Make killers pay
Monday 18th January, 2021
Health authorities in some parts of the pandemic-hit US are in a dilemma over the prioritisation of risk groups for vaccination. The New Jersey government is reported to have decided to vaccinate smokers on priority basis as they run a higher risk of having Covid-19 complications than others. It has drawn heavy criticism for its decision, which will result in smokers getting the jab before teachers and public transport workers, we are told.
Covid-19 vaccine saves lives, especially those of people afflicted with chronic non-communicable diseases. The opinion of the New Jersey officials is that smokers should be given the jab as early as possible if their lives are to be saved. But others are convinced otherwise; they ask whether smokers who are fully aware of the health risks they expose themselves to when they puff away at ‘coffin nails’ should get the first dibs on the vaccine. This has led to an ethical dilemma of sorts.
The critics of the New Jersey government decision insist that if smokers are a vulnerable group, they must be asked to remain indoors instead of being inoculated before others who actually deserve priority, given the essential services they render to society during the pandemic, risking their lives. Some people argue that smokers should not be discriminated against in saving lives as their right to life must also be respected. There is yet another school of thought, which opines that only those with respiratory diseases, etc., among smokers should be given priority in the vaccination programme just like those with the same health issues. But the problem is that all smokers are at a higher risk than nonsmokers where the pandemic is concerned.
A false claim is being propagated in some quarters—perhaps at the behest of the powerful tobacco industry—that smokers are underrepresented among the Covid-19 patients needing hospitalisation, and, therefore, smoking, which is associated with morbidity and mortality in many diseases, is protective against the pandemic!
Thankfully, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the US Food and Drug Administration have given the lie to this claim. The WHO has confirmed that available evidence suggests that smoking is associated with increased severity of disease and death in hospitalised Covid-19 patients. New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli has told the media, ‘Smoking puts you at a significant risk for and adverse results from Covid-19.” It has thus been established that smoking is a danger, especially during the pandemic, and the question is why no action has been taken against the tobacco industry, which is making huge profits at the expense of public health, the world over.
The WHO has revealed that tobacco kills more than 8 million people a year in the world; more than 7 million of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco use while around 1.2 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has revealed that cigarette smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths per year in the US. This is about one in five deaths annually, or 1,300 deaths a day, the CDC has said. Covid-19 has killed about two million people globally including about 390,000 Americans during the last 13 months or so. Isn’t the tobacco Mafia more dangerous than coronavirus, and what action has the world taken against it?
Sri Lanka will face the same problem as New Jersey sooner or later when the national vaccination drive gets underway, and risk groups have to be identified. If the current health crisis takes a turn for the worse with the death toll increasing exponentially—absit omen—the high-risk groups including smokers will have to be inoculated before others. The state will have to pay for most of the vaccine doses. It will be a huge financial burden on the cash-strapped government, which will invariably increase its revenue by jacking up indirect taxes. Thus, everyone will have to pay for the vaccine although it is said to be free. It may not be possible to vaccinate everyone, given the huge cost of the vaccine, logistical issues and the sheer number of people to be inoculated although Sri Lanka boasts an efficient healthcare system. How fair will it be to allow smokers to get the shots first at the expense of other citizens while the tobacco industry is earning massive profits without giving anything back for the benefit of its loyal customers?
Let it be suggested that the cost of vaccinating the people who are suffering from smoking-related diseases that predispose them to Covid-19 complications be recovered from the tobacco industry by way of a new tax. Statistics about the number of smokers, etc., are readily available and it is not difficult to determine the cost of vaccinating them. Killers must be made to pay.
Unions in govt.’s crosshairs
Friday 24th March, 2023
Hardly a day passes without a labour dispute reported from the state sector. There are signs of public opinion turning against the warring trade unions that resort to strikes at the drop of a hat. The government has sought to make the most of public ire to settle political scores with the trade unions that pose a threat to its interests.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken a swipe at the education sector trade unions that are perennially on the warpath. Speaking at a public event, on Wednesday, he warned that if trade unions continued to ‘hold students to ransom’, the government would be compelled to declare the education sector an essential service. This could be considered a veiled threat.
The most effective way of keeping trade unions with political agendas at bay is to redress workers’ genuine grievances expeditiously. Instead, governments drive them to swell the ranks of trade unions with links to ultra-radical political outfits. So, the blame for chaos in the public sector due to frequent labour disputes should be apportioned to governments.
Workers must fight for their rights. If they don’t, who else will? But they must not ignore their responsibilities. Most of all, they must not test people’s patience. Sri Lanka’s trade union movement has a proud history. Its achievements are many. But it has gone the same way as all other institutions, over the years, owing to politicisation. More often than not, trade unions tend to overstep the line at the behest of their political masters.
The bane of Sri Lanka’s labour movement is that it is dominated by trade unions affiliated to political parties, which use workers as a cat’s paw to advance their hidden agendas at the expense of the public. There are some trade unions that are independent of political parties but they are the exception that proves the rule. They, too, act in an irresponsible manner at times with no consideration towards the public.
Everybody flays politicians for dereliction of duty—and rightly so. But trade unions are no better. It is doubtful whether labour leaders ever make a serious attempt to persuade their members to work hard and help enhance national productivity. The phenomenal growth of shadow education, or private tuition, as it is popularly known, is an indictment of the state sector teachers. Parents have to spend huge amounts of money for their children’s supplementary education. There are many exemplary teachers who are like candles, which burn so that others can get light, but overall there is much to be desired from the public school system.
All political parties including the UNP led by President Wickremesinghe himself have politicised and polluted the trade union movement so much so that politicians steal the limelight on the International Workers’ Day, when workers shamelessly offer their services to political leaders as palanquin bearers, as it were. Politicians craftily use workers to compass their ends when they happen to be in the political wilderness but after winning elections and being ensconced in power, they suppress trade unions. This is the name of the game in Sri Lankan politics.
Trade unions in this country are apparently playing the role traditionally assigned to the political Opposition, which is too meek to take on the government the way it should. Why trade unions are in the government’s crosshairs is not difficult to understand. The ongoing battle between government leaders and irresponsible trade unionists is, in our book, a case of sinners casting stones at one another.
Is Sri Lanka ready?
Thursday 23rd March, 2023
The IMF is ready to help Sri Lanka tackle its economic crisis, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has told Parliament. This is good news. But is Sri Lanka ready to help others help it? Its bilateral creditors are united in trying to assist it in restructuring its staggering debt, and rebuilding its economy, we are told but, sadly, the domestic stakeholders, especially politicians, are at daggers drawn, and their clashes will only erode the confidence of prospective investors, and put paid to efforts being made to revive the economy.
President Wickremesinghe, making a special statement in Parliament, yesterday, did not forget to pat himself on the back for having come forward to bring order out of chaos while the country was teetering on the verge of anarchy, last year. He deserves praise for that. But for his decisive action, violent hordes would have marched on Parliament and set the place on fire. He ordered the military to stop them, and Parliament, nay the country was saved. (If he had acted similarly in the early noughties, when a UNP-led government was in power, and ordered the military to take on the LTTE with might and main, he would have been elected President in 2004!)
President Wickremesinghe spelt out how the government intended to resolve the economic crisis, and his speech was devoid of rhetoric, theatrics and animosity. He sounded conciliatory and serious about enlisting everyone’s help to revive the economy. He invited the Opposition to work with the government to enable the country to resolve the economic crisis. This, we believe, is the way forward, but the government should not hold out an olive branch with one hand to the Opposition and deliver killer hooks with the other. There are some contentious issues that have stood in the way of a rapprochement between the government and its political rivals, and they should be sorted out.
President Wickremesinghe yesterday promised action to eliminate corruption, which is bound to impede the country’s economic recovery. He will have his work cut out, for he is dependent on a bunch of corrupt politicians for parliamentary support, and it is only natural that he is seen to be defending them and serving their interests. Perhaps, the Opposition can lessen his dependence on the corrupt by offering support for his programmes that are beneficial to the public.
Trade unions are on the warpath. Most of their grievances are legitimate, and they deserve a patient hearing and reassurance from the government. They must not be driven to take industrial action, which adversely impacts the ailing economy and political stability. They are resentful that the government politicians are living the high life at their expense while they are paying high taxes. Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has announced that his ministers and their special advisers will forgo their salaries and perks in view of their country’s economic situation. If the members of the SLPP-UNP administration emulate their Pakistani counterparts, perhaps the protesting workers will simmer down. These politicians and their kith and kin have amassed colossal amounts of ill-gotten wealth and bankrupted the country, and there is no reason why they cannot make some sacrifices. The government can increase the state tax revenue without increasing the PAYE tax exponentially, some Opposition economists have argued, and their views should be taken on board.
The government must stop suppressing the people’s rights and freedoms if public resentment is to subside. Elections are the lifeblood of democracy, and must not be put off for political reasons. There is a public outcry over the postponement of the local government polls. This is not an issue the government can wish away or tackle by resorting to strong-arm tactics. It has to talk to the Opposition and other stakeholders, and explain its position instead of riding roughshod over its political opponents, the judiciary and the Election Commission. The SLPP-UNP combine has made a huge blunder by summoning some Supreme Court judges before a parliamentary committee over an interim order they have issued. The judiciary is the linchpin of democracy, and must not be trifled with in this manner.
Only a course correction will enable the government to secure the much-needed support of other stakeholders for its efforts to sort out the economy with IMF assistance.
Celebration of debt
Wednesday 22nd March, 2023
The SLPP-UNP administration is cock-a-hoop at the unlocking of an IMF bailout package. What is the world coming to when a government which has bankrupted a country, defaulted on debt and visited untold miseries on more than 22 million people, paints the town red after obtaining another loan on constricting conditions?
At the height of Eelam War IV, Lakshman Kiriella, who was a UNP MP at the time, audaciously claimed that onema goenkuta yuddha karanna puluwan (‘any fool can fight a war’). Similarly, one may say ‘onema goenkuta loan ganna puluwan (’any fool can obtain loans’. The government has been able to secure the IMF bailout package because it readily agreed to all loan conditions, some of which have not been made public yet, according to the Opposition. No less a person than ex-Chief Economist and Senior Vice President of the World Bank, and Nobel Prize winner, Joseph Stiglitz, has inveighed against the IMF for causing riots in the countries that have had to follow its programmes. In Sri Lanka, too, a perfect storm is brewing on the horizon with workers taking to the streets in large numbers. However, it is our failed, corrupt leaders who should be blamed for our predicament.
Ironically, the IMF happened to announce its decision to release Sri Lanka’s credit facility, on the eve of the World Puppetry Day! The grandees of the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe regime claim to be managing the economy themselves but they are only a set of puppets controlled by the IMF. They have to do as the IMF says, and it does not require much grey matter to do so. But care will have to be taken to ensure that they will not help themselves to the dollars to flow in. It behoves the IMF, and the nations that have been considerate enough to part with substantial amounts of their citizens’ money to help ameliorate the suffering of Sri Lankans to ensure that the government of Sri Lanka handles financial aid in a transparent manner.
It’s one thing to obtain an extended credit facility, but it’s quite another to put an ailing economy back on an even keel, and repay loans that have been defaulted on. That the IMF has agreed to provide assistance is no guarantee that Sri Lanka will achieve economic recovery. There are countries that have failed to straighten up their economies fast despite IMF help, Greece being a case in point.
Greece is vastly different from Sri Lanka in that its bailouts came from a powerful troika—the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. Still, it has been struggling to achieve realistic primary surpluses and return to investment grade. Needless to say, Sri Lanka’s task will be even more difficult, given the fact that a failed, corrupt government continues to be in power.
The failed politicians who bankrupted the economy by mismanaging it, indulging in waste and corruption and stealing public funds, are still at the levers of power. They must be salivating at the prospect of being able to line their pockets again when forex begins to flow in. Doomed will be the economy if it continues to be in the clutches of these failed, corrupt elements who have not mended their ways and are all out to gratify their insatiable appetite for power and public funds.
Now that the IMF bailout has become a reality, the people must be given an opportunity to exercise their franchise and indicate whether they have faith in the current regime, which has inflicted so much suffering on them and ruined the economy. Hence the need for the local government polls to be held without further delay. There is a massive build-up of public anger in the polity and it has to be defused if the country is to be prevented from being plunged into chaos again. Expenditure on an election is a worthwhile investment in that it helps make the irate public simmer down and bring about political stability, which is a prerequisite for economic recovery.
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