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Lessons from Lockdown – Keeping COVID-19 in Perspective

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by Anila Dias Bandaranaike

COVID-19 has caused a calamitous global crisis. While tens of millions have tested positive for this virus, over a million people have suffered and died from it. The first COVID-19 case was detected in Wuhan City, China, in December 2019. By November 15 2020, two sources of global statistics recorded about 54 million cases and 1.3 million deaths in 220 countries and territories (World Health Organisation (WHO), Worldometer). Today, medical research is being funded to find a vaccine to protect us humans against it. At the same time, countries are desperately trying to find ways to balance the fight against the spread of COVID-19 with keeping economic activities alive, so that people can have incomes, food, medicines and other basic needs to survive.

Lockdowns in many parts of the world and instructions to avoid crowds, ensure social distancing, wear masks and wash hands, have helped reduce further spread. However, many people, especially poor daily wage earners, have lost access to incomes, nutrition and medicines. Hence, the authorities have to balance these lockdowns, which minimise human interactions, with their economic consequences.

Meanwhile, the print and electronic media have gone more viral than the virus itself. COVID-19 takes priority over most news globally and locally. In Sri Lanka, posts early in this second wave reflected our penchant for playing the blame game. Unsourced video clips, WhatsApp forwards, articles and interviews, blamed, in turn and according to inherent prejudices, different players. These included the company which discovered the first case testing positive, all garment workers and manufacturers, the president, the government, Indians, etc. Rational, factual explanations on the subject were to no avail, such as procedures followed for quarantine of returnees from India and the difficulty in identifying positive but asymptomatic cases.

Perception and prejudice the Sri Lankan way conquered reality. A president, who was hailed a few months ago as being decisive and having everything “under control” the military way, is now blamed for being lax and allowing the virus to spread. Bogey-men of the past, Tamil “terrorists, Muslim “extremists” and Christian “convertors”, each irrationally equated with travel to India, gathering in mosques and churches, were blamed for the first wave. They have been completely overshadowed by “virus-spreading” garment workers of today. These workers have been ostracised in their neighbourhoods, their significant contribution to the economy forgotten, just because the first case identified in the second wave was a garment factory employee.

In the midst of this avalanche of information and misinformation, we need to get our own situation in perspective. In light of the rising number of positive cases in Sri Lanka since October 5, what exactly about COVID-19 is relevant for our future health and safety?

First, let us examine available statistics. We will need to rely on these statistics, despite some concerns about their accuracy. By November 15, Worldometer reported that in 39 million closed cases, 97% had recovered and 3% had died. Available medical evidence highlighted serious respiratory problems among severe or critical COVID-19 cases. Deaths related to those respiratory problems were usually complicated by other underlying health problems, often age-related.  This implied that the elderly and those with certain health problems were more vulnerable.

We already experienced in Sri Lanka a few months ago, the outcome of the young, fit and healthy Navy cohort, who had tested positive for COVID-19. They showed few symptoms, were minimally ill and recovered within a few weeks. By October 5, Sri Lanka’s Health Authority had reported a total of 3,400 cases, with 3,260 recoveries and 13 deaths, leaving about 130 active cases. These statistics indicated over 99.6% recoveries and less than 0.4% deaths in 3,273 closed cases. Hence, Sri Lanka’s fatality rate was much lower than the current 3% global rate.

On November 15, with 16,583 total cases, recoveries at 11,495 and deaths at 53, active cases were 5,305 (hpb.health.gov.lk). The fatality rate was still relatively very low, at 0.5%. Against this background, we need to know:

 

1) How likely are Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 cases to become serious?

2) How likely is death from COVID-19 in Sri Lanka?

3) Can our health services handle the number of serious cases?

4) Who in our population are vulnerable to becoming serious COVID-19 cases and need protection

 

We also need to remember that our entire knowledge of this virus is from global experiences of less than one year. Theories abound, on its long-term health impact, on possible tests, on preventive means and possible medication. It is too early for any ongoing research to be conclusive. Humanity is still groping in semi-darkness. According to one reputed source in the literature, there have been more 200 tests (around 170 different molecular (PCR) tests, 37 antibody tests and 2 antigen tests) made available. The available scientific literature does not provide certainty about the accuracy (false positives and false negatives) of these tests. As more tests are being performed under varying conditions across the globe, the level of accuracy could also be compromised. Hence, while the reported number of positive cases has been rising fast, we really do not know the true extent of the spread anywhere. So, let us try to find answers to our questions with the available evidence.

 

How likely are Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 cases to become serious?

 Regional comparison of available global statistics shows that  fatality rates have, thus far, been much lower in Africa and Asia, than in the West. The Americas and Europe, holding 23% of world population, accounted for 76% of COVID-19 deaths. Asia and Africa, with 77% of world population, accounted for 24% of deaths. (Source:

 Worldometer). Current global research is testing theories that in “developing” countries of Africa and Asia 1) greater previous exposure to viruses or 2) compulsory childhood inoculations against viruses, such as the  BCG vaccine, had provided a higher resistance to COVID-19. Others theorise higher resistance in those regions due to diet or climate or a milder strain of the virus. Whatever the conclusions, evidenc points to a relatively lower severity of the disease in Sri Lanka, thus far.

 

How likely is death from COVID-19 in Sri Lanka?

 Hard evidence up to November 15 indicated that the fatality rate was very low, at less than 0.5% of closed cases. Sri Lanka’s death rate from COVID-19, at 2 per million population, was also very low, ranking 185 among 220 countries and territories.

 

Can our health services handle the number of serious cases?

 The Health Authority previously conveyed that hospitals had adequate capacity to handle 2,000 cases. Early in the second wave, it was conveyed that this would be increased. By November 15, Sri Lanka had over 5,000 active cases, significantly higher than hospitalisation capacity. Thus far, mild cases have not needed hospitalisation.

 However, we do not know how many cases were serious and needed hospitalisation. From 8 months experience, we can expect the number of serious cases to be low. To date, the Health Authority has revised its strategies over time to meet changing needs in the country. It has not yet indicated inability to handle the changing hospitalisation load.

 Who in our population are vulnerable to becoming serious COVID-19 cases and need protection? Global experience over the past 10 months has shown that the elderly and those with certain health-related pre-conditions (cancer, diabetes, heart disease, etc.) are at higher risk of severe  respiratory complications from COVID-19. We need to ensure that those who are vulnerable in our homes and communities are protected from exposure to COVID-19. We can do so by following the precautionary instructions given by the Health Authority – wearing masks, washing hands, minimising exposure from and to others, avoiding crowds, social distancing, etc.

While positive cases rise, Sri Lanka’s experience of the past 8 months points to most cases recovering from a mild bout of the virus, unless they belong to an identified vulnerable group. Hence, it is not the spread of the virus per se, but to whom it is spreading, where and how, that should be our focus to bring it under control. We need to stop wasting time playing the blame game. We should refrain from all unauthenticated, unhelpful or sensationalised “forwards” or “news” in social or mainstream media.  This only adds to panic and irrationality. If we act calmly and responsibly and abide by the instructions given by the Health Authority, we can bring COVID-19 under control. We need to do so urgently, before it spreads among the vulnerable in our population or exhausts our hospitalisation capacity.

 

(The author is a former Assistant Governor and Director of Statistics of

the Central Bank of Sri Lanka)



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Solidarity and Aragalaya: A few thoughts from an educationist’s perspective

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by Harshana Rambukwella

Very little in Sri Lanka at the moment inspires hope. We are facing an existential crisis that was inconceivable just six months ago. Sri Lanka is also, ironically, just a year away from marking the 75th year of its independence. As we reflect on these seven decades of postcolonial nation building, and as we confront a future of extreme precarity, our scorecard as a country is not a proud one. Much blood has been spilt in the name of postcolonial nation building and the ethno-nationalist conflict that shaped almost three decades of that history and two youth rebellions against the state speak to a history of division and enmity. While our current predicament cannot be entirely attributed to this conflictual history alone, it surely played more than a small role in shaping our present misery. It is within this context that I want to offer this brief set of reflections on what I feel is an unprecedented form of solidarity that has emerged in Sri Lanka as the aragalaya took shape. While I do not want to romanticize this solidarity because it is a highly contingent phenomenon and is shaped by the extreme nature of the current political and economic conditions, it offers us as a society, but more specifically as educators, something to reflect on as we try to imagine our role in a society that faces a painful process of rebuilding and recovery (though my hope is that such rebuilding and recovery does not mean the repetition of the tired old neo-liberal script we have followed for decades).

Before I explore what I mean by solidarity within the aragalaya, let me briefly reflect on solidarity as a concept. Solidarity is a term sometimes deployed in geopolitics. Particularly in this time of global turmoil where not just Sri Lanka, but many other countries are experiencing serious economic challenges, we see nations expressing solidarity with or towards other nations. However, such solidarity is almost always shaped by instrumental motives. This is what we might call a form of ‘vertical’ solidarity where more powerful and wealthy nations extend a ‘helping hand’ to their more unfortunate counterparts. Therefore, when India says ‘neighbourhood first’ and expresses solidarity with Sri Lanka in this time of trouble one can easily discern this as a hierarchical gesture shaped by instrumental motives. It is in reality, India’s strategic geopolitical interests that largely dominate this narrative of solidarity though one cannot disregard the critical importance of the assistance extended by India and other such ‘powerful’ nations in this time of national distress.

Another form in which solidarity manifests is through what some scholars have termed ‘enchanted’ solidarities. This is literally and metaphorically a distant form of solidarity where intellectuals, activists and others extend solidarity towards a struggle they perceive as deserving their support but without truly understanding the context in which they are intervening. This has often happened with ‘first world’ academics and intellectuals expressing solidarity towards ‘third world’ struggles which they felt were ideologically aligned with their beliefs. One example is how many liberal and leftist intellectuals supported the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, believing it to be an anti-imperial liberation movement, only to become disillusioned with the movement as they began to see the full horror of the repression and violence unleashed by the Khmer regime. I think if we reflect on Sri Lanka’s postcolonial history, we can also find many such moments where enchanted solidarities were expressed towards various movements from people in the ‘metropolitan’ center with little understanding of the nuances of the politics on the ground.

Premised against both vertical and enchanted solidarities, scholars have also proposed what is called ‘disenchanted solidarity’. By this they mean a situation where diverse groups, sometimes with very different political and ideological agendas, come together to fight for a common cause. They are often critically conscious of their differences but face a common precarity that pushes them together to struggle and align in ways that were not possible before. Often such moments are also underwritten by anger, though the sources of anger or the objects towards which the anger is directed could be different. I would like to read the aragalaya through this lens of disenchanted solidarity. Particularly at the height of the Galle Face ‘Gota go gama’ protests – before the brutish May 9th attack symbolically ‘killed’ something of the ‘innocence’ of the struggle – there was a sense in which the different groups represented in that space were expressing solidarity towards a singular goal – getting rid of the Rajapakasas and a political system they saw as deeply corrupt – there was anger and a gathering of disenchanted solidarities. For many middle-class people, the aragalaya was a way in which to express their frustration at the lack of the basic necessities of life – be it gas, electricity and fuel – and how a corrupt political class had robbed them of their future. For those with longer histories of political activism such as the IUSF (the Inter University Students Federation) or youth activists from the Frontline Socialist Party or the JVPs youth wing or the many trade unions that supported the aragalaya, this moment in some ways represented the culmination, and perhaps even a vindication, of their longstanding struggles against a political, social and economic order that they consider fundamentally unfair and exploitative. Of course, within this larger narrative, there were and continue to be pragmatic political calculations, particularly from groups affiliated with political parties. At the same time, we also witnessed ethnic and religious minorities, often historically marginalized in Sri Lanka’s social and political mainstream finding a rare space to express their anger at the ways in which they have been discriminated against. However, the argalaya gave them a rare space to do so by channeling their anger as a form of solidarity towards the common goal of getting rid of the Rajapaksa dynasty and the corrupt political system as a whole.

But at the same time, we also saw the tenuous nature of these disenchanted solidarities in the aftermath of the 9th May attack on ‘Gota go gama’. Initially we saw another spectacular display of organic and spontaneous solidarity when health workers and office workers abandoned their workstations and rushed to ‘Gota go gama’ when news of the attack broke. But by the evening of that day the story had turned more insidious with a wave of attacks against the properties of politicians and others thought to have been involved in the attack against the peaceful aragayala participants. While we may understand and even empathize with this backlash, its violent nature and what appeared to be other instrumental motives driving it, such as the looting and revenge attacks, made it difficult to associate it with the moral principles that had animated the aragalaya thus far.

Thereafter, at the current moment I am writing, the aragalaya also appears to have lost some of its vital energy as the political configuration has shifted and the tragi-comedy of Sri Lanka’s realpolitik with its underhand deals and political mechanizations seems to have regained the upper hand.

However, what does this mean? Does it mean post May 9th the aragalaya has lost its meaning and purpose or can we push our analysis a little deeper. At this point I would like to introduce one final way in which scholars have discussed solidarity which I feel is appropriate to understand the aragalaya and the spirit that underwrote it and continues to underwrite it. This is what some scholars have called ‘deep solidarity’ – a situation where in today’s neo-liberal context where the vast majority of the population come to a realization of their common social and economic predicament and realize their common enemy is the symbolic ‘one percent’ or an insidious nexus between crony capital and political power that disempowers them. This is of course an idealistic conception but one which I feel holds true at least partially to this moment in Sri Lanka. People from widely varying social and economic strata, from different religious persuasions and people with wildly different ideological and political beliefs have been suddenly pushed together. They are all standing in the never-ending petrol and diesel queues, they are desperately hunting for the next cylinder of gas and increasingly many of them are going hungry. The privileges and the divisions that once defined them, no longer seem to be so ‘real’ and the one stark reality confronting them is a form of existential annihilation. I believe within the aragalaya we can glimpse traces of this deep solidarity and as an educationist I think it is our vital task to think of creative ways in which we might sustain this solidarity, grow it and nurture it, so that we can at least ‘imagine’ a better future. These are idealistic sentiments, but at least for me, such hope, is a political and pedagogical necessity of the current moment.

Harshana Rambukwella is attached to the Postgraduate Institute of English at the Open University of Sri Lanka

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

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No solutions to nation’s problems from draft constitutional amendment

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by jehan perera

The three-wheel taxi driver did not need much encouragement to talk about the hardships in his life, starting with spending two days in the petrol queue to get his quota. He said that he had a practice of giving his three children a small packet of biscuits and a small carton of milk every morning. But now with the cost tripling, he could only buy one packet of biscuits and his three children had to share it. This is because their beloved country is facing one debacle after another for no fault of those kids or the larger nation. The latest is the failure of the government to make headway in accessing either IMF funding or other funding on any significant scale. Several countries have made donations, but these are in the millions whereas Sri Lanka requires billions if it is to come out of its vicious cycle of a dollar shortage.

There was much anticipation that the appointment of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would bring in the billions that are desperately needed by the country if it is to obtain the fuel, food and medicines to keep the people healthy and the economy moving. But things have not worked out in this manner. The pickings have been slim and sparse. The IMF has given the reasons after the ten day visit by its staff to Sri Lanka. They have specifically referred to “reducing corruption vulnerabilities” in their concluding statement at the end of their visit. The international community in the form of multilateral donors and Western governments have prioritized political stability and a corruption-free administration prior to providing Sri Lanka with the financial assistance it requires.

The pressing need in the country is for the government to show there is political stability and zero tolerance for corruption in dealing with the prevailing crisis. It is not enough for government leaders to give verbal assurances on these matters. There needs to be political arrangements that convince the international community, and the people of Sri Lanka, that the government is committed to this cause. Several foreign governments have said that they will consider larger scale assistance to Sri Lanka, once the IMF agreement is operational. So far the government has not been successful in convincing the international community that its own accountability systems are reliable. This is the main reason why the country is only obtaining millions in aid and not billions.

INDEPENDENT COMMISSIONS

The draft 22nd Amendment that is now before the parliament (which will become the 21st Amendment should it be passed) would be a good place for the government to show its commitment. The cabinet has approved the draft which has three main sections, impacting upon the establishment of the constitutional council, the powers of the president and dual citizenship. However, the cabinet-approved draft is a far cry from what is proposed by the opposition political parties and civil society groups. It is watered down to the point of being ineffective. Indeed, it appears to be designed to fail as it is unlikely to gain the support of different political parties and factions within those parties whose support is necessary if the 2/3 majority is to be obtained.

In the first place, the draft constitutional amendment does not reduce the president’s power in any significant manner. The amendment is drafted in a way that the reduction of presidential powers will only occur with the next president. The president now in office, who has publicly admitted failure on his part, continues to be empowered to appoint and sack the prime minister and cabinet ministers at his arbitrary discretion. He is also empowered to appoint and dismiss the secretaries to ministries, who are the highest-ranking public service officials. In short, the executive arms of the government are obliged to do the president’s bidding or risk their jobs. This indicates the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose party has only a single seat in parliament, has no independent strength, but is there at the will and pleasure of the president.

In the second instance, the draft amendment was expected to set up a system of checks and balances for accountability and anti-corruption purposes. The pioneering effort in this regard was the 17th Amendment of 2001 that made provisions for a constitutional council and independent commissions. According to it, the members of all state bodies tasked with accountability and anti-corruption functions, such as the Bribery and Corruption Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Police Commission, the Public Service Commission and the appointees to the higher judiciary were to be appointed through the constitutional council. The 17th Amendment made provision for seven of the ten members of the constitutional council to be from civil society.

DEATH BLOW

Unfortunately, in a manner designed to deal a death blow to the concept of checks and balances, the draft amendment sets up a constitutional council with the proportions in reverse to that of the 17th Amendment. It reveals a mindset in the political leadership that fears de-politicisation of decision making. Seven of the ten members will be appointed by the political parties and the president in a way in which the majority of members will be government appointees. Only three will be from civil society. This ensures a majority representation in the Council for government politicians, and the ensures government dominance over the political members. The composition of the constitutional council proposed in the Bill undermines the independence of the institutions to which appointments are made through the Council who will be unable to stem the wildly growing tide of corruption in the country.

It is no wonder that the furious people in the endless queues for petrol and diesel should believe that there is corruption at play in the continuing shortage of basic commodities. The government promised that ships would come in laden with fuel a week ago. Then, inexplicably, the information was disseminated that no ships were on the horizon. In any other country, except in a country like no other, the concerned leaders would have resigned. Due to the lack of fuel, perishable farm produce rots in rural farmhouses and markets in urban centres are empty and prices are rocketing up. In the meantime, the media has exposed rackets where the privileged, politically powerful and super rich, are given special access to fuel. It is patently clear that the government has failed to deliver on the results that were expected. The situation is getting worse in terms of corrupt practices.

To the credit of the Sri Lankan people, they are being patient. The bonds of social solidarity still prevail. But the anger at the self-seeking and incompetent political leaders is reaching the boiling point, as it did on 09 May. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged to set up an interim government in consultation with party leaders in parliament. However, he did not do so but appointed UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and thereby ended efforts of other parliamentarians to form a national unity government. The president’s pledge, made in the aftermath of the cataclysmic and unexpected violence that took place that day, was to reduce his presidential powers, transfer those powers to parliament and to appoint an all-party and interim government of no more than 15 ministers. These pledges remain unfulfilled and need to be implemented to be followed by elections as soon as the situation stabilises.

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Kehelgamuwa’s football skills and President Premadasa’s political sagacity

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By Hema Arachi

T.B. Kehelgamuwa, the cricketer who needs no plaudits from anyone, is well known. He represented then Ceylon and, later, Sri Lanka as a fearsome fast bowler during the pre-Test era. His contemporaries still talk about Kehel with great respect. Once S Skanda Kumar, the well-known cricketer, cricket commentator and former High Commissioner for Sri Lanka to Australia, proudly told me about his playing cricket with Kehelgamuwa. Bandu Samarasinghe, a Sri Lanka film star, on a TV programme vividly demonstrated how he faced Kehelgamuwa in a Sara Trophy game. That was the top-level tournament in the country.

This note is to share my watching Kehelgamuwa playing soccer when he was not so young. Then, though his grey hair was visible, he ran fast and played hard like a teenager. This was during President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure. Returning from The Netherlands, after my postgraduate studies, I lived in Pelawatta, near the Sri Lanka Parliament and my workplace – International Irrigation Management Institute headquarters. I used to enjoy walking on Parliament grounds. That day was unique because the game between the President’s soccer team, comprising parliamentarians, and the Sri Lanka Police team, was played there.

President Premadasa was well known for his political sagacity, especially in manipulating any situation in his favour. For instance, the day Anura Bandaranayake became the Opposition Leader, Premadasa, praised Anura stating, “Anura is the best Opposition Leader we have.” He further requested that Anura join the ruling party and become a minister and also marry a girl from a prominent ruling party family. But within weeks, he was critical of Anura. One day an Opposition member asked him, “You said Anura was our best Opposition leader a few weeks ago but now criticise.” His reply was this: “Yes, I said so because Anura is the best Opposition leader for us, the ruling party, not for the Opposition. For the Opposition, the best leader is Sarath Muththetuwegama!”

A few weeks before the scheduled encounter between the Parliamentarians and the Police football team, there was a game between the Parliamentarians and the Colombo Municipality team. Premadasa captained the Parliamentarians and kicked the winning goal. I remember a cartoon in a newspaper where the Municipality team goalkeeper withdrew so that Premadasa could score the goal at his will.

During the game against the Police, Premadasa did not play but visibly played the role of the coach of the Parliamentarian team. Unlike the Municipality players, the Police played the game seriously. Kehelgamuwa represented the Police team that scored five goals by halftime, and the Parliamentarian team was nil. At halftime, Premadasa replaced the Parliamentarian goalkeeper with Jayawickerama Perera. Yet, the Police team recorded a sound victory.

I thought Premadasa was upset due to this defeat for his team. But no. Premadasa claimed victory: “I am happy that my team won the game by beating the Parliamentarians today! Being the Executive President, I do not belong to the Parliament. However, as the Commander-in-Chief, the Police come under my purview, so my team won today!”

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