By Rohana R. Wasala
All sensible adult citizens of Sri Lanka confidently hope that today’s youthful politicians will realise the importance of working together with their rivals in the national interest while maintaining their separate political identities, because, in the final analysis, all politicians of whatever party or faction they are affiliated to have no reason for their existence except their commitment to serve our motherland Sri Lanka . It is time they understood that any ethnic or religious or cultural community struggling to promote its own welfare disregarding the interests of other communities is not going to achieve permanent success. This has been demonstrated by the failure of the older generations which pursued such divisive strategies in the past, regretfully slowing down the country’s forward march. Though they may be committed to different political ideologies they should be able to resolve their differences democratically in a cultured manner. Only when an atmosphere of value-based politics becomes the norm will politicians, whether in the government or the opposition ranks, be able to make their fullest contribution to the survival of the nation as an independent sovereign entity and its future wellbeing.
Friendly personal relations among politicians who fiercely clash in public are nothing new. This has been always the case. But today such interaction between political opponents must be seen in a new light in view of the more widely shared socio-cultural and political sophistication of the Sri Lankan populace.
It can’t be denied that Sri Lanka has achieved some tangibly positive results at least in terms of a much larger proportion of the population being afforded a chance to dream of a better future. This is a direct result of a high rate of literacy achieved through free education. Economically, she may have lost the stability she used to enjoy at independence, as so often pointed out by those interested in the subject, and slipped a few notches down in the scale of overall development in comparison with some neighbouring countries. However, the generally growth-oriented policies of the successive post-independence regimes led in turn by the two main parties have brought about considerable human development, and a corresponding improvement of the lot of the common people, and that too in the face of unprecedented problems posed by a steadily increasing population, overt and covert foreign interference in our affairs, politicization of issues and institutions, terrorism, economic and political upheavals elsewhere, and other crises that threw a spanner in the works most of the time.
Within a generation our society has undergone tremendous change. The nation has emerged victorious after one of the most trying periods of its history, which, though it slowed down the rate of growth, failed to arrest it altogether. Today our literacy rate is among the highest in the region. We enjoy fairly satisfactory healthcare services, both public and private, in spite of occasional lapses. More people own houses and cars than before, and more young people take part in cultural activities such as singing, dancing, and drama than their parents used to in the past. Increasingly accessible modern technology is revolutionizing every aspect of their life. People living in the remotest districts are aware that they too have a democratic right to a decent living standard like those placed in better circumstances in urban areas. Amidst all this, today’s young, particularly those in their thirties and forties, have known no life other than the one they have had to live under terrorism (which is now fortunately out of the way; the under-twenties were spared any adult experience of it). They expect more from life, are less prepared to put up with privations, and are more aggressive in meeting challenges than earlier generations. Their expectations are high.
These social, economic, and political realities influence the thinking of the youngest section of the population, particularly those below 30. They are almost completely insulated from any meaningful memory of the conditions that prevailed 30 to 50 years ago in which their parents grew up, and that helped form the latter’s values and attitudes, which may not be in tune with the existing state of affairs today. Youth are usually more responsive to change than the old. The former love the excitement of change, while the latter prefer the sedateness offered by a settled order. The traditional clash between the old and the young in any age in opinions, values, and attitudes known as the generation gap applies to those involved in parliamentary politics too, though it is often obscured by an ostensible unanimity of opinion among members of the same party. In this context, the young are in a better position to decide what is in the best interest of the country.
By this, however, I don’t mean to say that every young politician is invariably forward looking and progressive in outlook, and that every old one is incorrigibly retrograde. There are enough examples of senior politicians adopting fresh viewpoints in keeping with the changed circumstances in principled ways; there are also young novices who squander their youth and energy by aligning themselves with old fossilized elements of yesteryear with no future. In other words, a certain fossilization of ideas and attitudes is characteristic of an older generation; but there can be exceptions; some older politicians prove themselves more progressive, and more adaptable than their younger colleagues.
When politicians decide to accept the membership of a particular party, they do so after committing themselves to the ideology and the policies of that party. It is important to adhere to these. But since situations may arise in which a particular party line is not the best position to adopt in regard to a critical issue, it becomes necessary in such instances to be flexible in order, for example, to avoid betraying the whole country through blind adherence to a particular policy such as some conservative politicians’ unrealistic commitment to a negotiated settlement of the separatist crisis in the face of the intransigence of the separatist terror outfit, which is now no more. A critical turn of events may demand that established beliefs and ways of behaviour be given up in favour of new modes of thought and action to serve the national interest.
Some time ago an MP from a prominent party, then in the Opposition, said that the main role of the Opposition is to bring down the government at any cost. If what he said was true, then no government would have an opportunity to rule or to implement any development plan without being baulked at every turn, irrespective of the soundness or otherwise of the policies pursued. The irrational way some opposition politicians criticise every move of the government suggests that this in fact is the principle that guides their conduct even today. Probably the same principle was at work when it was clear that not even the December 2004 tsunami nor the raging separatist terror led the opposition to join forces with the government to rescue the country from those disasters. However, in the critical last stages of the then MR government’s campaign against terrorism, it was thanks to the support extended by seventeen opposition MPs acting on their own in defiance of the party hierarchy that made it possible for the government to put an end to that scourge. Now that there are more young MPs who are capable of thinking in terms of promoting the national interest rather than their own self-interest, we may be hopeful that the constitution making project embarked upon by the present administration will go ahead without a hitch.
In terms of the ordinary people’s understanding of parliamentary democracy, the role of the opposition is to ensure that the ruling party governs the country well by monitoring its conduct and by criticizing its actions when they believe that it is not performing its duty, and to be a potential alternative to the government. The broadest interface for positive government-opposition interaction includes the three interrelated areas of the rule of law, human rights, and good governance. The opposition’s responsibility is to maximize the chances of these three things being realized for the good of the country through constructive criticism of the government’s performance. When faced with external challenges and threats, the opposition and the government must act as a single solid group in defence of the nation, based on the commonsense realisation that in geopolitics a country is obliged to interact with both friendly and hostile foreign rivals.
Such a political culture will evolve only when young broadminded politicians take the centre stage. Of course, they can’t act by themselves unless they have a similarly educated and inspired following. An electorate that will promote cultured politicians is already there to show their mind when the old fossils, among the present-day leaders, either ensconced in positions of power or already kicked out into irrelevance, finally bow out or are successfully convinced to do so.
Today’s call for ‘Health Promotion’
As a nation, we have reached a really critical stage with the corona pandemic. This is what The Hindustan Times reported on the 2nd of May, 2021: “Sri Lanka’s health authorities have issued new tough guidelines, including banning wedding receptions and gatherings at religious sites, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as the Island nation continued to record a spike in daily infections”. The time has come for all citizens of the country to understand the gravity of the disaster. Anyway, we have witnessed a section of Sri Lankans enjoying, despite many restrictions. It can be seen that people travel here and there without face masks, and organising events and parties amidst this situation. There is a problem with discipline. Also, I have observed that there is a segment of people who violate health guidelines and post messages on social media criticising the authorities. This “duplicity” must be interesting social research for investigators to read people in a different microscope.
Ownership and Empowerment:
At the moment we could not see any “ownership” of this disaster among Sri Lankans. Still, we can see only “health education” in the country, and we need to change this to “health promotion”. The country needs to consider this as top urgent, under these circumstances. The government should carefully use some stakeholders in this mission of “Health Promotion”. Refer to the following diagram for some selected sectors to take the initiative.
The role of the Health Promotion Bureau should be redefined. And the role of the Ministry of Education should not be underestimated in this context, to communicate messages to relevant parties — including schoolchildren and parents. In this task force, there can be community leaders, experts in the industry, representatives of the media, and some researchers as well. All members should have a Clear Plan (short-term strategy and long-term objectives) to address this pandemic situation. We have seen many times the media reporting how people violate health guidelines. But rather than concentrating on the ‘negative’ side, there can be ‘positive’, reporting as well. (As an example, a worker in the Colombo Municipal Council adhering to all guidelines by showcasing an example for the community). This is the time we need to have positive news. ((http://www.ft.lk/columns/Negative-and-positive-news-Rare-corpse-flower-set-to-bloom-at-Royal-Botanical-Gardens-Peradeniya/4-658936) for better immunity of people!
Also, there are many success stories that need to be followed by a task force of “health promotion”. In this context, we can discuss the success story of Vietnam. As the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reports, on 10th March 2021, “Swift introduction of containment measures, combined with aggressive contact tracing, targeted testing, and isolation of suspected COVID-19 cases helped keep recorded infections and death rates notably low on a per capita basis (IMF,2021). “Also, as per fitchratings.com “Vietnam’s economy has been more resilient than most other markets in the Asia-Pacific, as the local authorities have had greater success in containing Covid-19. It was one of the few economies in the region to report GDP growth in 2020 (fitchratings.com, Thu 22 Apr, 2021). More importantly, like in Vietnam, we also should have a successful communication strategy. Refer below:
“Vietnam’s successful communication strategy catalyzes the active participation of both governmental and private sectors as well as communities. The government centers its people in an active role with the slogan translated as “every citizen is a soldier”. In addition, non government-led initiatives, including the donation of funds and personal protection equipment by entrepreneurs and individuals, have contributed positively to social stability. For example, “the rice ATM” – a free rice dispenser reserved for the most vulnerable people, including those who lost income due to the pandemic, the elderly, students and disabled people. Students have been mobilized to assist in epidemic control by engaging them in various roles, such as data entry, sample collection or provision of phone counselling for COVID-19 suspected people. However, the number of students who joined the COVID-19 taskforce was very small (124 volunteer medical students) compared to its capacity. At the central level, a relief bill of approximately 80,600 VND billion was signed by the government to address the financial burden resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 62,000 VND billion of these funds were allocated to individuals who were poor, near poor, with meritorious services or under social protection schemes. The remaining funds were allocated to support small to medium production and business establishments.” The COVID-19 global pandemic: a review of the Vietnamese Government response – https://www.joghr.org/article/21951-the-covid-19-global-pandemic-a-review-of-the-vietnamese-government-response)
The time has come for Sri Lanka to think differently, learn, and work with responsibility. This is a disaster in which we need to stop the “blame game” and understand the situation with more responsibility. If we can use “health promotion” in an effective way, it would be one of the success stories for the world, always helping for long term sustainable development of the nation.
Prof. NALIN ABEYSEKERA
(Professor of Management Studies, Faculty of Management, Management Studies, The Open University of Sri Lanka
– firstname.lastname@example.org )
Political interference aggravating Deadly Pandemic
Humankind is in the middle of the deadly COVID pandemic, the worst ever seen in our lifetime. The virus, with all its ongoing mutations, is causing havoc all over the world, leading to untold misery and death. In the absence of any effective curative medication, and inadequate vaccine cover, prevention, with strict public health measures, based on sound scientific evidence, remains the fundamental way out of this impending catastrophe.
Larger countries, where politicians ignored professional advice, based on science, and took politically popular decisions, saw the inexorable spread of the disease causing much preventable deaths. Brazil, the USA (during the Trump presidency), and India, at present, are classic examples of this unfortunate situation. Countries like New Zealand, Australia, Israel and South Korea, taking decisions based purely on scientific advice, despite causing temporary hardship and restrictions on the people, have managed to return to near normal pre-COVID status.
Sri Lanka has a literate population.It also has a well-established public health service responsible for prevention and even eradication of many diseases, which are still ravaging many South Asian countries. The country is held out as an example of a success story in this regard by even the World Health Organization (WHO). As such, we should have succeeded in controlling the epidemic by now.
What went wrong in Sri Lanka, still causing the epidemic to escalate on a daily basis with ever increasing morbidity and mortality? The associations of doctors, other healthcare professionals, and even the laboratory technologists have been giving well considered advice and issuing guidelines to curtail the epidemic. But mostly, such advice appears to have been ignored by the political authorities, taking their own decisions instead. The COVID Control Task Force, being headed by the Army Commander, and the Vaccine Task Force, being under an elderly non-medical administrator, are classic examples of this ignorance. It is obvious that both these positions, as well as a majority of the membership of the task forces, should be held by medical professionals. The initial apparent success was hailed by politicians taking full credit, leading to them doing well at the elections. Most such decisions were directed at increasing the popularity of those in power or financial gain for people close to them. This has led to much bungling in decision-making, summarily listed below.
1. Health regulations were not strictly enforced . There was an escalation of the number of cases soon afterwards.
Health regulations were not strictly enforced during the general election last year.
2. The controversy on disposal of dead bodies; the scientifically correct decision to allow burial was taken by the politicians only after much heartburn of the community and even humiliation in the international scene.
3. Allowing and openly promoting unproven native medication, making the people ignore public health guidelines.
4. Conducting the Lanka Premier League (LPL) cricket tournament in Hambantota, bringing in players from countries with a roaring epidemic. One of the players found to be PCR positive then is alleged, though without proof, to have brought in the UK variant of the virus.
5. Entertaining tourists from Ukraine, where authorities had no control over the fast spreading disease. It is an open question whether the quarantine procedures were properly implemented. Same mistake is being made now, with Indians being allowed to come in for so called quarantining purposes. It is well known that the financial interests of acolytes took precedence over the health of the people.
6. Messing up the vaccination process. Notwithstanding the somewhat unforeseen situation in India, timely action should have been taken to obtain adequate supplies of approved vaccines. The authorities appeared to depend on the donation of an unapproved vaccine from a friendly country. The priority list for vaccination was disrupted, thus exhausting the supplies of the vaccine. As a result, only an insignificant proportion of the people have received the first dose, with no guarantee of the second.
7. Allowing free movement of people during the festivals, largely ignoring recommended preventive guidelines. These were openly patronised by the kith and kin of the political leaders.
8. In many meetings and other gatherings organised and attended by the politicians at the highest level, scant regard is given for public health precautions.
9. Claiming success until a few weeks ago, and reducing the PCR testing and other measures until caught unawares with a rapidly rising case load.
10. Restriction of movement and isolation of areas is hampered by political interference. This was well illustrated by what happened recently in Piliyandala, where the isolation of the area, on medical advice, was reversed within a few hours at the behest of a political bigwig.
11. All social gatherings were banned a few days ago. However, it was comical how largely attended weddings were allowed for a few days more, obviously to accommodate someone close to the centers of power. Though rumours abound, the beneficiary of this anomaly is still not known for certain.
To what extent the hierarchy in the medical administrators of the Health Ministry contributed to this dismal situation is open to question. The general impression is that they are succumbing to political pressure, without standing their ground. It is widely suspected that even the correct statistics are not divulged to avoid embarrassing the politicians. However, knowing how overpowering the politicians could be, it may be unreasonable to blame the hapless officials doing a thankless job under trying circumstances.
SENIOR MEDICAL CONSULTANT
Making O/L English literature more accessible
In his feature article, titled “Reduce O/Level STRESS”, appearing in The Island of 03 May, Anton Peiris makes a timely intervention to introduce an alternative mathematics course for O/L students, which will be tailored to suit the capacity of a considerable number of students who find the customary mathematics paper too challenging. This is surely a more pragmatic and student-friendly approach, because for the past few years we have been trapped in the split between two extremes: either in support of a pass in math to be made compulsory for all A/L students or the exemption of Arts students from this requirement. “Maths Studies” would be a happy compromise between the two extremes, which would stand in good stead for many O/L students. with a gift for Arts subjects to pursue their goals without math being an undue hindrance or, conversely, its total exemption turning out to be a free license for laxity.
O/L English literature seems to be another subject not available to many students due to at least two reasons: first, the want of qualified teachers and, second, the standards being set too high for the average student, as in the case of math. This deters many students who are not competent enough to meet the high-end demand for “appreciating literary texts” from gaining many other benefits literature would otherwise offer them, if provided as a more watered down package, as in “Maths Studies.” In short, the introduction of a less daunting variant such as “Literature Studies” for the average student, for whom the regular “English Literature” is virtually a taboo, can ensure the same gains “Maths Studies” intends to bring to those less proficient in math.
Such leniency would not be wholly out of tune with the learning outcomes of O/L English Literature, enunciated in the relevant syllabus issued by the NIE, which states:
The national goal of making an informed reader means a critical thinker as well. The learner must be able to appreciate any “well written” book and recognize a “good book” when he sees one. It is a training for life. But the whole enterprise of studying literature has been coloured by non-educational, even non-humanistic objectives. For most students and more for their parents, English literature has become a symbol of prestige, culminating in a fantasy of a distinction pass at the GC.E. (O/L) examination. (http://www.nie.lk/pdffiles/tg/e10tim130.pdf)
This goes to provide at least two good reasons for introducing a less demanding option like “Literature Studies” for the average student. As the latter part of the above paragraph admits, for many students, as well as their parents, studying English literature has become a “symbol of prestige.” This is sad because promoting such snobbery flies in the face of all the lofty ideals contained in the first three sentences, such as making the student well informed, critical and sensitized enough to appreciate good literature, etc. As such, it would not be undesirable, in the least, to aim at moulding a reasonably broadminded and sensitive person, by adjusting the syllabus to focus more on increasing their general awareness of the richness of world literature, without making the study of O/L literature a strenuous exercise of gaining a set of “skills,” which may be more suitable for the purpose of grooming critics rather than making students read for pleasure. Arguably, the emphasis on critical appreciation of the texts might be one reason why the students end up becoming stuck-up, as described in the above passage.
There is no doubt that the regular O/L literature course prepares the student to study literature at the A/Ls – hence the need for its continuation. However, a more student-friendly variant intended for encouraging the average student to read literature, without the unnerving prospect of having to write a critical essay on each of the prescribed texts she has to read, is sure to cultivate the reading habit among students. The performance evaluation defined in the NIE syllabus cited below proves the rigid test-oriented and technical nature of the process:
Appreciation of English literary texts is tested as a component of the G.C.E. (O/L) examination formatively as well as summatively at the end of a two-year course of study. At school level, it is assessed formally at term tests. It is also assessed informally in the classroom using a variety of techniques, both oral and written. Conventionally literature is tested by written examinations. The test items most frequently used are the context question and the critical essay. The context question is more effective since it directly tests the candidate’s familiarity with the texts.
Undoubtedly, a more student-friendly and less formulaic syllabus intended for coaxing the average student to read for pleasure, may ideally minimize the focus on critical writing aspect and the emphasis on a knowledge of the textual mechanics. Instead, such a syllabus may include a prudent selection of interesting biographical details of writers and their famous works, their dominant themes and the relevant social contexts, short samples of texts not intended for critical evaluation but for familiarizing them with various writing forms, etc. – anything that will stimulate the reading habit of the student who may even be encouraged to read the translations in their mother tongue, if time permits.
The most important outcome would be to make them keen readers. The essential fine-tuning with regard to the selection of teaching materials and testing can be done by the syllabus designers and teachers who know the terrain well. Thus, as in the case of math, the modified syllabus of literature would help students who are not adequately proficient to follow the standard literature course, to find a more manageable way of developing a liking for literature.
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