We are experiencing another lockdown, this time for 10 days. The current death rate, due to COVID, is a reflection of what happened two weeks ago and hence the death rate is likely to rise even during this lockdown period, and the effects of the lockdown may not be apparent for another four weeks. It should be realised that the people are already paying a heavy price for the mistakes made, not just ours but governments in other countries. However, the important thing is to learn from the mistakes and improve as we go on to get rid of this deadly virus.
National ‘Lockdowns’ impose a change of behaviour needed to achieve an objective. In a war situation, military ‘lockdowns’ prevent the enemy engaging in activities that can damage the nation. This form includes roadblocks, curfews, surveillance, crowd control, arrests, lockups, punishments, etc. We have seen this during the war and also now during the pandemic. The objective of a ‘lockdown’, in this pandemic, is to minimise the spread of the virus and implement a weaning strategy to avoid a return to the same ‘lockdown’ once again.
We are a small country, with 21M people. We can be united and the pandemic managed a lot easier when compared to other countries. The USA has 330M, India 1300M and China 1400M. Maintaining family links, to support each other, is essential in the form of ‘defined’ bubbles to maintain sanity in a civilised nation. Weddings and funerals are important events of our life and these have to be carried out and can be done within the rules of preventing the spread of the COVID virus. In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had his wedding and Prince Phillip Duke of Edinburgh had his funeral during the peak of the pandemic, with no spectators, and adhering to every rule that was in place. Why cannot we be more humane in Sri Lanka?
The COVID pandemic is a healthcare emergency. Many other countries implemented ‘lockdowns’ for control of the spread of the virus. None of the Governments got the strategy perfectly right but they learnt from the mistakes and increasingly adhered to scientific directions to prevent the spread of the disease and return back to normal life patterns, without disrupting the cultural needs of the population or subjecting them to undue distress. The expenses required were revolved around obtaining government loans. For people in countries, such as Brazil, the presidential stubbornness made them pay with the dear loss of life which has now turned to a massive anti-government campaign.
Science had to be at the forefront as none of the administrators, or politicians, had any previous experience of a pandemic. These are ‘civilian’ lockdowns. The purpose was mainly to prevent health facilities from becoming overwhelmed and to maintain the ‘status quo’ until herd immunity was developed, by infection or immunisation. For example, in the UK new hospital facilities were developed, with military assistance, to accommodate more cases, if the existing hospital system got overcrowded. Many hospitals stopped routine work, redeployed staff, and converted their operating theatres and recovery areas to ICUs.
Unfortunately, our leaders interpreted ‘lockdowns’ as a solution, not realising this was applied in the developed world not to close down activities but to prevent the healthcare system from getting overwhelmed by too many sick people. To bridge, working from home was promoted, but education and essential services continued. The aim was to maintain the status quo until herd immunity has developed by vaccination or infection.
Coming out of lockdown is the most difficult task. This is because it has to be linked to daily infection rates, death rates, immunisation rates, based on prediction models, to understand what may work best. With our falsified, or manipulated erroneous data, there was little hope in making any useful prediction. It was a garbage ‘in’ garbage ‘out’ scenario.
The UK government, for example, did all it can to maintain other activities, complying with the restrictions required to prevent the spread of the virus. As advised by the scientific group, the use of masks indoors, regular handwashing, minimal nose and mouth touching and 2M social distancing was implemented in all institutions. Schools were kept open for children of essential workers to attend with minimal staff whilst others engaged in development and execution of online education. Examination formats were changed to ensure that the country will be on track to maintain educational goals, such as university entry. All workers, too, had to work from home, where possible, and national transport facilities were available with socially distanced rules applied to minimise contact. In other words, some seats were blocked and hence public transport services carried a lesser number of passengers. Since the number of commuters reduced due to ‘working from home’ where possible, public transport could easily cope with the need. Mass gatherings were not allowed anywhere. Masks were not required outdoors as there was no evidence to support significant virus spread outdoors. The role of police was mostly advisory to maintain ‘social distancing’ rules. The number of people who could attend weddings, religious ceremonies and funerals were restricted to a few, but none were cancelled. The military was called to help civilian needs, such as development of new healthcare facilities and mass testing campaign.
Implementing a lockdown is simple but coming out of it, maintaining the original objective of ‘preventing spread of the virus’, is difficult. This is where there was a need for expert advice, not based on wishful thinking, but based on daily data and prediction models. In order for prediction models to be accurate, there was a need for accurate data, which is lacking. This is why Sri Lanka is facing great difficulty, economically, as ‘lockdowns’ reduced productivity, with no mechanism in place to keep it going. The UK never had curfews or stop work instructions given to anyone. Instead, how can we work from home, safely, was the motive?
It is not late for Sri Lanka to allow civilian expert leadership to takeover and let them redeploy healthcare staff as they always did for healthcare campaigns, assisted by the military, if necessary, to do specific jobs. Enhance mechanisms for accurate data collections, invite professionals to develop prediction models, based on crucial data that is helpful to predict the evolution of the pandemic. Military style lockdown will only exacerbate the economic shutdown, as they would not know how to manage weaning off from the lockdown, based on daily health data and measures of herd immunity.
Let us start by at least calculating the R factor (daily or weekly) for every region. R is the number of people that one infected person will pass on a virus to, on average. R factor above 1.0 is not very good as one infectious individual is infecting more than one. If the R factor is less than 1.0 for a particular region, then relaxing prevention restrictions can be considered very carefully. R factor should be published weekly with a set of recommendations. This is important as this is also a public health education exercise. More and more people will start listening and abiding by COVID prevention rules with time. We together have to look after the nation and not punish them at this difficult time for all.
For this scientific strategy to work, there is a need to collect true data and publish it openly with a set of recommendations to the Government by the Director-General of Health Services. The government will then be able to make its own judgment, balancing other needs. A democratically elected government should also have democratic governance throughout its term of office and not just expect that to have been only operational at their own election.
Crowds are the main spreading events. Although the democratic right is existent for protests, even within the pandemic, such protest leaders should consider postponing such events until the infectious environment has subsided.
The COVID pandemic is a healthcare emergency and not a military emergency. Please hand over the leadership of handling this matter to the Director-General of Health Services (DHS) and his department who has engaged in preventive medicine practice for donkey’s years. Let the DHS invite relevant ‘brains’ and the ‘boots’ to carry out tasks, not by force, but by public education and understanding. Public engagement on preventive measures and developing herd immunity by immunisation are the only two hopeful tools that will let us come out of this dredging pandemic with minimal cost of life and economic damage.
Former Professor of Anaesthesiology, University of Peradeniya.
An easily preventable ‘road accident’
A few days ago, a young university lady lecturer was run over by a lorry at the Wickramasinghe Pura junction, Battaramulla. She was using a phone call while crossing the road. She was distracted by the call and lost sight of the moving traffic at this dangerous junction. She paid for her mistake with her precious young life.
It is common to see women and young working girls on roads, holding phones to their ears. This has almost become a fashion.If using a phone while driving a vehicle is an offence, it is difficult to see why it is not an offence to use a phone while walking along the busy streets full of untrained drivers and undisciplined riders?
As for the other causes of the aforesaid fatal accident, of what use is the invisible traffic light installed at the badly designed junction which is meant only to control traffic moving along the main road. It fails to warn the undisciplined drivers coming down from Wickramasinghe Pura. There is no light to control their entry into the main road.
The writer who lives in the area has faced many bad experiences at this spot mainly caused by drivers coming down Wickramasinghe Pura, failing to give way to vehicles on the right on the main road. The steep gradient of this road adds more to this problem.
Eng. Anton Nanayakkara
Beware of ides of March
The Sri Lankan government is getting ready to sign ETCA (Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement) with India amidst stiff resistance from the members of the professional groups who consider it as an open invitation to India to exploit the weak Sri Lankan economy as well as the Sri Lankans who are in an unenviable situation.
At a recent discussion on the deliberations on international trade agreements, one professional pointed out that the subject of trade agreements in Sri Lanka was managed only by one senior official of the Sri Lankan government. In all other countries, the subject of international trade agreements is discussed and determined by a group of highly-skilled professionals, who look into many aspects such as international trading practices, local imports and exports, the impact on the local population, employment, other local resources, economic trends. Social mobility of the local population, social aspirations of the population are some areas which should receive clinical evaluation from the professionals who investigate the subject of international trade agreements. Do we conduct such in-depth studies before committing ourselves to vital pacts with powerful nations like India, indefinitely? If so, Sri Lankans would be eager to get feedback from the Sri Lankan government about the feasibility of ETCA.
The CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement), which was rejected by many of the professional bodies as well as trade unions, was withdrawn by the then government. It was a step in the right direction. But ETCA, which we expect to be more comprehensive in all aspects and have a bigger impact, is going to be approved and implemented by the present government. When facing India’s rulers and formidable officialdom, Sri Lanka, as a country which has burrowed substantial amounts of money on account of the recent crisis, has little bargaining power.
It is morally wrong for the government to place the country in such a perilous situation. How can a small nation be expected to stand firm and take the right decisions unfavourable to powerful and strong India even regarding matters which will have destructive repercussions on the economy and the people of Sri Lanka?
Sri Lankan government led by President Ranil Wickremasinghe and the SLPP MPs should postpone the signing of the ECTA and open discussions with the professional groups, trade unions and interested political and social organisations about the details of the ETCA in the month of March and listen and amend the agreement suitably or reject it.
A tale of two taxes and political duplicity
Rishi Sunak, a British politician of Indian descent and the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, recently disclosed his personal tax returns, revealing he and his wife, Akshata Murty, paid over 500,000 pounds sterling in taxes last year. This hefty sum has sparked public debate, drawing comparisons to the dire economic situation unfolding all over the world. It has particular relevance to us in the so-called “Wonder of Asia”, where citizens battle crippling inflation, intolerable cost of living, shortages of essentials and unbearable taxation. While on the surface, these appear as separate issues, a closer examination reveals deeper complexities and major underlying questions about wealth, fairness, equity, and the role of leadership in navigating economic distress in this paradise isle.
Sunak and his wife, Akshata Murty, the daughter of an Indian billionaire, have been subject to intense scrutiny regarding their considerable wealth and tax contributions. Despite Murty’s substantial inheritance, Rishi Sunak has been forthright about the couple’s tax payments, emphasizing their commitment to fulfilling their fiscal obligations. In an era where tax avoidance and evasion among the wealthy are hot-button issues, especially in our wonderful Motherland, Sunak’s openness about his tax affairs has garnered both praise and criticism.
Sunak’s admirable efforts at releasing his tax returns is a welcome step, offering some insight into his personal finances amidst widespread concerns about his wealth and potential conflicts of interest in the performance of his duties as a politician. Most importantly, his significant tax contribution demonstrates compliance with the law and highlights his personal financial attributes in a see-through manner. However, critics argue that focusing solely on the total amount ignores the underlying details.
A large portion of their income came from capital gains, taxed at a lower rate than income tax. Additionally, Murty’s non-domiciled status in the UK meant she initially avoided paying taxes on foreign earnings, but later opted to pay UK tax on all her worldwide income, mainly to quell public criticism. These nuances leave some people questioning the true fairness of their tax liabilities, particularly when compared to the average UK taxpayer.
Sri Lanka’s economic woes are starkly different amidst the worst-ever financial crisis. These issues have caused immense hardship for ordinary citizens, with many struggling to be able to afford even the basic necessities. The government, grappling with mounting debt and dwindling reserves, has been forced to impose austerity measures and seek international assistance. The situation stands in unadulterated contrast to Sunak’s personal finances, highlighting the vast disparities in economic realities between wealthy individuals and nations facing financial peril.
While comparing Sunak’s tax bill directly to Sri Lanka’s national debt is impossible, the situations raise crucial questions about equity and leadership. In Sri Lanka, public anger simmered over perceived mismanagement and corruption, leading to protests in the form of the so-called “aragalaya”, and calls for accountability and system change. In the UK too, concerns remain about the fairness of the tax system and the ability of the wealthy to navigate it differently. While Sunak has implemented policies aimed at alleviating the cost-of-living crises, some argue that they are insufficient, particularly for the most vulnerable.
Ultimately, the situations in the UK and Sri Lanka, though seemingly disparate, offer valuable lessons in navigating economic complexities. While praising Sunak’s transparency is important, it should not distract from addressing systemic issues within the UK tax system. Simultaneously, international cooperation and support are crucial to help Sri Lanka emerge from its crisis. Building bridges through responsible leadership, equitable tax policies, and international solidarity are essential steps towards a more just and sustainable future for all.
In recent years, discussions surrounding the tax contributions of public figures have become increasingly prominent, in many areas of the world and most certainly in this emerald isle as well. The spotlight often falls on politicians and high-profile individuals, scrutinizing their financial practices and contributions to the public coffers. Sunak’s openness about his tax affairs contrasts sharply with the opaque and dastardly practices of many politicians in Sri Lanka, where hidden incomes and tax evasion are rampant.
It is a well-known open secret that Sri Lankan politicians engage in dubious financial practices to conceal their wealth and evade taxes with a perfect and unwavering blind eye being turned on these miscreants by the authorities. The suspicions of exorbitant wealth hidden, in the country as well as abroad, by Sri Lankan politicians further exacerbates the sense of injustice and inequality prevailing in the country. The issue of tax evasion and hidden incomes among Sri Lankan politicians is not merely a matter of financial impropriety but also a reflection of the broader governance disparities facing the nation. Despite numerous anti-corruption measures and pledges by successive governments to combat graft and sleaze, progress remains elusive.
High-ranking political stooge types of officials continue to amass wealth through illicit means, shielded by a culture of impunity and weak enforcement mechanisms. One of the primary reasons for the persistence of tax evasion and hidden incomes among Sri Lankan politicians is the lack of accountability and transparency which is inherent in the country’s political system. The absence of robust oversight mechanisms allows corrupt individuals to operate with a licence of safety for the ability to shield their ill-gotten gains and filthy lucre from public scrutiny. Furthermore, the close ties between political elites and business interests facilitate the siphoning of public funds and the accumulation of wealth at the expense of ordinary citizens.
In contrast to the opacity and corruption prevalent in Sri Lanka’s political landscape, Rishi Sunak’s example underscores the importance of transparency and integrity in public office. As the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Rishi Sunak has not only tried hard to manage the UK’s finances responsibly but has also demonstrated a commitment to openness regarding his personal wealth and tax contributions. By setting a positive example of accountability, Sunak highlights the contrast between responsible governance and the entrenched corruption plaguing many developing nations, the topmost position of which is occupied by our Pearl in the Indian Ocean.
Addressing the issue of tax evasion and hidden incomes among Sri Lankan politicians and their stooges as well as their goons, requires a multifaceted approach encompassing legal reforms, institutional strengthening, and greater transparency. Legislative measures must be enacted to close loopholes and strengthen anti-corruption laws, ensuring that those who engage in illicit financial activities face extremely severe consequences. Additionally, independent oversight bodies should be empowered to investigate allegations of corruption and hold perpetrators accountable, aiming to put the perpetrators behind bars.
The stark disparity between Sunak’s tax transparency and the deplorable state of Sri Lankan politicians trying hard to hide their unholy incomes, underscore the urgent need for reforms within the latter. Sri Lanka’s endemic corruption and tax evasion perpetuate iniquity as well as inequality, undermine trust in democratic institutions, and hinder economic progress. Only through concerted efforts to promote honesty, transparency, accountability, and good governance can Sri Lanka hope to address these systemic challenges and fulfil its potential as a prosperous and equitable society. We cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel as there is no guarantee that even if there is a drastic political change, the newer strains of politicians would go hell for leather to put the perpetrators behind bars through our legal system.
It was Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964, who famously said: “Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.” Sri Lankan politicians are no different at all; they are as bad as the rest of them in the whole wide world. Yet for all that, be rest assured, people of this country, that the Sri Lankan law-makers will never take any meaningful steps to punish other politicians of their own clan or even those belonging to other parties of various hues, even when they are well-known to be corrupt. The operative axiom is “you scratch my back, and I will scratch yours.” If we anticipate any restorative action at all to be taken in redressing corruption and tax evasion by successive generations of Sri Lankan politicians, it is likely to be an elusive expectation of monumental proportions.
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