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Editorial

Of April explosions and warnings

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Wednesday 5th May, 2021

April is apparently the cruellest month in this country, as we said in a previous comment, with apologies to T. S. Eliot. In April 1971, the country was plunged into a bloodbath. The Easter Sunday carnage happened in April 2019. The current national health crisis took a turn for the worse in April 2021; the pandemic now snuffs out more lives than it did during its first and second waves. It is also during April that the highest number of lives lost in road accidents is reported year every year.

The Attorney General (AG) has indicted former IGP Pujith Jayasundera and former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando for murder, etc., in the Colombo High Court over their failure to prevent the Easter Sunday bombings despite having received repeated warnings of possible terror strikes. The matter is best left to the learned judges, but it needs to be added that Jayasundera and Fernando were not alone in failing to prevent the carnage; there were many others, and legal action must be instituted against them as well if justice is seen to be done.

The government must not baulk at allowing legal action to be taken against former President Maithripala Sirisena, named by the Easter Sunday Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) as a person who should take responsibility for negligence and serious security lapses that led to the terror attacks at issue. The PCoI final report specifically says, in its recommendations (p 471), “The Government including President Sirisena and Prime Minister is accountable for the tragedy.” So, all those who were responsible for national security during the yahapalana government and failed to prevent the Easter tragedy must be prosecuted.

The incumbent government is in a spot as regards Sirisena, who is the leader of the SLFP, a major constituent of the ruling SLPP coalition. The SLFP, which has 14 members in the government parliamentary group, has issued a veiled threat that it will break ranks with the SLPP in case of legal action being taken against Sirisena. The SLPP finds itself in a Catch-22 situation, but it must not let its political problems stand in the way of justice, which the families of the Easter Sunday bombing victims, the Catholic Church, and, in short, all right-thinking Sri Lankans are demanding.

When one looks carefully at the Easter Sunday carnage, which destroyed about 270 lives, and the onset of the current wave of the pandemic, which is killing people at the rate of about 10 a day, one sees that both of them were due to failure on the part of those in authority to heed prescient warnings. Now that legal action has been taken against Jayasundera and Fernando for their failure to act on warnings of the Easter Sunday terror, all those who did not heed repeated warnings of an explosive spread of Covid-19 during the National New Year and thereby caused people to die must also be brought to justice. The Covid-19 morbidity and mortality rates have increased drastically of late because the government higher-ups, the health authorities and others tasked with controlling the pandemic chose to ignore independent health experts’ warnings that there would be an upsurge of infections unless travel restrictions were imposed during the festive season.

Everybody knew the country was sitting on a ticking viral time bomb, as it were, and the government politicians and the health authorities should have taken precautions before and during the New Year to prevent an explosive transmission of the pandemic. Instead, people were allowed to do as they pleased to all intents and purposes. There were avurudu shopping sprees. Huge crowds gathered in Kataragama and Nuwara-Eliya. New Year festivals were also permitted. Those mass gatherings were a recipe for disaster. The government obviously did not want to curtail the freedom of the public during the festive season for political reasons, for travel restrictions and lockdowns are hugely unpopular. Those in authority who did not act on dire warnings from independent experts and triggered the so-called avurudu wave of the pandemic must be severely dealt with.

Criminal negligence, in all its manifestations, must not be allowed to go unpunished.



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Editorial

Big, bold strokes or hemin hemin?

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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it appears, is a firm believer in big, bold strokes in taking far-reaching policy decisions. The recent decision to immediately ban the import of inorganic (chemical) fertilizer is one such. According to reports two fertilizer shipments have already been turned away from our shores. However, stocks of previous imports, believed to be sufficient for short-term requirements are said to be available in the country. So there is a little time yet available to change track if that be the wisest course. Many reputed scientists have published articles in the Lankan press since the ban was first publicized urging that the decision be reconsidered, adducing seemingly valid reasons on why this should be done. There has been no reaction up to now to this request nor has there been credible refutation of the reasons offered by advocates of re-thinking the ban.

There is no doubt that a world without without widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides will be a better world in environmental terms. But it may also be a hungrier world. Much of the successes in global food production today is attributed to boosting crops by using inorganic fertilizers and protecting them with chemical pesticides. Genetic engineering too has contributed to increased production although there have been many warnings against interfering with nature in some of the ways attempted. However nobody objects to the practice of hybrid agriculture, common for many years, involving cross pollination of two different varieties of plants to get the best traits of the parents in the offspring. We in this country today are able to buy a variety of mango superior to what we were accustomed – though at a price of course – thanks to scientific advances in producing better quality fruit and grain. Older readers will remember a time when there were no seedless grapes that are abundant today.

Writing to a recent issue of The Island, Prof. O.A. Ileperuma, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry of the Peradeniya University, said an inorganic fertilizer ban will have a “devastating effect” on our economy. Nobody can quarrel with the president’s desire that we make do with compost fertilizer instead of utilizing scarce resources for importing chemical fertilizers issued to farmers at subsidized rates. But the scientific view is that compost alone cannot provide the macro-nutrients necessary for the healthy growth of crops. The president does not disagree with the contention that these inorganic soil supplements mean better crops and resultant better incomes. This applies not only to peasant farmers but also plantations. But he says they pollute waterways – as they no doubt do – and are suspected to cause kidney disease endemic in some agricultural areas. The bottom line according to the president’s thinking is that the cost to society of chemical fertilizer use outweighs the benefits.

The country is virtually self-sufficient in rice today although occasional imports are necessary to tide over temporary difficulties. This has been possible due to the efforts of the Department of Agriculture as well as the development of high yielding varieties such as the ‘miracle rice’ bred at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines in the sixties. All the pluses achieved would be in vain if we abruptly ban the import of fertilizer, Ileperuma has said. He agrees that there are positive effects, such as improving soil texture and providing some micro-nutrients. But he says that compost cannot entirely substitute the fertilizer requirements of the high yielding rice varieties now being grown here. That will obviously reduce the income of farmers and also necessitate rice imports to feed the people. The professor has also revealed – what many many may not have known – that rice from some countries, particularly Bangladesh, is laden with arsenic which is an extremely toxic element. As for the argument that inorganic fertilizers is the cause of kidney disease, there is scientific evidence that this is so. It is a suspicion at most and by no means an established fact.

A hemin hemin (slowly, slowly) approach is what is required at this moment. There must be intensive study of the relevant evidence, meticulous evaluation of the various costs and benefits before an ironclad decision to ban fertilizer imports is implemented. We must also look at what is happening elsewhere in the world. Have other countries, many with far better facilities than we can ever hope to match, taken decisions to totally ban the use of chemical fertilizers? What happens in large countries like China and India? When Rachel Carson wrote her celebrated Silent Spring over 50 years ago focusing largely on the negative effects of chemical pesticides, particularly DDT, the world woke up to the dangers that President Rajapaksa has brought to the forefront of our national agenda. But can we forget that we eliminated the scourge of malaria which cost our country hugely in the thirties by using DDT? Very much later we shifted to the less harmful malathion.

There was also the recent decision to ban the import of palm oil which was amended after its impact on the bakery industry surfaced. Whether we will go ahead with the decision to ban cultivation of oil palm, believed by some to guzzle ground water at an unsustainable rate and replant existing plantations with rubber, will be implemented remains to be seen. The big, bold strokes that the president favours undoubtedly helped end our 30-year civil war during his tenure as Defence Secretary. But whether a hasty ban on fertilizer imports, in the teeth of the many dangers highlighted, will have a similar beneficial impact, remains doubtful.

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Editorial

When mutts try to be docs

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Saturday 8th May, 2021

The police are busy, these days, arresting, as they do, scores of ordinary people daily for violating the Covid-19 protocol. They are shown on television bundling offenders into police vehicles. They deserve public plaudits for taking such swift action against the quarantine law violators, who are a threat to others. But, unfortunately, these laws do not apply to the ruling party politicians.

Transport Minister Gamini Lokuge stands accused of having had the pandemic-related restrictions in Piliyandala removed against the advice of health professionals. No sooner had the Piliyandala police area been isolated, on Sunday, owing to a rapid spread of Covid-19 than it was reopened reportedly at the behest of Lokuge. Only the Director General of Health Services (DGHS) has the authority to impose and lift such restrictions, based on recommendations made by the Medical Officers of Health (MoHs) and Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) in the areas concerned. DGHS Dr. Asela Gunawardana insists he did not have restrictions in Piliyandala lifted.

The government, as a face-saving exercise, sent a team to assess the Covid-19 situation in Piliyandala; the latter has decided that there was no need for a lockdown in the area! The highest number of Covid-19 cases in the Colombo District has been reported from Piliyandala during the past several days. That was the reason why the MoH and the PHIs concerned had the area isolated. Only the naïve may have expected the government team to reveal the truth and incur the wrath of the powers by embarrassing them. The issue, on the other hand, was not whether the situation in Piliyandala warranted a lockdown; instead, it was why the restrictions imposed in the area had been arbitrarily lifted by someone other than the DGHS.

The thinking of the present-day rulers seems to be that if any illegal practice cannot be stopped, the solution is to legalise it. This is what they did when they were in power previously. The MPs sold their duty-free vehicle permits illegally, and when the racket got out of hand, the then Rajapaksa government legalised the sale of permits! Since the destruction of forests is illegal, the SLPP leaders have removed some forests from the purview of the Forest Department. Now, any government backer can encroach on forestlands on the pretext of engaging in traditional agriculture!

Likewise, since the likes of Lokuge cannot be reined in, will the government consider changing the current health regulations to empower its provincial potentates to countermand decisions taken by health professionals responsible for pandemic control? These politicians consider themselves more knowledgeable than medical professionals, and their bosses take their opinion seriously and defend them while refusing to take on board the advice of educated, intelligent ministers such as Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle. Therefore, a wag says the government should consider awarding medical degrees to its omniscient MPs and ministers and put them in charge of the pandemic control programme. Thereafter, the anti-Covid campaign in areas south of Colombo could be carried out under the supervision of Lokuge, who can also be appointed State Minister of Primary Health Care, Epidemics and COVID Disease Control while medical consultant, Dr. Fernandopulle, who currently holds that portfolio but cannot have herself heard on matters concerning public health, is made the Minister of Transport. This should be child’s play for a government that readily intervenes to have court cases against its politicians withdrawn, abolishes import duties on some commodities and tries to set up gyms countrywide amidst a crippling health crisis to help its financiers make a killing. One may recall that during the previous Rajapaksa government ‘Dr. Mervyn Silva’ took over the dengue control campaign in Kelaniya and even tied a health worker to a tree in full view of the police for being late for a meeting he had called.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is known as an allegory of the Bolshevik revolution and the situation in Russia thereafter, but we wonder whether Orwell foresaw what would happen in this former British colony, decades later, when he wrote that dystopian novella, especially where the proclamation by the Pigs that control the government in the enthrallingly satirical story is concerned: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’ Nothing exemplifies this ‘commandment’ more than the manner in which this country is being run by those who came into power, promising a utopia.

 

 

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Editorial

Minister in china shop, and big ego trips

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Friday 7th May, 2021

Most government politicians are in the news, always for the wrong reasons. Minister Gamini Lokuge has not only endangered the lives of people but also caused what remains of the government’ popularity to plummet further by having Covid-19 travel restrictions in the Piliyandala area arbitrarily lifted recently. We thought the 20th Amendment to the Constitution would restore the dictatorial powers of only the Executive President, but it looks as if it had led to the emergence of dictators at the provincial level as well. These self-important politicians who countermand vital decisions of health professionals tasked with controlling the pandemic must be kept on a tight leash.

Close on the heels of Minister Lokuge’s high-handed action came a government announcement that the Cabinet had approved a proposal for setting up a large number of gyms countrywide. One wonders whether the ruling politicians have taken leave of their senses.

There is no gainsaying that physical fitness goes a long way towards warding off diseases and battling them. Not everyone can afford modern gym facilities and coaching, and the public will gain tremendously if they could be made available free or charge. Public walking tracks and recreational parks built under the previous Rajapaksa administration have stood the ordinary people in good stead. But the government must get its expenditure priorities right at this hour of crisis.

There is a pressing need to rationalise state expenditure on account of the current national health crisis; projects that can wait must be put on hold immediately. The country must remain maniacally focused on beating the runaway virus, which has brought even the developed world to its knees.

The government has sought to justify its irrational spending by claiming that it has allocated enough funds for the fight against Covid-19, but the truth is otherwise. The country is without enough PCR machines to detect infections, and genome sequencing equipment to identify new variants of the virus. The number of PCR tests conducted daily remains woefully low.

Aggressive testing is a prerequisite for curbing the spread of the pandemic. The state hospital network is under severe strain, and all pandemic treatment centres are bursting at the seams. The procurement of vaccines has become a problem. The poor are crying out for relief. This situation has come about mostly due to lack of funds.

Ideally, the country should go into another round of lockdowns if the rapid tranmission of the virus is to be halted and the number of infections brought down to a manageable level, as public health experts argue. But the government is wary of adopting this method, given the heavy socio-economic costs it entails; if the country is to remain open safely, there are some essential facilities that must be provided to the public.

The public transport sector should be given priority. The Covid-19 health regulations require the number of passengers in buses and trains to be drastically reduced so that physical distancing could be maintained. But there are not enough buses and trains, and the available ones are overcrowded. Private buses cannot be expected to run at a loss, and, in fact, it is not fair to force them do so. The government has to step in to solve this problem, but the fleet of state-owned bus service alone cannot cater to the demand. Everybody realises the value of the Sri Lanka Transport Board during crisis situations, but nobody cares to do anything to develop it. Thus, instead of procuring new aircraft and fitness equipment, the government ought to purchase buses to enable workers to commute safely so that the economy will not contract further.

There has emerged a pressing need for more ambulances for Suwaseriya, which has proved to be a huge success. Sri Lankans must be grateful to India, which made this service a reality, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Dr. Harsha de Silva, MP, who fought quite a battle to set it up, under the previous government, amidst unfair criticism from those who are currently in power. The procurement of more ambulances to transport the sick ought to take precedence over that of fitness centres and choppers.

The government keeps faulting the public for lack of co-operation to beat the virus. True, people have to follow the Covid-19 protocol without leaving the task of battling the pandemic entirely to the health authorities. The government must also act responsibly; it must get its expenditure priorities right instead of embarking on ego-boosting projects, and rein in its unruly politicians who have become a nuisance to the public as well as health professionals.

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