of life. They often have a compounding effect, with challenges from each stage building upon the next. Abirami’s inability to complete schooling hindered her job prospects and quality of life and, in turn, affected her children. Failure to address challenges throughout the lifecycle can trap people in vulnerable positions and perpetuate the intergenerational cycle of poverty.

Human capital challenges require integrated and holistic approaches:

Isolated interventions can only go so far in creating sustainable and meaningful change. Human capital challenges require integrated and holistic interventions, based on strong collaborations across key sectors. Additionally, human capital challenges are exacerbated by lack of access to and poor quality of basic services, including water, electricity, and transport. Sri Lanka could benefit from developing a human capital program that brings together key sectors and stakeholders for the implementation of comprehensive solutions that can help restore and accelerate human capital.

The pandemic has reversed valuable human capital gains:

For Abirami and others like her the pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges. In Sri Lanka, around 500,000 people have fallen below the poverty line. Jobs have been lost, particularly among women, many of whom will never return to work.

The implications of prolonged school closures will be more serious for children who couldn’t access online education, and the ‘silent learning crisis’ will impact future productivity and growth. The pandemic has shown us that robust and resilient systems are needed to reduce exposure and vulnerability to shocks. Adapting and preparing for emerging challenges is also important. For Sri Lanka, the rapidly ageing population and the rising non-communicable disease burden pose a significant threat to human capital, and failing to prepare for these challenges could be disastrous.

Investing in human capital today can save money in the future:

Sri Lanka has achieved good results in human capital development with relatively low investment. This remarkable progress demonstrates the country’s potential, and provides a glimpse of what can be achieved with more efficient investment. Human capital challenges reveal inequalities along gender, geography, and income, which allow people like Abirami to fall through the cracks. Investing now can help foster productive citizens who contribute to the national economy, reducing the cost and burden on the system. For instance, in Sri Lanka, only 32 percent of women participate in the labor force as compared to 75 percent of men, and the IMF estimates overall income gains of about 16 percent in 2040 if this gender gap is closed in 50 years.

Looking ahead, Sri Lanka must prepare for the challenge of rebuilding lives and reshaping futures. At this crucial juncture, a renewed focus and commitment to human capital development could support a smooth and resilient recovery. For Abirami, the road to recovery is long and arduous, but with a little help, her sons could have a very different story.



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Booster shots: Poor public response makes GMOA contemplate legal remedy

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

Lack of enthusiasm among the public to receive the booster dose was disconcerting, given that Sri Lanka had a long-established and highly functional immunisation programme, the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) said yesterday.

By 20 January 2022, 64.56% of Sri Lankans had been fully vaccinated, but only 22.47% had received the booster dose, the GMOA said.

“At the early stages of vaccination against Covid-19 the public response was favourable. However, the current waning of interest might be driven by the myths and rumours regarding the vaccines. It is important to take measures to counter such misinformation by raising public awareness of the ongoing vaccination programme.”

“Legal action against those responsible for the spread of communicable diseases can be taken under the Penal Code”, GMOA Secretary Dr. Senal Fernando said. “Provisions of the Quarantine Ordinance can be used against persons who do not comply with directions given by the proper authorities under the Quarantine Ordinance,” he said.

The GMOA said that several countries had made it mandatory to have proof of vaccination for entry into public places. The same thing could be done in Sri Lanka to ensure that more people got vaccinated.

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Govt., SJB haggle over procedure to rescue country

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By Saman Indrajith

The SJB on Sunday said that it was wrong for the President and the government to seek the assistance of the Opposition to steer the country out of the present crises without creating a proper forum to obtain such assistance.

Addressing the media at the Opposition Leader’s Office in Colombo, Chief Opposition Whip and Kandy District MP Lakshman Kiriella said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa delivering the latter’s third Policy Speech in Parliament last week had sought the assistance of the Opposition. “His speech is full of excuses. He sought our assistance but there is no forum to offer our assistance. The government too has asked for the same several times. If the government needs the Opposition’s assistance, what it should do is to declare a state of national disaster situation so that the Opposition could make use of Parliament as the forum for our contributions. That has not been done so far. The President and the government could make use of the provisions of the Disaster Management Act No 53 of 2005 to form a disaster management committee comprising the government and opposition MPs.

The President is the ex-officio Chairman of the committee, the Prime minister and the Opposition leader are there with 24 government ministers and five opposition MPs. In addition to that there are provisions to the involvement of the Chief Ministers of Provinces in the committee. If the government genuinely needs our support it should have started forming that committee. There are laws enabling the formulation of mechanisms to help people the government does not make use of them. We have been repeatedly asking the government to appoint that committee.

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Lord Ahamad plants kumbuk tree sapling during visit to Bellanwila – Attidiya Bird Sanctuary

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By Ifham Nizam

Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister for South Asia, the United Nations and the Commonwealth at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office of the UK, planted a Kumbuk (Terminalia arjuna) sapling at the Bellanwila – Attidiya Bird Sanctuary last week.

The Department of Wildlife said Lord Ahmad had been joined by the British High Commissioner in Colombo Sarah Hulton, Hasanthi Urugodwatte Dissanayake, Acting Additional Secretary of Ocean Affairs, Environment and Climate Change at the Foreign Ministry, Saman Liyanagama, Wildlife Ranger of the Colombo Wildlife Range, Department of Wildlife Conservation and Professor Sevvandi Jayakoddy, Senior Lecturer of the Wayamba University.

The planting activity was followed by a brief visit to the wetland and Prof. Jayakoddy, and Liyanagama explained the importance of wetland ecosystems as well as challenges in conservation and maintenance, while Dissanayake briefed him on the Sri Lanka’s pioneering work related to mangrove restoration and conservation, both at policy level as well as at the ground level.

Hasini Sarathchandra, Publicity Officer, Department of Wildlife Conservation said British High Commission in Colombo with the International Water Management Institute Headquartered in Sri Lanka, had already launched a project under the Darwin Initiative at the Baddegana Wetlands.  Similar collaborations are envisaged involving the Bellanwila – Attidiya Bird Sanctuary.

Wetlands play an important role in our natural environment. They mitigate the impacts of floods, absorb pollutants and improve water quality. They provide habitat for animals and plants and many contain a wide diversity of life, supporting plants and animals that are found nowhere else. Colombo is a city built on and around wetlands. Despite progressive loss and degradation, wetlands still cover some 200 km2 of the Colombo metropolitan area and suburbs.

The wetlands are fundamental to the well-being of the people of Colombo and its suburbs. The wetlands can reduce extreme air temperatures and make the city more live able due to evaporative cooling. The wetlands provide a critical land-mass which helps to maintain the richness of Colombo’s biodiversity.

The Bellanwila-Attidiya wetlands was declared as a bird sanctuary on 25 July 1990, due to biodiversity of the area and its contribution to controlling floods. The wetlands, which span over 930 acres, host endemic species and is a paradise for migratory birds. 44 species of fish including 06 which are endemic to the country have been identified in the Bolgoda River which flows through the wetlands. The wetlands are also home to 21 reptilian species, 17 species of mammals and 10 butterfly species. Bellanwia-Attidiya sanctuary falls within the upper catchment of the Bolgoda river basin. The Department of Wildlife Conservation manages the Bellanwila-Attidiya Sanctuary.

Selection of the location was also due to the close collaboration that Sri Lanka has with the Government of the UK on conservation of mangroves and wetlands.

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