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.
A regime sans shame
Tuesday 31st January, 2023
The SLPP-UNP combine, which is taking great pains to delay the local government (LG) polls for fear of losing them, is all out to make the public lose interest in elections; it is trying to engineer a low voter turnout. Voter apathy is usually advantageous to unpopular regimes in power. Trotting out lame excuses to make a case for postponing the mini polls, the government claims that it is so broke that it cannot allocate funds for an election at this juncture. Curiously, it is not without such pecuniary difficulties where fund allocations for celebrations are concerned. If the country is to wait until the economy is turned around to go to the polls, it will have to wait until hell freezes over!
The government propaganda mill is in overdrive to deprive the ongoing electoral process of legitimacy. No sooner had it been reported that three members of the Election Commission (EC) were receiving death threats the Government Information Department issued a media statement, claiming that ‘the gazette notice with signatures of the Chairman and other members of the Election Commission required for the commencement of the Local Government election process has not been sent to the Government Press for printing.’ The EC has dismissed this claim as baseless.
The Information Department’s media statement reminds us of an ill-advised letter that Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration, Home Affairs, Provincial Councils and Local Government, Neil Hapuhinne, recently sent to the District Returning Officers in a bid to prevent them from accepting deposits for the LG elections. The EC reacted swiftly and Hapuhinne withdrew his letter. The EC assured the public that the electoral process was on track. Hapuhinne was lucky to get away with only a rap on the knuckles from the EC. Now, Director General of Government Information Dinith Karunarathna has done something similar.
We argued, in a previous comment, that Hapuhinne had to be dealt with in such a way that action against him would constitute a deterrent for others of his ilk bent on scuttling the LG polls. He should have been made to face the full force of the law for his high-handed action. It is never too late.
There is no way the government could avoid defeat by postponing elections. Such action is as injudicious and futile as ‘using a loincloth to control dysentery’, as a local saying goes. If the SLPP had plucked up the courage to face the LG polls, last year, instead of postponing them, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration would have suffered an electoral setback and realised the need to make a course correction, which might have helped prevent the current economic crisis.
The SJB, the JVP, the SLFP and some SLPP dissident groups are on a campaign to ensure that the LG elections are held as scheduled, but they, too, have sullied their reputations by helping put off elections. The SJB consists of former Yahapalana MPs; they, the SLFP and the JVP unashamedly joined forces, in 2017, to postpone the Provincial Council elections, which they knew they would lose. Their modus operandi was antithetical to democracy and parliamentary norms they claim to uphold. They helped the UNP-led Yahapalana government stuff the Provincial Councils (Amendment) Bill (2017) with some sections sans judicial sanction, at the committee stage, and steamroller it through the House. The SLPP dissidents, who have taken up the cudgels for the people’s franchise had no qualms about supporting the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration’s decision to postpone the LG polls.
That the country needs alternatives to both the government and the Opposition, as evident from the phenomenal rise of anti-politics and the growing resentment of the youth cannot be overstated, but first of all, it has to be liberated from the clutches of the current regime, and the LG polls will help loosen their vice-like grip thereon—hopefully.
Democracy in danger
Monday 30th January, 2023
Those who are all out to scuttle the local government elections (LG) scheduled to be held on 09 March have got down and dirty. Having failed to intimidate the Election Commission (EC) into postponing elections, they are now trying to scare the members thereof into resigning as part of their strategy to delay the mini polls. Their desperation knows no bounds and they will baulk at nothing.
The EC members who have been threatened with death to resign from their posts are S. B. Divaratne, M. M. Mohamed and K. P. P. Pathirana. P. S. M. Charles has already tendered her resignation letter. It is obvious that someone is trying to render the EC incapable of having quorate meetings by causing three or more of its five members to resign. It is hoped that the EC members will be given maximum possible security so that they will be able to carry out their duties without fearing for their safety.
Ironically, those who resorted to mindless violence to disrupt elections in the late 1980s are currently at the forefront of a campaign to safeguard the people’s franchise and some of their political rivals who dared protect democracy by holding elections and participating therein during that time are all out to sabotage polls. The JVP attacked the public officials who were on election duty during its second uprising (1987-89) and some of them were gunned down. The intrepid voters who defied the JVP’s order to boycott elections during the reign of southern terror were also attacked. Some of them died violent deaths at the hands of the JVP sparrow units, which terrorised the country. The then UNP governments held elections, which they rigged and won, and the current SLPP leaders who were in the Opposition at the time took part in those electoral contests courageously despite threats to their lives. Today, there has been a role reversal! The JVP is threatening to take to the streets if elections are postponed, and the UNP and the SLPP are trying every trick in the book to delay the polls.
The act of threatening EC members, or anyone else for that matter, with death, is a serious criminal offence, which must be treated as such. The caller who issued death threats to EC officials must be traced, brought here, made to reveal who his handler is and prosecuted forthwith.
Nobody should be considered guilty until proven innocent, but it is only natural that as for the threats to the EC members, fingers are pointed at the government, which is doing everything in its power to delay the LG polls for fear of losing them. The SLPP and the UNP have no one but themselves to blame; he that has an ill name is half-hanged, as a popular saying goes. All other political parties including the dissident SLPP constituents are keen to face an election at this juncture, when the public is resentful and the government’s approval ratings are extremely low. The worst times for the country are the best times for the Opposition both politically and electorally. The only way the SLPP-UNP administration could clear its name, if at all, is to ensure that the person who is threatening the EC members is brought to justice immediately. It will not be difficult to trace the caller if he or she has no links to the ruling coalition. Even Sri Lanka’s Napoleon of Crime, Makandure Madush, was arrested in Dubai, and extradited. So, it will be child’s play for the Sri Lankan police and their UAE counterparts backed by Interpol to arrest the caller.
Those who fear elections will not spare any institution in their efforts to postpone polls. There have been situations where repressive governments targeted even the judiciary to further their interests. The stoning of the houses of the Supreme Court judges, in 1983, following their historic judgement in a fundamental rights petition filed by Vivienne Goonewardene against the Police is a case in point. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government went so far as to ‘impeach’ Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake, whom it considered an obstacle in its path. It removed her from office in the most despicable manner. Today, the SLPP and the UNP are savouring power together.
It goes without saying that the ruling alliance, which poses a serious threat to democracy, has to be tamed, and the best way to achieve this end is to ensure that the LG polls are held as scheduled and the people given an opportunity to subject the government to an electoral shock.
Whether the announced local elections will be held as scheduled on March 9 remains a question that is wide open. The confusion became more confounded last week with the resignation from the Elections Commission of Mrs. P.S.M. Charles and speculation that its chairman, Attorney Nimal Punchihewa, would also resign. This was subsequently denied by Punchihewa himself but that is not the end of the story. The new Constitutional Council, meeting for the first time with the Speaker in the chair ex-officio decided to reconstitute all the so-called Independent Commissions mandated by the Constitution. This, of course includes the Elections Commission and raises the question of how any changes in its composition can affect the local elections for which nominations have concluded and a date set.
Former Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya, who enjoyed wide visibility during his tenure, went on record after Charles’ resignation saying that it will not affect the working of the five-member commission with a quorum defined as three. With four members still in office, the number necessary to make up a quorum is available. When the election day itself was decided, only three members were physically present at the meeting and the consent of the two absent member had been obtained, Punchihewa has said. This has not been denied. But the state-controlled Daily News, in its lead story last Tuesday, quoted Dr. Prathiba Mahanamahewa, a former chairman of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Council, saying that the date of the election must be gazetted in terms of the election law and no gazette had been issued. The date had merely been announced through the media and this was insufficient, he had said.
We do not know whether he was right or not at the time he made the remark or whether there was a subsequent gazette as is probable. Mahanamahewa is on further record saying the names of all five members of the Election Commission were on the gazette calling for nominations and it must be similar with regard to setting a date for the poll. However that be, many would wonder why Mrs. Charles who, having known that the Elections Commission itself was in a “state of flux” (if we may borrow Mahanamahewa’s language), chose to resign at this moment. She, as the country at large well knew that as the Constitutional Council had been constituted, all the Independent Commissions (there are eight of them including the Elections Commission, Human Rights Commission, Police Commission, Public Service Commission etc.) will be reconstituted. So what was the hurry to resign? The terms of all five members of the Elections Commission will soon come to an end.
The Daily News interpreted Charles’ resignation as confirmation of “deep divisions” within the Elections Commission over several issues including the holding of the local elections. It must be remembered that Mrs. Charles is a very senior public official belonging to the special grade of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service. She has held high office including Governor of the Northern Province, Director General of Customs, GA Vavuniya when the LTTE held sway and Ministry Secretary. She is a serving SLAS officer. She has resigned in the context of a situation of a government appearing to be afraid, nay terrified, of holding the local elections in the present perilous country conditions. So who can be blamed for suspecting that here is an inspired resignation given that Mrs. Charles herself has publicly given no reasons for her exit.
In this context it may be useful to go back to fairly recent history to Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government of the 1970s when there was a conflict between the legislature and the judiciary. Justice Hector Deheragoda, sitting on the new Constitutional Court chaired by Justice T.S. Fernando along with Justice JAL Cooray resigned from the court then adjudicating on the new Press Council Bill, the first matter to be brought before it. The court was sitting in the then House of Representatives with Mr. Sam Wijesinha, the Clerk of the House, as its Registrar. When the proceedings were ongoing, there was a demand in the chamber of the House that the court should be evicted from its premises. Speaker Stanley Tillakaratne made a remark eliciting a response from Justice TS Fernando that interpretation of the Constitution was a matter for the court and not for the speaker. It was amid this furor that Justice Deheragoda tendered his resignation aborting the continuance of the proceedings.
The government keeps tub thumping that the local elections will cost ten billion rupees the country cannot afford in its current economic predicament. The opposition is brimming with confidence that the results of these elections will signal the end of what many in its ranks delight in calling the “Ranil – Rajapaksa” government. The matter is now before court and the last word will probably be its determination. The affidavit filed before court by the Secretary to the Ministry of Finance/Treasury clearly states the financial predicament the government is placed in. While the determination is awaited the angry debate in the political space on whether or not the elections will be held will continue. There is yet no clear sign of countrywide election activity though nominations have been filed by the mainstream and minor parties as well as independent groups. But ominous threats abound of what’s likely to happen if there is no election.
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