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Editorial

Morton’s fork

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Tuesday 25th May, 2021

What has beset Sri Lanka, courtesy of the current government, is a textbook example of Morton’s fork, or a dilemma in which both choices available by way of solutions are equally undesirable. Today, the countrywide lockdowns (euphemistically called travel restrictions) aimed at curbing the spread of the pandemic are scheduled to be eased briefly. Medical experts are calling for tougher measures; they want the government to couple lockdowns with a quarantine curfew for at least two weeks to contain the highly transmissible virus. The government was in two minds for weeks; to close or not to close was the question that troubled it. Thankfully, it seems to have made up its mind at last; lockdowns are to continue, we are told.

Lockdowns are said to be a sure-fire way of curbing the transmission of the runaway virus, but they are extremely costly; they make all economies, big or small, scream. State Minister of Money and Capital Market and State Enterprise Reforms Ajith Nivard Cabraal has revealed that the previous lockdown (from 14 to 17 May) cost the country a whopping Rs. 60 billion, which is higher than the amount of funds allocated for the first phase of the proposed Ruwanpura expressway.

But if the country is kept open or lockdowns are imposed haphazardly to minimise economic losses, the pandemic will continue to carry off many more people; there will be a staggering human cost. If the country is kept under lockdowns for a long time, economic recovery will be extremely difficult. In other words, if the government chooses to fight shy of shutting down the country, factories will remain alive, but workers will be dead, so to speak; if the country is closed for weeks on end, workers will be alive but factories will be dead!

A stitch in April would have saved nine in May. The country is troubled by Morton’s fork because the government let political expediency take precedence over the pandemic control measures. People were given the freedom of the wild ass in April; they flouted the health guidelines with impunity. In ancient Rome, Patricians kept Plebeians happy with the help of bread and circuses. The present-day Sri Lankan rulers let the public enjoy keun and avurudu festivals. Their cretinous move to facilitate public entertainment amidst a health crisis and thereby increase the ruling coalition’s approval ratings boomeranged. We are where we are, with the pandemic fatality rate rising rapidly, and the government running around like a headless chicken.

People must be told in no uncertain terms that unless they fully cooperate with the health authorities to control the pandemic, there will be protracted lockdowns; they will lose their livelihoods, and the wolf will be at the door sooner than expected. Public awareness must also be raised about the real dangers of Covid-19, which has given rise to the black fungus disease, which has a 50% mortality rate and is wreaking havoc in India. Eyes and jawbones of the victims of this disease (mucormycosis) have to be surgically removed if they are to have a fighting chance to make a complete recovery. India is also reportedly battling against what is known as the white fungus disease, considered deadlier than mucormycosis. Moreover, a team of Singaporean scientists has found that ‘the people who recover from Covid-19, regardless of the severity of their disease, may be at risk of developing blood clots due to an overactive immune system’. If the public is sufficiently educated on the dangers of the pandemic, they will not take it lightly.

Lockdowns may be half the battle in containing the elusive virus, but much more needs to be done. There is a pressing need to accelerate the national vaccination drive to bring about herd immunity as soon as possible. Returns on investment in vaccination will be tremendous, as evident from the experience of Israel. Covid-19 clusters could emerge even during lockdowns, as a medical consultant pointed out in a brief interview with this newspaper on Monday (24); those engaged in the provision of essential services continue to move about and gather, creating an environment conducive to the transmission of the virus. Clusters could form around such workplaces, police stations, military installations, etc., the good doctor has pointed out, suggesting that quality masks capable of providing full protection be made available urgently as a remedial measure. This, we believe, is a sensible proposal.

The government has apparently awaken to the fact that only science––not politics or superstitious rituals––can help contain the pandemic, and its grandees who seem to consider themselves more knowledgeable than doctors are not equal to the task of saving the public. It should therefore have brainstorming sessions with real experts, take their views on board, ramp up its vaccination efforts and strive to find a way around Morton’s fork.



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Editorial

Aftermath of X-Press Pearl

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The recovery of the voyage data recorder (VDR) of the dangerous cargo laden container ship, X-Press Pearl, the burning and subsequent sinking of which caused this country an unprecedented and unimaginable environmental disaster may help ongoing investigations to establish where culpability for alleged negligence or irresponsibility lie. The VDR is the equivalent on a ship of the ‘black box’ voice and data recorder in the cockpit of an aircraft vital for investigation of a plane crash. Fortunately, merchant shipping authorities, assisted by the navy, were able to recover this instrument, from the bridge of the now submerged vessel. It is now available for analysis and a court order has already been made to begin this process.

But there have been reports that because there had been little, if any, navigation on the bridge since the ship’s crew was evacuated from the vessel on May 25, the VDR may not have recorded substantial new information about recent events on board. Nevertheless it provides an added resource for investigation of the disaster.

The matter that is most in contention at the time this is being in written is whether ship’s local agent had deleted email communications between the vessel and himself as has been alleged. The fact that there was a leak in a container of nitric acid on board the ship has been known several days before the vessel anchored in Colombo’s outer harbor. The vessel had in fact attempted to off load the leaking container at two other ports, one in the Middle East and the other in India. Hamad in Qatar said it did not accept transshipment containers while Hazira in India had pleaded lack of facilities.

If the port authorities here knew of the problem well in advance, it would most likely have permitted priority berthing to deal with the emergency. The Chinese-run CICT (China International Container Terminals) controlled by China Merchant Port Holdings, one of the world’s largest port operators, with state-of-the-art equipment, would well have been able to handle the task. This is what the head of the Ceylon Association of Steamer Agents said in a recent television interview.

But from the narrative now in the public domain, it appears that the port authorities here had not been informed of the problem when the ship entered anchorage on the night of May 19 although the local agent had the information. How true or not that is remains to be established. If emails have been deleted as alleged, it will be possible to retrieve them through the ship’s server and this has been ordered.

Events had subsequently unfolded rapidly. First a fire on hold number two was reported but Colombo was told that the fire fighting capability on board had dealt with it. Thereafter the fire reignited and winds blowing at speeds of up to 100 kilometres per hour fanned the flames. The massive effort mobilizing all available resources, including air support and fire fighting tugboats, to bring the blaze under control failed dismally.

According to international safety requirements, no dangerous cargo can be stored below deck and the nitric acid containers could not have been in the hold where the first fire was reported. Whether the leaking acid triggered the fire below remains an open question.

On top of all else, it is feared that we at risk of a massive oil spill as we stagger under the Covid pandemic Whether that will come to pass has not been made clear as this comment is being written. But we have to be prepared for the worst even with the limited resources we command. International assistance that will always be available to combat a catastrophe as big as this has already been mobilized. An Indian ship equipped for such emergencies is on standby at the scene.

The stricken vessel is reported to have been carrying about 350 tonnes of fuel on board when she arrived at the Colombo anchorage. The optimistic assessment, not yet confirmed, is that much of this would have been burnt in the massive fire that raged aboard before the ship began to sink. But pictures of what appeared to be an oil slick were beamed by at least one local television station that sent a crew to cover the sinking ship. Hopefully much of the fuel oil, if not all of it, has been destroyed in the fire.

The X-press Pearl was carrying among other cargo a large volume of plastic pellets, raw material for the plastic industry, some of which was consigned to Colombo, among other cargo like chemicals and cosmetics. Billions of these pellets have been washed ashore on our beaches and many more would yet be in the sea. Beach clearing operations have begun but how effective they would be even in the short and medium term is yet to be seen.

Dead sea creatures including turtles are being washed ashore and marine environmentalists predict vast damage that can extend to a hundred years. Fishermen fear for their livelihood. What would polluted beaches do to out tourist industry? It is unlikely that even if we are compensated in billions by insurers, as is being freely claimed, that this country can never again be what it was before the disaster. There is no escaping the reality that a long tough haul lies ahead.

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Editorial

Failures galore

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Saturday 12th June, 2021

The Covid-19 fatality rate is rising steadily; 101 deaths were reported yesterday. A few weeks ago, not many people may have taken seriously scientists’ prediction that Covid deaths would exceed 100 a day here unless stringent measures were adopted to curb the spread of the pandemic. The government played politics with pandemic control in April and let the grass grow under its feet, and the public took health experts’ warnings lightly, and threw caution to the wind.

It is usually the ruling party/coalition that faces internal problems during national crises, which the Opposition uses to gain traction on the political front. But, today, both the government and the Opposition are up the creek; the former has its approval ratings plummeting rapidly due to the mismanagement of the pandemic, corruption, inefficiency, etc., and the latter is facing a leadership crisis. They are papering over the cracks.

The Opposition would have the public believe that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has failed. Its propagandists have launched an aggressive social media campaign against the government, which, they claim, has failed on every front. If their claim is considered true, then it follows therefrom that 6.9 million people who voted for Rajapaksa at the last presidential election have failed, for they have made a bad choice. The same may be said of those who voted for the SLPP at the last general election.

Some key Opposition figures in the SJB have reportedly turned against their leader Sajith Premadasa, and are expected to join forces with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe when the latter enters Parliament as a UNP National List MP. The SJB rebels are of the view that the Opposition, under Premadasa’s leadership, has failed to live up to the people’s expectations because it has not become an effective countervailing force against the government, which is bulldozing its way through. One may therefore argue that 5.5 million people who voted for Premadasa at the last presidential election have also failed; the same goes for the voters who backed the SJB at last year’s parliamentary polls.

Thus, it may be seen that not only the elected but also electors have failed. This may explain why this country finds itself in the present predicament and is unable to achieve progress.

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Let actions speak!

Some Opposition MPs refused to be inoculated against Covid-19, declaring that they would wait until the ordinary public had been vaccinated; a few of these politicians have contracted the disease. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa is one of them. Attending a religious function at Ganagaramaya, Colombo, after being discharged from hospital, Premadasa said he had got infected because he had refused the jab for the sake of the public. He deserves praise for having taken a principled position.

Undergoing quarantine or treatment for Covid-19 at private hospitals is a luxury that ordinary people cannot afford; they are taken to the state-run quarantine facilities or hospitals. Have the Opposition politicians who refused to be given first dibs on the jab, for the sake of the public, and got infected as a result, stayed at the same government quarantine centres or hospitals as the ordinary people? If not, why?

Opposition Leader Premadasa has rightly called upon the government to curtail waste and channel the funds so saved for the country’s fight against Covid-19. He has berated the government both in and outside Parliament for incurring unnecessary expenditure––quite rightly so. He has struck a responsive chord with the right-thinking people, who expect the government to manage public money frugally.

Having talked the talk so eloquently, now the Opposition Leader has got an opportunity to walk the walk. The government has unashamedly decided to buy luxury vehicles for the MPs amidst the worsening national health emergency. The Opposition MPs are among the beneficiaries of what has come to be dubbed the Covid bonanza; they also had no qualms about spending public funds to the tune of billions of rupees on importing vehicles for the MPs in the aftermath of disasters like the Meethotamulla garbage dump collapse and the Salawa armoury blast. They unflinchingly did so while the disaster victims were crying out for assistance. They have shown no remorse for their shameful actions.

Will the Opposition Leader launch a frontal attack against the government, pressuring it to stop the luxury vehicle imports, or at least tell the SJB MPs to refuse the SUVs, etc., to be imported for them?

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Editorial

Make lockdown work

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Friday 11th June, 2021

The Covid-19 fatality rate shows no signs of plateauing any time soon, much less decreasing although the current lockdown has been in force for about three weeks. It was reported yesterday that 67 deaths had occurred due to the pandemic on Wednesday—the highest ever in a single day in this country. Curiously, there have been no such exponential increases in infections if the Health Ministry statistics are anything to go by. There are two possibilities, according to health experts. Either the severity of the disease has increased, killing more people, while the rate of virus transmission actually remains at the same level, or the number of PCR tests conducted daily has been decreased. Doctors have warned the government that any reduction in PCR testing will stand in the way of assessing the pandemic situation properly and, therefore be counterproductive.

The Covid-19 deaths are officially announced in such a way that one suspects a government attempt at obfuscation. The only way the Health Ministry can allay doubts as regards the mortality rate is to announce the number of new fatalities for each day of the week separately. Gobbledygook won’t do. Every statistical lie has a short shelf life. There is no alternative to aggressive testing in the fight against Covid-19, and the government had better heed expert advice. The country is in the current mess with so many lives being lost daily, because the government ignored doctors’ call for a lockdown in April.

Lockdowns helped prevent the formation of infection clusters very effectively last year because they were coupled with a quarantine curfew. The government was blamed for overreacting then. But this time around, the lockdown has not been so effective probably because many workplaces have been allowed to function without adequate pandemic prevention measures being adopted to ensure the safety of workers.

About 92 out of 300 workers who underwent PCR testing at a private factory in the Dompe MHO area have tested positive for Covid-19, according to media reports. These infected workers must have travelled to and from work, exposing their family members, friends and others to the disease. The existence of such infection clusters may explain why the death toll from the pandemic continues to rise in spite of the current lockdown. A similar situation is said to prevail in many other workplaces, especially factories, which must be inspected regularly.

As for the spread of Covid-19, people working in cramped conditions, run the same risk as partygoers, however essential it may be to keep factories and other such workplaces open to mitigate the adverse economic impact of the lockdown. Unless urgent action is taken to prevent the transmission of the deadly virus through these places, the current lockdown is bound to fail. The health authorities will have to inspect all workplaces that remain open to see if they have become pandemic hotspots, and ensure that aggressive PRC testing is done and workers are inoculated against Covid-19 on a priority basis. The Dompe factory cluster would not have emerged if the health officials responsible for inspecting the place had done their job properly. There is no way so many workers could work while being sick, unbeknownst to their employers. Were they forced to work to meet production targets despite their sickness? An investigation is called for.

Going by the sheer number of vehicles on roads, one may wonder whether the country is under lockdown at all, or if all Sri Lankan workers are engaged in the provision of essential services. It is humanly impossible for the police to check every vehicle, and almost all drivers and riders produce letters from their employers, claiming that they have to report for work. Confusion over who should actually go to work to maintain essential services and keep the economy ticking has to be cleared to prevent many institutions from making their employees report for work unnecessarily amidst the worsening pandemic situation.

The government keeps extending lockdowns. Necessary as such action is, given the increasing death rate, it may not help curb the spread of the pandemic unless the current movement restrictions are strictly enforced. It is high time the situation was reassessed and stringent remedial action taken to make the lockdown work so that the pandemic could be brought under control for the country to be reopened soon.

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