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Leave No One Behind: Building a disability-inclusive COVID-19 recovery plan for Sri Lanka

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By Lakshila Wanigasinghe

Persons with disabilities (PWDs) are an important group that needs to be considered when building an all-inclusive COVID-19 recovery plan. They often tend to get excluded or only partly considered due to the heterogeneous nature of the difficulties they face owing to the diversity in the types of disabilities and support required. This blog explores the significant challenges faced by PWDs amidst COVID-19 and outlines strategies that Sri Lanka can adopt towards ensuring an inclusive recovery.

PWDs and Emerging Challenges

Over 1 billion people around the world live with some form of disability, accounting for 15% of the world population as shown in Figure 1. Around 80% of PWDs live in developing countries including 1,617,924 persons in Sri Lanka (as of 2012). Hardships faced by such persons are greater for those living in developing countries due to limited resources and facilities available to them. Many developing countries lack resources to detect disability early on, have inadequate rehabilitation facilities, and lag in updated research and strategies to support PWDs. This is the case in Sri Lanka where PWDs have inadequate access to society, education, specialised healthcare, and employment opportunities in comparison to developed countries.

Adversities faced by PWDs have escalated due to COVID-19. A study conducted by Global Disability Inclusion found that apart from heightened health risks, the pandemic significantly affected the employment and financial security of PWDs. This can widen existing disparities and lead to long-term consequences such as higher poverty rates, lower wages and increased costs of living among such persons, thereby leaving lasting impacts on their lives.

While COVID-19 has affected the global population, its effects are distinct and intensified for PWDs. Their pre-existing health conditions put them at greater risk of contracting the virus, experiencing severe symptoms and higher mortality rates. Depending on the nature of their disability, some individuals are unable to effectively communicate their symptoms or practice preventative measures such as regular sanitisation.

Lack of access to public health information due to physical, mental or sensory impairments poses a higher risk of PWDs contracting COVID-19 by being unaware of symptoms and precautionary measures that need to be taken. Disproportionate access to information also poses a threat when implementing recovery procedures.

Lockdowns and social distancing policies limit access to caretakers and medical professionals, putting those unable to care for themselves at substantial risk while in isolation. Lockdowns can also prevent PWDs from accessing basic necessities and seeking regular medical care. Further, school closures and the switch to distance education have led to higher learning disruptions among children with disabilities. This is more pronounced for children in developing countries due to factors such disproportionate access to technology, and lack of assistive devices and in-person support.

Overcoming the Challenges

An understanding of the barriers faced by PWDs is essential to ensure an inclusive recovery. Therefore, it is vital to consult PWDs and engage organisations that work with these groups –such as the Department of Social Services and the National Secretariat for Persons with Disabilities (NSPD) – throughout the decision-making process of creating a disability-inclusive recovery plan. Information about the disease such as ways of contraction, symptoms, precautionary measures and procedure to follow in the event of contracting it should be made readily available in accessible formats. This includes presenting COVID-19 related information in sign language, captions, braille, graphics, etc.

It is important for PWDs to be prioritised during the vaccination process. If active efforts are not made to include these groups, they will be disproportionately excluded, and will be among the last to receive vaccinations. The healthcare systems should identify PWDs that meet the eligible vaccination criteria and provide them information on vaccination.

However, this requires proper procedures to be in place for these individuals to register for vaccinations, along with disability-accessible vaccination centres and regular monitoring of such persons upon completion of the vaccination process. The NSPD and other local organisations that work with these groups can be utilised to make the process more accessible and effective. Further, special vaccination drives solely targeting PWDs are an option to ensure effective and efficient vaccination.

In addition, social protection systems should be enhanced to support PWDs better, especially those adversely impacted by COVID-19. A commendable initiative by the government was the extension of its COVID-19 relief cash transfers beyond regular recipients (PWDs in low-income households) to those in the waiting list and groups specially identified by rural committees. However, to ensure long-term recovery and prevent low-income groups from slipping into poverty, these groups should be evaluated by the NSPD and absorbed into the existing social protection system.

Road to Recovery

COVID-19 has exposed many weaknesses in healthcare, education and social protection systems worldwide, such as high levels of inequalities and the lack of inclusivity. To ensure sustainable post-COVID recovery, resources should be strategically allocated to support all groups of people and inclusion must be made a priority to build a lasting recovery plan.

In the long-term attention should be directed at building more inclusive systems that are better equipped at serving all groups of people and are more resilient to shocks in the future. A starting point for Sri Lanka would be to increase disability-accessible infrastructure (in public buildings, public transport, restrooms etc.), provide better healthcare and rehabilitation facilities, actively engage PWDs in the workforce, reduce stigma surrounding disability, and increase engagement between PWDs and society at large.

Link to original blog: https://www.ips.lk/talkingeconomics/2021/08/16/leave-no-one-behind-building-a-disability-inclusive-covid-19-recovery-plan-for-sri-lanka/

Lakshila Wanigasinghe is a Research Assistant at IPS with research interests in poverty, social welfare, development, education, and health. She holds an MSc in Economics with a concentration in Development Economics and a BA in Economics with concentrations in International, Financial and Law and Economics from Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC), US. (Talk with Lakshila – lakshila@ips.lk).



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Eravur Fabric Park could transform sustainable textile manufacture in Sri Lanka

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Since the first announcement in June 2020, expectations have been high on the potential of the Eravur Fabric Processing Park to catalyze a new era for Sri Lankan textile and apparel manufacture.

Supported through the Ministry of Industry and Commerce and the Board of Investment (BOI) of Sri Lanka, working in close collaboration with the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF), the apex body of the apparel industry in Sri Lanka, the vision for Eravur is beginning to take shape.

Of the allocated approx 300 acres of land, fifty have been allocated for the Park’s maiden investment of US$ 35 million to establish a state-of-the-art fabric mill. Negotiations are also underway with two international companies to infuse mega investments for the remainder. The Park is estimated to attract a cumulative investment of US$ 300 million. The zone is also seeking further investments towards Dyeing, Washing, Knitting, Weaving, and other associated and ancillary activities.

Cabinet approval for the Zone’s classification under the Strategic Development Projects Act was also secured, enabling the extension of tax and other relief and incentives to investors.

Rapid progress towards vertical integration

“We would like to see the first company commence commercial operations in the next 6 months to 1 year,” stated BOI Chairman Sanjaya Mohottala. “We have been very aggressive on timelines because of the clear consensus on the nationally significant value that the Park can generate. At present, all land has been demarcated, and water and electricity supply are being finalized. In excess of half the commercial land has been allocated or reserved, and we are seeing great demand. There is clear recognition locally and internationally as to the immediate potential. If necessary, we are able to expand the zone even further.”

Leveraged in support of Sri Lanka’s highly developed apparel manufacturing sector, which has steadily benchmarked itself on global standards for ethical, sustainable production and high levels of technical and technological expertise, Eravur’s promoters also see the project as an opportunity for Sri Lankan-made apparel to take global leadership on sustainability in its most holistic sense.

Mohottala explained further that the most immediate benefit from the Park’s establishment will be in the cost advantages and enhanced economies of scale gained through capacity expansion and vertical integration of domestic supply chains.

Currently, Sri Lanka has approximately 300 apparel manufacturing facilities across the country. By contrast, it has only 7 textile and raw material factories capable of producing fabric for export, and for conversion into garments for export. At its peak, Sri Lanka imported over 250,000 MT of fabric both for export-oriented apparel manufacturing and for local consumption in 2019, at a cost of US $ 2.2 billion.

In the context of unprecedented disruptions across global supply chains in particular and persistent commodity and currency volatility, increased availability of high quality raw materials will enable an immediate and drastic reduction in raw material costs, while also conserving foreign currency.

Increased domestic production of textiles also translates to a higher percentage of domestic value. If that threshold increases from its current 52% to 65%, it qualifies for a larger proportion of Sri Lankan exports for zero-duty benefits under GSP Plus1.

The culmination of a pioneering national journey in sustainability

The economic argument in favour of investing in Eravur is bolstered by its potential to also be the most sustainable venture of its kind in the entire Asian region, with local stakeholders having already committed to establishing extensive renewable energy facilities, water recycling facilities, science-based targets, and circular business models.

At a macro-level, increased local production capacity will contribute significantly to all these targets by reducing the end-to-end length of Sri Lanka’s apparel supply chains. This in turn enables tighter backward integration and lower carbon emissions.

Taking a cue from the Sri Lankan textile and apparel’s industry’s outstanding achievements on environmental sustainability to date, the Zone is being designed from the ground-up to facilitate and incentivize sustainability in every facet of its operations. In terms of fabric processing, the main focus is on wastewater treatment.

Mohottala continues: “Sri Lanka’s environmental standards for industries are quite stringent, especially compared with regional competitors. A key feature of the Zone will be its central wastewater treatment facility with a sea outfall, which will require a high standard of treatment. Fortunately, we already have strong expertise available locally, with many of Sri Lanka’s textile producers having established facilities on par with global best practices on wastewater treatment. We have used this to our advantage by calling in the local industry’s technical experts and drawing on their pioneering experiences to optimize wastewater treatment protocols at Eravur.”

Adding that this will be one of many positive attributes all stakeholders downstream of the textiles produced at the Zone can lay claim to, Mohottala says, “With the greater localization of production, we also gain improved oversight and control over environmental standards within the Zone. This also enables greater transparency, traceability, and accountability across the supply chain, which in turn will confer preferable competitive advantages to Sri Lankan apparel exporters. In addition, this will empower brands and retailers to make clear and credible claims to genuine sustainable sourcing.”

An end-to-end opportunity

Another significant advantage for Eravur is that it is purpose-built with the most advanced environmentally friendly technology available. This will also promote efficiency in energy and water consumption, as well as additional infrastructure for recycling and recovery of water used in production, for which the BOI aims to provide investors with additional incentives.

Notably, Eravur also enjoys a high level of solar irradiance and consistent high-wind conditions, making any manufacturing facility established in the area, ideally suited for solar and potentially, wind turbine power generation.

“Augmentation of the Zone’s energy requirements with plentiful renewable energy will enable cost savings on the energy-intensive aspects of wastewater recycling. Given the consistent annual reduction in the cost of solar and wind energy, the conditions at Eravur are another unique attraction for investment into the Zone, and potentially enables the entire supply chain to utilize global incentivizes around responsible and sustainable production,” Mohottala said.

In addition to the wastewater treatment protocols, the Zone will also include a sludge treatment facility, with further trials already underway for responsible disposal. These include tests using micro-algae to breakdown sludge, as well as utilizing sludge to fuel furnaces and as bricks with a bio-mat mask.

The final and potentially most vital contribution which the Eravur Fabric Processing Zone is the empowering impact it will have on the lives of Sri Lankans in Batticaloa. At present, the district has an estimated population of 621,887, of which, an estimated 60,912 individuals are below the poverty line. As at 2019 – prior to the pandemic – unemployment in the region stood at 6.4%

“With the development of the Zone, we will be able to create thousands of stable, well-paying direct and in-direct jobs. This could prove to be one of the most transformative developments to take place in the Eastern Province in recent history,” Mohottala concluded.

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‘The insurance industry continues to drive the message of safety and optimism’

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The Insurance Association of Sri Lanka has been working overtime to ensure the smooth operation of the insurance industry with the objective of spreading awareness and inculcating knowledge on the importance of insurance. Similar to multiple other industries, in global and local contexts, the insurance industry has experienced its share of fluctuations with the onset of the pandemic and displayed its resilience to the resultant challenges.

Dinesh Yogaratnam, the Chairman of the Marketing and Sales Forum (MSF) of the Insurance Association of Sri Lanka (IASL), shared his perspectives on the marketing of insurance during these tumultuous times. He expounded on the ways in which the MSF of the IASL adapted to overcome the hurdles of the circumstances that arose during 2021, while promoting insurance penetration.

“The Insurance Association of Sri Lanka (IASL) is the industry body comprised of all the Life and General Insurance companies that operate in the market. The Marketing and Sales Forum (MSF) is a subcommittee thereof and as the name implies, addresses matters pertaining to the sales and marketing of insurance products and services. Further, the MSF also carries out various initiatives to increase insurance penetration in the country via education and knowledge-sharing. One of the major efforts of the MSF this year is to help the public better appreciate what insurance is. In addition, helping them understand how, when, and why they should purchase a policy, so that they may provide themselves, their loved ones, their assets, as well as their enterprises with the financial protection required, are key objectives.

“The MSF has resorted to using mainly digital and print media for its insurance promotion activities. Employing a two-pronged approach, whereby, the MSF under the IASL banner is carrying various pieces of communications on social media channels and is working with the country’s print houses and their digital arms to disseminate information and educate the public, the individual companies too have been encouraged to promote their products and services, as well as to carry knowledge building pieces of communication on their own platforms. Through this, we are witnessing a heightened level of activity and dialogue across social media channels.”

Giving further insight into the current insurance marketing landscape prevalent in the country, Dinesh Yogaratnam stated, “The insurance industry has grown in 2021 by approximately 14% in terms of Gross Written Premium as of the end of the 1st quarter; while long term insurance has seen significant growth, general insurance has contacted very marginally. As an industry, we are confident that the growth trajectory we have witnessed in the first half will continue to the end of the year.

“With the pandemic impeding movement, insurers had to very quickly realign themselves to front the customer both for new business acquisition as well as for premium collection, equipping themselves with various digital assets and recalibrating their sales teams to embrace a new hybrid model of interacting with and engaging the customer. From a servicing perspective; industry players have infused many digital interventions as part of their customer touchpoint strategy so that customers are able to seamlessly interact with them and obtain whatever services they require, regarding their policies. On the customer’s side, the pandemic has made people appreciate the need for a meaningful health insurance plan and they have also begun to appreciate the need for long-term insurance. The Sri Lankan insurance industry has always stood by society not only during times of normalcy but more so during times of widespread calamity and dire need. In this respect, the industry has come forward to pay COVID-related claims, irrespective of the fact that pandemics are excluded as part of insurance contracts.”

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SL’s Kithul-based treacle and jaggery for Gulf markets

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By Hiran H.Senewiratne

A local company is now in the process of venturing into the lucrative export Gulf market through its flagship product, Kithul based treacle and jaggery. Initially, the company will target the UAE market and afterwards other Arab countries.

“Both our products were introduced to the local market as niche products one year ago and are already exporting to Australia and several other countries, chairman, C-lon Kitchen & Healthy Foods, Rohan Wijeweera told The Island Financial Review.

‘The Gulf region is a lucrative market and there is a big demand for pure Kithul treacle among Arabs, which could be harnessed if we supply quality products, he said.

Wijeweera adds: “Now we have secured an order from a Gulf online sales company to market these products under the tag, ‘Made in Sri Lanka’ under the “Deegayush” brand and initially two containers will be exported to Dubai most probably next month. After that we will be targeting Canada and the UK markets.

“Kithul treacle and jaggery are made from the sap harvested directly by tappers living in border areas of the Sinharaja forest in the Rathnapura district. We have come to a forward buying agreement with around 250 tappers in this region, whom we also support by paying a premium price and also by some other CSR initiatives.

“The sap is then brought to our processing plant in Piliyandala where we process it. Kithul treacle is known to contain polyphenols, which are antioxidants, organic acids which are bioactive, amino acids that have many functions, beta carotenes that produce vitamin A and ascorbic acid or vitamin C that improves immunity.

“Thus, it is known to yield as many health benefits as Kithul jaggery. It prevents arthritis, improves complexion, alleviates constipation, aids weight loss and combats blood sugar. For nearly the same reasons as Kithul jaggery, Kithul treacle or syrup is witnessing massive demand locally as well as internationally.

“Today the demand for pure and natural Kithul products far outstrips the supply and due to lack of sap many local manufactures add sugar and other artificial sweeteners to the products thereby diluting the health benefits of it. However, we ensure not to add artificial ingredients and due to this our products are sold at a premium price from leading super markets under the brand name, “Deegayush”.

“Behind the scarcity of Kithul products there are several reasons, such as the shortage of tappable jaggery palms, fewer people being engaged in this industry due to the inherent risks and the profession not being accepted among the youth.

“Also less numbers are involved in jaggery palm planting since the tree takes around 7 years to mature before being fit for tapping.

“I am also looking at making Kithul treacle and jaggery from sugarcane, once again, targeting the export market as well.

“We are also manufacturing several immune boosters from locally sourced material. We next plan to introduce a curd to the market. More details could be obtained from, ceykitchen@gmail.com”

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