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Lockdowns, travel restrictions and basics for control of Covid-19 third wave

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Vehicles moving towards Colombo, along the Negombo Road, during lockdowns

 

By Dr. Pradeep Kariyawasam
Former Chief Medical Officer
Chairman, Standing Committee on Health/CMC

The 14-day ‘Lockdown’ or so called ‘Travel Restrictions’ to prevent the further spread of the Covid-19 virus which later became a 21-day event ended on Monday (21).

The inevitable happened in April this year after we were lax in taking the timely decisions. In January this year I warned through your newspaper about the possibility of the UK variant B 1.1.7. (now called Alpha) arriving in the country. Many who came over from the UK were in protective bubbles or in quarantine centres, before they were allowed out in the community and that included the English Cricket team. There could have been others infected with the virus that arrived from the UK. Considering that the PCR tests show only 70 % of infected persons as being positive for the disease, so many others could escape being detected with Covid-19 and be symptomless carriers.

It is interesting that the virus has spread to a lot of areas before it was found but details are sketchy. We don’t know whether there were unconnected cases in the community. So, maybe it was here for a few months before the existence was confirmed in April this year. What happened to our surveillance system operated by the Epidemiology Unit? The lowering of the number of PCR or antigen tests may be the reason why this was not detected earlier, and lower infection rates that were shown since February this year were not factually correct. Then, when the first notification of the possibility of the arrival of the virus was made on the 8th of April 2021, the immediate reaction should have been to order a total Lockdown at least in the Western Province. Timeliness is the most important factor in controlling epidemics. But then it was important to have the New Year festivities and here we are. We now have to take urgent informed action to control the present outbreak post Lockdown. Otherwise, it would be catastrophic for the country.

Looking at the present situation, the six strains of Covid-19 virus in the country at present are detectable now, and the areas where each is located are mapped at least by the district. When patients were found mainly Grama Niladhari Divisions were brought under lockdown to control the spread. Some were opened after a few days or weeks. This was hardly enough to stop this epidemic spreading. There seems to have been no coordinated efforts by the stakeholders. While politicians have to listen to the people’s social and economic woes, the health authorities have to impose conditions laid out in the Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Ordinance. The Mayor or the Medical Officer of Health is the Authority to implement the conditions in this Ordinance at local level and therefore it is seen that the Municipal Councils or Town Councils have a role to play during this period, too. But this did not take place and while some politicians had a field day others got into confrontations.

 

Spreading like wildfire

While local lockdowns may have worked in the peripheral areas in the short term, such small lockdowns could have been ineffective, useless and dangerous in areas where large crowds live. These are towns and cities, where a large number of slum and shanty areas and middle-class Housing complexes are situated side-by-side allowing the disease to spread like wildfire. The solution for such areas was vaccination of all people at least over the age of 30. But it did not take place as that was not a priority, and then there was a vaccine shortage. The rich had an unfair share of the vaccines which is happening even today. I hope they will realize that by vaccinating the people in the poorer areas we could stop the spread into their areas. These people live in small poorly ventilated slums or rooms, sometimes 5-6 in a room, that create ideal situations for virus transmission unlike in richer areas. Although mutations take place all over the world creating new variants, and will continue until Covid-19 goes away, most of the vaccines seem to be holding well against them. The infected people plus vaccinated persons will create herd immunity but only vaccinations can prevent massive infections and mutations quickly so that there isn’t much of a damage to the society. The toll of this traumatic experience for many cannot be measured individually or as a society. Families have suffered socially, economically and some have already lost their beloved ones. The deaths of pregnant women and infants show how traumatic the experience could be not only to the family but also to the health staff.

Lockdowns themselves will not stop the spread among the people unless they are properly policed. This is what happened in the recent days where 60-70 thousand vehicles entered the city every day. That is nearly 100,000 entering the city! In poorer settlements life is continuing like on any other normal day with people roaming around within their area. But then they cannot engage in work! So, lockdowns seem to be for the poor and “travel restriction” are for the rich. Scientists have identified that the virus stays alive in the body only for 6-7 days, so a quarantine period or a proper lockdown of 21 days would suffice to clear an area of the virus. We need 21 days as the incubation period could be up to 10-14 days and after getting infected, the virus will be dead by 6 to 7 days. Of course, there are outliers to this range.These days the number of new patients found daily are around 2200-2400 which shows that an upward trend has been checked and that is good news.

 

Achieving good results

To achieve good results the law enforcement agents and field staff of the Health Departments should build positive relationships with their community, respect civil rights and not impose unnecessary hard and fast rules which may be counter-productive. With the threat looming due to the UK’s Alpha and other new variants, we have to prevent the disease spreading but at the same time see that socially and economically people are not that affected, as for more than a year they have undergone immense hardships. This is so, especially with the farmers and middle level traders, who are unable to trade or sell their crops due to sudden closures and lockdowns.

‘Live with the virus’ should be the slogan for the next few months. TV footages showed vendors with perishable items such as vegetables and fruits told all of a sudden to pack up and go from road side, fairs or economic centres. I understand the police have been given orders but then these people should have been handled more humanely. Perhaps they also should be allowed to sell the products while maintaining health conditions. Consumers should be told that only one person is allowed near a street vendor at a time and they should stand in queues with a two-metre social distance between them waiting for their turn. Small scale shops should be allowed to open and only one person per four square metres should be allowed inside the shops, and others should stay outside waiting for their turn so that there won’t be a rush to buy food stuff and other items. This is much better than getting vendors in mobile vehicles from other areas. The government should order that paying leasing charges or rents for vehicles, shops should be postponed or halved for this period and allow the dues to be gradually paid after the lockdown.

 

Communication breakdown

Unfortunately, the communication between the government agencies and the people at large have broken down. There is no direct communication with the poor people, the most vulnerable sections of our society, and they are not organized although civil societies exist. The people are apprehensive about the actions of the law enforcement officers and the Public Health Inspectors. Usually, in Colombo Health Educators and Instructors communicated well with the people, spreading out the health messages in an appropriate manner. We had at least 300 active Community Development Councils in the city before 2015. Today we don’t have that system anymore. The result is disorganized communities in the cities especially in the urban slums and marginalized apartment complexes. During the second wave around 100 people died in their homes in Colombo without medical help. Prevention and control of disease spread therefore has become impossible as there is no community participation. More informal health education actions should be carried out visiting the probable high-risk areas and action should be taken to look into various needs of the people in locked down areas whether it is the rice, fruits and vegetables, dry rations, curry powder, cooking oil, gas or whatever basic things they need, or simply help them to sell their wares.

 

Need for proper data

So, what should be done to rein in the virus and stop this menace? First, in future we have to take quick, strong and timely action to stop the transmission of the disease. For that we need proper data and maps before taking decisions. The government should not allow any organisation impose their will by coming out with various unproductive and social destructive proposals. Years ago, there were so many Epidemiologists who were highly trained, mainly abroad, but I just don’t see the Epidemiology Unit in the fore-front of Covid-19 control now. I think the government should bring back those who have retired and put each province under one of them. The data provided now is not worth to take informed decisions. There should be enough young medical officers with IT knowledge who can bring out great analyzed data and maps who can be put to work at the main Unit. The prevention and control should involve the following actions for outbreak response: surveillance of patients and contact tracing, laboratory testing, case management at home and hospital level, infection prevention and control, travel restrictions, lockdowns, epidemiological and outbreak analytics, dissemination of information to relevant officials and most importantly to the general public, logistics, risk communication and community engagement. Lockdowns are may be a short-term strategy but not desirable in the long-term as a strategy and what should be done is to place systems in place and building up capacities not only of the health staff but also of the general public for short and swift actions to prevent the spread of the virus.

 

How to stop transmission

With regard to travel restrictions the strategy should be based on the notion that when people stop moving the virus also stops moving and if it stops moving then it dies away. Data has shown that 8 out of 10 people should stay at home for the corona virus to be controlled. This is an important message as sometimes even the vaccinated get ill. So, what can be done? What can be suggested is that at any time or any day both the Public and the Private Sectors should have only 20% of their office staff at work at least until the end of September this year. All government departments, businesses or institutions should have their own Covid-19 prevention Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and health protocols in place catering to the specific needs of such places. This is important especially for government institutions. Inter district travel should be only for the essential staff. The manufacturing industry can have all their staff in bubbles by providing the staff with lodgings. The factories should have 50% of the staff but with longer working hours having weekly rotations. The same goes for the building industry. They can have night shifts. The staff can be allowed home once a fortnight after being checked by a physician whether they have the symptoms. They should also be given a place in the priority list for vaccinations. In any case if they have the disease the others also will get ill by that time and then the whole group could be quarantined together. Private transport for the staff is important and that goes for the government workers also. Similarly, others also can make arrangements after obtaining medical opinion by those who are involved in Covid-19 prevention. Those drivers and conductors in the transport services also should be vaccinated as a priority.

The Covid-19 Prevention Task Force should work in smaller sub-committees: Disease Control; Security; Logistics, Vaccine procurement and delivery; Hospital Management; Economics, Manufacturing, Agriculture and Trade; Ambulance Service, etc., and meet the Task Force with their own decisions which should be conveyed at the meetings with the Head of the Government. That meeting should be for only the key officials from these sub-committees or those who are invited specially to hear their opinions. Those who come with different opinions should be given a chance to voice their concerns at each level. Public Health staff should engage with local communities in the MOH areas to build trust for evidence-based actions to detect possible cases and encourage local leaders to support outbreak control response measures. Strategic decisions with regard to control measures should be taken at central level by an Expert Panel comprising of Epidemiologists, Virologists, Public Health and Hospital administrators. Keep out the ‘Wannabe Epidemiologists’ stupid ideas such as vaccinate people in ‘Virgin Areas’. They do more harm than good as too many cooks spoil the soup. A true Epidemiologist with years of experience gets a gut feeling of what should be done next. Ambulance Services should be combined and coordinated by one sub-committee. All vacancies for health staff should be filled at least temporarily especially, those in the public health workforce. Border control should be strict especially in the northern seas to prevent delta virus not entering the country. Fishermen should be told not to mix with Indian fishermen. All decisions should be based on guidelines, policies and decisions of the Task Force or Presidential directives based on worked out strategies, the analyzed information, maps, risk assessments, and the epidemiological situation. The basic messages to the general public should be to wear a mask, wash the hands, keep social distance, get vaccinated, go for self-isolation and get medical help if they suspect they have the disease, home quarantine if required etc.

 

Equitable treatment 

On the side of the authorities, they must ensure equitable treatment of all people, free equitable access to diagnostic tests, therapy, and vaccines, which should be allocated according to worked out criteria and needs. The Local NGOs and INGOs should be roped in to help whatever way without getting involved in decision making and politicians should be involved only for organizing the people for PCR testing or for vaccination programmes.

It is a must to have proper communications with people in the area and the health staff comprising of the field officers are the best to do this. Secondly, in future lockdowns must cover larger land areas than at present. For example, if patients are found in a certain Grama Sevaka (GS) Division then lock down the surrounding GS areas too as obviously people don’t contain themselves to their own areas but would have gone into other close-by areas also even before the virus was detected by PCR or antigen testing. If there is a cluster of GS divisions affected then the MOH areas or even Districts should be locked down. However, the essential health staff should be allowed to go to work and trading of essential items should be allowed. Every household should be issued with a card where only one person at a time is allowed outside to go to buy needed items. If these measures still don’t work out then curfew should be declared in such areas again for at least two weeks and see the progress. What has been mentioned above are the basics that should be attended to stop the third wave but not an exhaustive one.

 

Natural decline or vaccination

What will finally stop this epidemic is natural decline or vaccination of the population as Israel did for their citizens. The latter should be our priority. People should as early as possible get their doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, whether it is the AstraZeneca, Sputnik V, Sinopharm or Pfizer vaccine that is available in their area. If we want to stop large scale deaths as in India this should be done immediately. We don’t want this to happen especially in cities such as Colombo, Kandy or Jaffna. Vaccine mis-use, pilferage, selling, and only the privileged getting the injections should be stopped forthwith. Now that the health and armed forces staff are given the vaccines the next priority should be various field staff, staff members of private and public institutions who are in direct contact with customers, traders, shopkeepers, and people in high population density areas where the disease affected large numbers and decisions should not be based on their connections, power or money. Hope we will stick to basics of epidemiology and control this third wave, and see that all are safe in this country.



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Implementing 13A: Some thoughts

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The 13A requires the Government to establish a National Land Commission, which would be responsible for the formulation of a national policy, concerning the use of State land. This Commission will include representatives of all Provincial Councils. The Commission will have a Technical Secretariat, representing all the relevant disciplines required to evaluate the physical as well as the socio-economic factors that are relevant to natural resources management. National policy, on land, use will be based on technical aspects, but not political or communal aspects.

by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne, President’s Counsel

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution (13A), which introduced devolution of power to the periphery, is again in the news, this time on the need to fully implement it. President Ranil Wickremesinghe first raised the issue in Parliament, asking the various parties whether they are for 13 Plus, meaning improving on 13A. SJB’s Lakshman Kiriella, an avowed supporter of devolution, while saying that his party is for it, asked the President whether Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLPP, which provides the President with the Parliamentary majority he needs for his legislative agenda, was supportive. Pressed by the President and Kiriella for a response, Rajapaksa, who had promised India to improve on 13A, rose reluctantly and said ‘13 Plus’.

President Wickremesinghe’s attempt to get a consensus on a constitutional settlement of the national question did not get off the ground. The SLPP is unlikely to abandon its Sinhala-nationalist platform. Opposition parties were sceptical. Realising the impossibility of a far-reaching amendment, the President has changed his strategy to one of fully implementing 13A, without changes, or with minor changes, that could muster SLPP support.

Several Opposition parties, that attended the previous meetings of the All-Party Conference (APC), stayed away from the meeting, held on January 27. While the SJB said that the APC was a mere ‘talk show,’ its ally among the Hill Country Tamils, the TPA, said that the President had not considered the issues facing them. The SJB’s Muslim allies did participate. MP Harini Amarasuriya clarified that while the NPP supported the 13A, in principle, it did not consider the President’s statement, on fully implementing the13A, credible.

The main areas in which the 13A has not been implemented are law and order (Police powers) and land. To add to this, successive governments have, over the last 35 years, taken back several subjects, and functions, that legitimately belong to the Provincial Councils (PCs) – agrarian services being one of them. The high point of central intrusion was the Divineguma Act of 2013, under which several functions of PCs, related to rural development, were taken over, using the two-thirds majority that the Government possessed.

Constitutional and legislative changes

The President spoke of the need to establish the National Land Commission, a requirement of the 13A, but which successive governments had not done. He also said that a decision on whether to continue with Provincial Police Commissions, or to bring the Provincial Police, under the National Police Commission, had to be taken. The latter would be a centralising feature—a 13 Minus—that will be to the disappointment of pro-devolution forces.

At the time of the 13A, there was no National Police Commission. Appointments, transfers, etc., of Police personnel, were handled by the Public Service Commission, with the Cabinet of Ministers having the power to overturn decisions of the PSC. To set up the National Police Commission and Provincial Police Commissions, provided for by the 13A, the Police Commission Act No. 1 of 1990 was passed but has not been brought into force by successive Presidents. Under the 13A, a Provincial Police Commission would consist of the Deputy Inspector General of Police, a person nominated by the Public Service Commission, in consultation with the President, and a nominee of the Chief Minister. Since the 13A, a National Police Commission was set up by the 17th and 19th Amendments, and the President now appoints its members on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council. The writer submits that these changes must be reflected in the Provincial Police Commissions, as well. The sub-committee on Law and Order, of the Constitutional Assembly of the previous Parliament, recommended that the Chairman, and the members of the Provincial Police Commissions, should be recommended by the Constitutional Council, having considered nominations, jointly provided by the Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the respective Provincial Council. The writer submits that a better option would be for a Provincial Police Commission to be appointed by the Governor, on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council, which should be required to call for nominations from the general public and also consult the Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the Province concerned. Any such change would require a constitutional amendment.

The 13A requires the Government to establish a National Land Commission, which would be responsible for the formulation of a national policy, concerning the use of State land. This Commission will include representatives of all Provincial Councils. The Commission will have a Technical Secretariat, representing all the relevant disciplines required to evaluate the physical as well as the socio-economic factors that are relevant to natural resources management. National policy, on land, use will be based on technical aspects, but not political or communal aspects. The Commission will lay down general norms, regarding the use of land, having regard to soil, climate, rainfall, soil erosion, forest cover, environmental factors, economic viability, etc. In the exercise of the powers devolved on them, Provincial Councils shall have due regard to national policy, formulated by the National Land Commission. The Constitution does not set out the composition, etc., of the National Land Commission. The establishment of the Commission would have to be ordinary legislation.

Broad consensus needed

President Wickremesinghe, with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Premier Dinesh Gunawardena, sitting beside him, told the APC that the Cabinet of Ministers had approved the full implementation of the 13A. If as President Wickremesinghe confidently says, he has the support of the Cabinet of Ministers and, thus, of the SLPP, the full implementation of 13A would be certainly possible. But it is important that the President reaches out to the Opposition parties, as well. The SJB is for devolution as a solution to the national issue. Sajith Premadasa’s Presidential election manifesto pledged maximum devolution, within an undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka. Premadasa won areas dominated by Tamils, Muslims and Hill Country Tamils, with percentages second only to those secured by President Kumaratunga, in 1994. SJB’s Muslim and Hill Country allies support devolution, but the President needs to talk to parties representing those communities, about issues pertaining to them, too.

The new ‘Helicopter’ alliance seems unable to take a unified stand on the 13A. Dullas and Dilan Perera were at the forefront of CBK’s campaign for devolution, and Professor G.L. Pieris was the architect of her devolution proposals. Tissa Vitarana did an admirable job of getting a consensus on the national issue, through the APRC process. The Left parties in the Utttara Sabhagaya are strong supporters of devolution, while their nationalist allies are against it. Former President Sirisena spoke in support of implementing the 13A at the APC. The JVP/NPP is unlikely to oppose moves to implement the 13A.

It must not be assumed that the President’s declared intention to implement the 13A could be put into practice easily. Sinhala nationalists, in the Uttara Sabhagaya, have already declared war against fully implementing the 13A, and not all SLPP elements would be enthusiastic about supporting the proposed changes. They are sure to be joined by Sinhala extremists outside Parliament. Anti-13A forces would attempt to use discontent among the masses suffering due to the economic mess the country is in. In these circumstances, the Government needs to convince the people, and the Opposition, of the genuineness of the exercise and the chances of its success. Lest the extremists raise the ‘separatist’ bogey, President Wickremesinghe and the Government must meet such arguments, taking the bull by its horns, and also explain to the people that power-sharing, through devolution, is a must, not only to solve the ethnic issue but also for the development of the periphery. Given its composition, the present Government cannot do so on its own. It must reach out and build a broad consensus on the issue.

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Aiyo, Sirisena

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Former president Sirisena has declared that he is poor and therefore has to go begging to pay compensation awarded by the Supreme Court to the victims of the Easter Sunday massacre! He was unwilling to stand in the dock when he appeared as an accused in a subsequent case and had to be ordered to do so by the Magistrate.

Just imagine an ex-president going around begging from the populace that was made destitute by the actions of the government he headed and the government that followed, which he was part of! To make matters even worse he gives totally ludicrous and unbelievable explanations. Let me add a few of my thoughts to many opinions expressed so far, including those in the editorial “Sirisena’s plea” (The Island, 24 January) wherein the editor quite rightly names those responsible for making this totally undeserved person the President, and suggests that they should help him pay, if at all.

The two important issues that need consideration are whether Sirisena is guilty of neglecting his duties as president in not defending the country from terrorism and who is responsible for paying the compensation awarded by the Supreme court.

I pose the first question because in numerous press conferences, Sirisena has stated that the Supreme Court awarded compensation because he was indirectly responsible for the actions of security chiefs he appointed, implying that there is no direct responsibility! One wonders whether Sirisena is unable to understand the judgement, which categorically states that there were lapses such as the malfunctioning security council for which he was directly responsible. In fact, what surprised me was the reflected annoyance or frustrations of the honourable justices by their use of terms like “what takes the cake” in referring to some of these terrible lapses! Though Sirisena does not come from an academic background, having been a cabinet minister and the general secretary of a major political party for years, surely, he should be able to grasp the contents of a judgement.

Obviously, Sirisena cannot challenge the judgement as it was delivered by the highest court in the land and he cannot criticise the judgement as it would amount to contempt of court. Therefore, it is pretty obvious that he is using a diversionary tactic hoping to fool us. Perhaps, he is unaware of the famous adage: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Sirisena seems to have developed total amnesia about the commission he appointed to inquire into the Easter Sunday massacre! From parts of the report released, it was pretty obvious that the blame lay, in addition to the security establishment, on him as well as the prime minister of the day, who as the present president must be having bad dreams of the day when he no longer has presidential immunity!

In fact, one of the reasons for the downfall of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was his reluctance to take action on that report. Perhaps, he did so at the behest of his younger brother who was obsessed with the two thirds majority.

Sirisena seems to disregard facts and is on a shameless mission to deceive the public again by stating that he has no means to pay compensation. He claims that his only income is from a mango plantation and that he does not own even a motorcycle. But have we ever seen him riding a bicycle or travelling by bus?

Although he has not provided any proof, Sirisena claims that he was in a hospital in Singapore for an urgent medical condition at the time of the attack. Why did he go to Singapore instead of seeking treatment at home? Afterall, he was the Minister of Health before contesting the presidency! How did the urgency resolve for him to return the following day? How did this poor mango grower have the money to go to Singapore for treatment? Did the public coffers cough up the money for allegedly a shopping trip he did for his son’s wedding?

In spite of the Presidential Commission he himself appointed finding him guilty and the highest court of the land directing him to pay compensation to victims, Sirisena has failed the nation by refusing to show any remorse or take his share of responsibility. Instead, he is attempting to make a political drama out of it. What about his brother Dudley, who roared like a lion threatening to teach a lesson to anybody who tried to punish his elder brother in any way? Why is he hiding like a lizard not offering to foot the bill? Has Sirisena no shame in allowing one of his supporters to beg under the Bo tree in Pettah? A decent politician would have opted to go to jail rather than beg but decency is, perhaps, something totally alien to Sirisena!

Sirisena, who really should set an example to others who were ordered to pay compensation, does not seem even to follow their behaviour of silent acceptance. He should remember that we have not forgotten what was stated by the ex-IGP that Sirisena offered him a diplomatic posting provided he accepted responsibility. He must be regretting the refusal! Those who should go round begging are government servants who have no means to pay compensation, not the mango grower whose brother is one of the richest “Hal Mudalalis”!

Mr Sirisena! You have no sense of shame and you have done everything possible to deflect blame. What I fail to comprehend is why the SLFP does not get rid of you. Perhaps, it has a death-wish and so do the ex-Pohottuwa chaps who decided ‘helicopter’! It clearly shows that ours is the land of politicians with no sense of shame!

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Harassment of women in politics on the rise

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by Rathindra Kuruwita

Election monitors and activists express concern that digital harassment of female politicians will increase when the local council elections campaign gets into full swing in the coming weeks.According to the preliminary results of a survey conducted by the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), more than 70 percent of female local councillors and grassroots political activists have faced digital harassment.

CaFFE Executive Director Manas Makeen said the majority of those who were subjected to digital harassment (around 80 percent) had not lodged complaints with the law enforcement authorities or with the political party leadership because they felt it was an exercise in futility.

“Even if these women politicians go to the police or their party leadership, there is no solution. They have to find solutions themselves. The introduction of the quota for women candidates at the local council level has upset some politicians and they have resorted to the digital sphere to undermine their female opponents,” he said.

Makeen said the survey had also revealed that about 55 percent of women politicians and activists had faced physical harassment during their political careers. However, digital harassment was the most common form of harassment now. He said almost 90 percent of those who were harassed online believed politicians in the same party were behind the attack.

Nilka Perera (not her real name) is a member of a local council in Puttalam.

The 33-year-old politician said the harassment had begun with the announcement of the 25-percent-female-candidate quota ahead of the last local council elections, in 2018.

“Some religious leaders gave sermons on why people should not vote for women and their video clips are all over social media,” she said, noting that such misconceptions were not limited to one religion or community. “People were initially sceptical about women in politics and male politicians were quick to latch on to it. While there is misogyny in society, most attacks on female politicians are organised campaigns,” she said.

SJB MP Rohini Kavirathne said the Women Parliamentarian’s Caucus was well aware of systematic digital harassment of female politicians. She said that all female politicians including her had been victims of online harassment and that the Caucus had been active in assisting women in need.

“We have always been willing to help women, on an individual basis. We have also contributed and worked with election monitors, the Elections Department, and other relevant parties to empower women and stop the harassment. While the harassment continues, I am glad to see that women are becoming stronger and are proactively countering propaganda against them,” she said.

The CaFFE survey also found that although the majority of participants received some kind of training from a government or a civil society organisation in countering digital harassment, most of the female politicians over the age of 55 were unable to answer what they would do if they faced digital harassment.

The People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachchi said he, too, had noted a spike in digital harassment of female politicians during the campaign for the 2018 local council elections after the 25 percent female candidate quota was given legal effect. At least 25 percent of the names on the nomination lists, submitted by parties or independent groups should be female candidates.

“Targeted harassment of female politicians, especially those who engage in grassroots-level politics, continues to be a serious problem,” he said, expressing fears that the problem would only aggravate with the election season approaching without any proactive countermeasures from political parties.

There was also a lot of character assassination through social media, and such campaigns were ongoing, Hettiarachchi said.

Pointing out that Sri Lanka did not have a mechanism to take swift action against election malpractice, he said this was a major lacuna that should be addressed, especially given the harassment female candidates faced in the digital sphere.

“Our law enforcement mechanisms are slow. During an election period, immediate action should be taken against election law violators,” he said. “What’s the point in taking action against a campaign of digital harassment a few months after the elections are over?”

Police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa said the Sri Lanka Police Computer Crime Investigation Division had been established to help victims of computer crimes including digital harassment.

“I don’t have numbers on the top of my head, but I don’t think we get a lot of complaints from grassroots-level female politicians about digital harassment,” the Senior Superintendent of Police said.

He said this was probably because the women politicians feared they would antagonise their party leaders if they complained to the police.

“However, since you brought this issue up, the police must work closely with other stakeholders as the elections approach,” he said.

The urban-rural divide

When the then government introduced a quota for women in late 2017, weeks before the nominations for local council elections were called, most political parties had not been ready, said Kalana Weerasinghe, Chief Operating Officer at the Federation of Sri Lankan Local Government Authorities (FSLGA). He said several political parties nominated friends and family members to fill the 25 percent female-candidate quota.

“Women were often made candidates in wards that male party leaders thought they would lose. However, now we have more than 2,000 female local councillors out of some 8,000, and they can be divided into three categories.

“First, there are seasoned female politicians who have been in politics for decades and some of them are even more popular than their parties’ electoral organisers. They could easily win parliamentary elections, too, if they were given an opportunity. Then there are friends and family members of political party officials, and they have no interest in politics although they are now elected people’s representatives. The third group comprises newcomers who are passionate about what they are doing.

“So, when it comes to digital harassment, the first group is capable of handling any personal attacks. The second group probably will drop out but those in the third group have learnt to adapt and fight back though they were at first depressed by digital media harassment,” Weerasinghe said.

He said the fightback was especially visible in the urban areas where women politicians were more educated and apt in digital technologies than their rural counterparts. These women realise the power of digital media, and how it can benefit their careers. “Being in politics also makes them tougher,” he said.

With the mainstream media giving little or no space for women local council politicians, social media was the main tool they could use to build up a larger support base and tell the voters about what they did and what they believed in, Weerasinghe said.

“A person who is facing harassment can lock his or her profile pic, but a politician can’t do so. No country has been able to reduce online harassment to zero. So, it is also about empowering women and building support structures. We have to make female politicians resilient and there is a lot that the government, political parties and civil society groups can do,” he said.

Role of civil society and govt.

While some female politicians in urban areas are coming to terms with the digital landscape, there are other women and activists who are not yet tech savvy to promote themselves or deal with increasing levels of online harassment.

Makeen said that although most women politicians were on Facebook, quite a few did not know how to use the platform to promote their political careers. If they faced online harassment, they would lock their profiles or stop using social media, he said.

“Early this year, we did a study on online harassment faced by women politicians. We found that they knew about the platforms and online harassment, but they did not know how to use social media to boost their career or how to proactively deal with cyberbullies,” he said.

Makeen said they had also held a series of consultations with national-level female politicians and found out they had also been victims of concerted digital harassment.

“A young former MP once told us that at the beginning of her career, she had been devastated by cyberbullying. This is the case of someone coming from a political family and had gone through trauma. She said it was so bad that she had even contemplated quitting politics. With the backing of her family, she had learnt to ignore the bullies and connect with those who supported her although she is one of the most memed female politicians today,” he said.

Women fighting back

Manjula Gajanayake, Executive Director of the Institute of Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies (IRES), said several young and educated female politicians including those at the grassroots level had learnt how to navigate the digital sphere.

While digital harassment continued to be a serious problem, there were signs of female local councillors building the necessary support structures to overcome it, he said.

“Initially, a lot of local women councillors were devastated by digital media harassment. I was told that some families were on the verge of breaking up. However, in the past few years, we have seen a counterattack. Female local councillors who are serious about their work have behaved with great integrity and now they are getting social recognition. Their family members, who were initially hesitant or upset about them being in politics, have now warmed up,” he said.

Describing the trend as a positive change, Gajanayake called on the government and political parties to step up efforts to end digital harassment of women candidates.

He said that often targeted digital harassment was carried out by political actors and sometimes by those in the same party.

“If the political parties are stricter and take complaints by their women candidates more seriously, we would see a sharp drop in instances of targeted digital harassment,” he said.

* This story is produced under the ANFREL Asian Media Fellowship on Election Reporting.

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