by Rajan Philips
For a second year in succession Christmas has come under the pall of a global pandemic. It is not just Christmas, for the festivals of all religions have fallen under the same pandemic pall. But Christmas is more global than other religions if only because it is also the most commercial. So being is really an affront to its namesake, the Man from Nazareth. One week before his crucifixion and death, Jesus demonstrated a rare instance of inspired anger when he whipped and chased away a motley crowd of merchants and traders in the great Temple of Jerusalem. “My house shall be a house of prayer,” he scolded, “but you are making it a den of thieves.” The symbolism of that anger against the forces of market in Jerusalem’s place of worship has not prevented the birth of Christ being commercialized two millennia later. Christianity may have rid itself of its colonial complicity, but it is still gift-wrapped in global consumerism in the celebration of Christmas.
But the heavy wrap this year, as it was last year, continues to be the pandemic. Many in the West, especially governments, were hoping that with full vaccination they would have seen the back of Covid-19. But Omicron has dashed all hopes for a winter of reprieve. Instead, it is another winter of despair and discontentment. Another new phase or wave in the relentless battle that the world’s medical professionals and scientists are waging against an almost mythically self-reproducing virus. Three factors, vaccine apartheid, vaccine hesitancy and public health hostility are making it difficult for medical professionals and scientists to subdue this pathogen. All three are sociopolitical, and none of them technical or unavoidable. Because of them, the world might end up having variants after every letter in the Greek Alphabet.
The WHO estimates that the current global vaccine production capacity is 1.5 billion doses a month, and the total global production by mid-2022 is expected to reach 24 billion. Enough to double-doze every person in the world and leave a good balance for boosters. Yet, the disparity in vaccine administration between high-income and low-income countries is staggering. At the end of October, 133 doses have been administered to 100 people in wealthy countries, and a mere four doses per 100 in the poorer countries.
In South Africa, where Omicron was first detected on November 24, only 26 percent of the population have received full vaccination (two doses), whereas the rate of full vaccination in most Western countries is higher than 80%. More than a half of the world’s population has not received any dose at all. Only 58% have received a single dose and 52% none at all. WHO set a minimum target of 10% vaccination for every country to be reached by the end of September, but 56 countries (mostly in Africa and the Middle East) have failed to reach the target. The new wave of Omicron is a direct result of the global vaccine disparity, which really is vaccine apartheid.
The WHO, its Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus – the Tigrayan from the now beleaguered Ethiopia, and medical scientists in almost every Western country have been pleading with Western governments to expand the global supply of vaccine and ensure a more uniform vaccine distribution between countries. They have been warning that no country can be protected until every country is vaccinated. But there is no change in the mindset of Western governments. They are now focused on rapid administration of booster shots in their own countries and there is hardly any indication of expanding vaccine supply in low-income countries. There are American medical experts who are questioning the wisdom of diverting resources to give booster shots to the vaccinated instead of vigorously targeting the unvaccinated to get their two-dose vaccines.
Israel is already starting the fourth dose for 60+ age groups. This should boost Pfizer and Moderna to get busy lobbying for and marketing a fourth dose in North America and Europe. The two companies have shown no urgency or even interest in sending anything to the vaccine-deprived countries. Moderna is already in a court battle with the US government for excluding US National Institutes of Health (NIH) scientists in patent accreditations for its mRNA vaccine. Moderna’s vaccine is being valued at $18 billion for 2021 only. Not a small amount for Moderna not to fight its own government for monopoly over royalties. Never mind Moderna’s research was massively supported by the American taxpayers. It was a different age in the US in 1955 when Jonas Salk, the “miracle worker” who developed the polio vaccine, declined to patent the vaccine or profit from it.
Now, Pfizer and Moderna have become the new vaccine scrooges of pandemic Christmas. Not even Pope Francis would be able to redeem these scrooges to become globally generous with their vaccines. Nor can the Pope persuade Western governments to allow vaccine production in developing countries. With the surprising exception of the Biden Administration, every Western government is being pushed by corporate interests to oppose global production of vaccines. Nonetheless, Christmas pleas and Papal admonitions and should keep coming. And if prayers would work, God speed to them.
Vaccine apartheid is one side of the Covid-19 coin, the other side belongs to vaccine hesitancy and public health hostility. Vaccine hesitancy is no longer the benign domain of the cautious. It is now a malignant movement of anti-vaxxers. They are universal, and every society has an unfair share of them. The country that suffers them most is also the country that is awash in vaccines – the United of States America. Only 61.5% Americans are fully vaccinated and 76.5% of them have received only one dose. The culture of political correctness and the laxity of relativism might be partly blamed for the failure of Western governments to aggressively counter the false narratives of anti-vaxxers in the social media and check their activities for the greater good of society. It is easily said and done in authoritarian societies.
Left Cheer in Chile, Coup Fears in the US
For more than 30 years civil society organizations have been campaigning for transparency in government. Covid-19 has brought about transparency of the unexpected kind, the transparency of government incompetence. Quite a few governments have tried hard and tried sincerely to contain the virus, but no government has been conclusively successful. Not even New Zealand. China officially stands for zero-Covid, but what is unofficially predictable is zero-information. Most governments have been muddling through with transparent incompetence. Some of them are being made to pay the price by their electors.
Right-wing zealots and charlatans who came to power with big acclaims have been cut to size or sent packing. Donald Trump lasted only one term, but nobody is writing him off. 2024 could be another Biden-Trump runoff. May be, Trump deserves a more lasting punishment with an even more disastrous second term as his permanent legacy. Narendra Modi, who tried hard to be peas in the same Indo-American pod with Trump, is now being forced to try even harder to protect his political bases in India. The most spectacular falling from grace is the lot of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. His buffoonery and incompetence are costing Britain dearly.
Governing Tory MPs in the British parliament are voting against their own government’s Covid-19 measures. The Johnson cabinet needed the support of opposition Labour to pass new public health regulations. And the people have had it with Johnson two years after giving him a thumping majority. In a recent by-election the Tories lost a seat (North Shropshire) for the first time in 200 years. They blew a majority of 23,000 in the general election and lost to Liberal Democrats by 6,000 votes. A turnaround of nearly 30,000 votes. As Lib-Dem’s winning candidate Helen Morgan declared, the “party is over” for Prime Minister Johnson.
While the UK and much of Europe are in convulsions, Germany, the villain of 20th century Europe, is emerging as the new example of political maturity and stability. To wit, the very consociational transition from Chancellor Angela Merkel and Christian Democratic Union after 16 years to new a coalition government led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party and including Germany’s Green Party and the new pro-business Free Democratic Party. Stranger things might be happening across the (Atlantic) pond in the Americas.
At one end, really in the southwestern corner of the continent, in Chile, a leftist millennial was elected last Sunday as its new President handsomely defeating a free-market buccaneer 56% to 44% in the binary vote. Gabriel Boric is a 35 year old Chilean political activist and unfinished law graduate of Croatian-Spanish origin.
He became prominent during the 2019 civil disobedience protests in Chile against inequality. Mr. Boric ran on an anti-Pinochet platform, pledging to end Chile’s vaunted neoliberal economic model. “If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave,” he has vowed. But there is nothing grave about the transition of power, however. Both the defeated candidate, Antonio Kast, and outgoing President Sebastian Pinera (a conservative billionaire) have pledged their support to the new President. And the President elect has promised, “I am going to be the president of all Chileans.” For a country once notorious for its coups, Chile has become a “model of civility.”
It is quite a different story in the United States of America, once the fomenter of coups in Latin America. An old running joke among Latin American diplomats was the question: “Why are there are no coups in the US?” And the answer, “because, there is no American Embassy in Washington.” Well, there might be one now. While the Chileans were celebrating democracy, Washington Post ran an op-ed by three retired US military generals, warning the imminence of a coup attempt in the US by disgruntled sections of the military if Donald Trump or a candidate like him were to lose the next presidential election in 2024. Such a prospect is not “outlandish” according to the generals, with the “military hobbled and divided” after its politicization under Trump. A coup may not come to pass in the US, but the historical irony in the political transposition between Chile and the US should not be missed.
When General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of Dr. Salvador Allende in Chile, on 11 September 1973, Sri Lanka was under a popularly elected socialist government (of the United Front Parties). The island had survived the insurrection of 1971 and had become a Republic in 1972. Soon after the coup in Chile, the Left leaders of the United Front government organized a massive political rally in Colombo, and warned of the threat of American imperialism facing the island. No such threat materialized then or later. And nearly 50 years later, as Chile celebrates rediscovery of democracy, there are many rumblings in Sri Lanka about its political future. There is no threat from the military to the government, but the fear is whether the government will use the military against the people. Or a self-coup or autocoup staged by the government, withdrawing its own legal legitimacy.
My contention has been that the Sri Lankan military is far too socialized and is tied up in myriads of kinship knots, and any attempt by the government to pit the military against the people will only backfire against the government. Another saving grace is in the proven incompetence of the government in an area of action, and a military action will be no exception. That does not mean, the government will not try something stupid. Right now, the government seems to be running scared, out of ideas, and out of money, most importantly foreign exchange money.
It can barely muster $1.6 billion in foreign exchange to buy a month of imports. The loquacious Governor of the Central Bank is promising to up the reserve to $3 billion by year end. He had better, given the double dipping salary and pension benefits he has helped himself to after his re-appointment. But his assured sources for foreign funding are pathetic – SWAP facilities from Middle Eastern countries and South Asian neighbours. China is not in any mood to give, but only to demand. Foreign exchange is only one of the government’s many worries. There are too many of them.
So much so, the President seems to have taken the advice of whomsoever and prorogued parliament until 18 January in the New Year. Parliament was going to be on vacation till January 11, and extending it by one more week by proroguing it did not make much sense to many people. Except for the government to bury its head in sand, ostrich wise. Speculations are that the government will use the interval to dissolve its bothersome parliamentary committees and get rid of their out-of-control Chairs. In addition, there could be a cabinet shuffle and some of the current Ministers are apparently not sure if they will be shuffled around or sacked altogether.
There is no Pieter Keuneman around in parliament to offer the old wisecrack that there is no point in shuffling a pack of jokers without any aces. The latest joke to come out of the current parliament is the purported action plan of the Ministry of the Environment to convert Sri Lanka’s parliament into a “Paperless Parliament.” Why not a speechless parliament? Should people be thankful that government leaders are unlimited in their resources to make them laugh? That might be the only positive Christmas note in the midst of misfiring cooking gas cylinders, soaring prices, and universal cuts of power, water and fertilizer.
UK support for govt.’s pragmatic reconciliation process
By Jehan Perera
The government would be relieved by the non-critical assessment by visiting UK Minister for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of his visit to Sri Lanka. He has commended the progress Sri Lanka had made in human rights and in other areas as well, such as environmental protection. He has pledged UK support to the country. According to the President’s Media Division “Lord Tariq Ahmad further stated that Sri Lanka will be able to resolve all issues pertaining to human rights by moving forward with a pragmatic approach.” The Minister, who had visited the north and east of the country and met with war-affected persons tweeted that he “emphasised the need for GoSL to make progress on human rights, reconciliation, and justice and accountability.”
Prior to the Minister’s visit, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had announced in Parliament that his government had not violated nor would support “any form of human rights violations.” This was clearly an aspirational statement as the evidence on the ground belies the words. Significantly he also added that “We reject racism. The present government wants to safeguard the dignity and rights of every citizen in this country in a uniform manner. Therefore I urge those politicians who continue to incite people against each other for narrow political gains to stop doing so.” This would be welcome given the past history especially at election time.
The timing of Lord Ahmad’s visit and the statements made regarding human rights suggest that the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, commencing on February 28, loomed large in the background. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will be presenting a written report on that occasion. A plethora of issues will up for review, including progress on accountability for crimes, missing persons, bringing the Prevention of Terrorism Act in line with international standards, protecting civil society space and treating all people and religions without discrimination.
The UK government has consistently taken a strong position on human rights issues especially in relation to the ethnic conflict and the war which led to large scale human rights violations. The UK has a large Tamil Diaspora who are active in lobbying politicians in that country. As a result some of the UK parliamentarians have taken very critical positions on Sri Lanka. Lord Ahmad’s approach, however, appears to be more on the lines of supporting the government to do the needful with regard to human rights, rather than to condemn it. This would be gratifying to the architects of the government’s international relations and reconciliation process, led by Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris.
In the coming week the government will be launching a series of events in the North of the country with a plethora of institutions that broadly correspond to the plethora of issues that the UNHRC resolution has identified. War victims and those adversely affected by the post war conditions in the North and livelihood issues that arise from the under-developed conditions in those areas will be provided with an opportunity to access government services through on-the-spot services through mobile clinics. The programme coordinated by the Ministry of Justice called “Adhikaranabhimani” is meant to provide “ameliorated access to justice for people of the Northern Province.”
Beginning with Kilinochchi and Jaffna there will be two-day mobile clinics in which the participating government institutions will be the Legal Aid Commission, Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, Office for Reparations, Office on Missing Persons, Department of Debt Conciliation Board and the Vocational Training Authority to mention some of them. Whether it is by revising 60 laws simultaneously and setting up participatory committees of lawyers and state officials or in now launching the “Adhikaranabhimani” Justice Minister Ali Sabry has shown skill at large scale mobilisation that needs to be sustained. It is to be hoped that rather than treating them as passive recipients, the governmental service providers will make efforts to fulfill their need for justice, which means that the needs of victims and their expectations are heard and acknowledged.
It will also be important for the government to ensure that these activities continue in the longer term. They need to take place not only before the Geneva sessions in March but also continue after them. The conducting of two-day mobile clinics, although it will send a message of responsiveness, will only be able to reach a few of the needy population. The need is for infusing an ethic of responsiveness into the entirety of the government’s administrative machinery in dealing with those problems that reaches all levels, encompassing villages, divisions, districts and provinces, not to mention the heart of government at the central level.
The government’s activities now planned at the local level will draw on civil society and NGO participation which is already happening. Government officials are permitting their subordinate officials to participate in inter-ethnic and inter religious initiatives. It is in their interest to do so as they would not wish to have inter-community conflicts escalate in their areas which, in the past, have led to destruction of property and life. They also have an interest in strengthening their own capacities to understand the underlying issues and developing the capacity to handle tensions that may arise through non-coercive methods.
Many of the institutions that the government has on display and which are going to the North to provide mobile services were established during the period of the previous government. However, they were not operationalized in the manner envisaged due to political opposition. Given the potency of nationalism in the country, especially where it concerns the ethnic conflict, it will be necessary for the government to seek to develop a wide consensus on the reconciliation process. The new constitution that is being developed may deal with these issues and heed the aspirations of the minorities, but till that time the provincial council system needs to be reactivated through elections.
Sooner rather than later, the government needs to deal with the core issue of inter-ethnic power sharing. The war arose because Sinhalese politicians and administrators took decisions that led to disadvantaging of minorities on the ground. There will be no getting away from the need to reestablish the elected provincial council system in which the elected representatives of the people in each province are provided with the necessary powers to take decisions regarding the province. In particular, the provincial administrations of the Northern and Eastern provinces, where the ethnic and religious minorities form provincial majorities, need to be reflective of those populations.
At the present time, the elected provincial councils are not operational and so the provincial administration is headed by central appointees who are less likely to be representative of the sentiments and priorities of the people of those provinces. In the east for instance, when Sinhalese encroach on state land the authorities show a blind eye, but when Tamils or Muslims do it they are arrested or evicted from the land. This has caused a lot of bitterness in the east, which appears to have evaded the attention of the visiting UK minister as he made no mention of such causes for concern in his public utterances. His emphasis on pragmatism may stem from the observation that words need to be converted to deeds.
A video put out by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office confirms a positive approach with regard to engaging with the Sri Lankan government. In it Lord Ahmad says “the last three days illustrated to me that we can come together and we can build a constructive relationship beyond what are today with Sri Lanka. We can discuss the issues of difference and challenge in a candid but constructive fashion.” Lord Ahmad’s aspiration for UK-Sri Lankan relations needs to be replicated nationally in government-opposition relations, including the minority parties, which is the missing dimension at the present time.
Yohani…teaming up with Rajiv and The Clan
I know many of you, on reading this headline, would say ‘What?’
Relax. Yohani, of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ fame, is very much a part of the group Lunu.
But…in February, she will be doing things, differently, and that is where Rajiv and the Clan come into the scene.
Rajiv and his band will be embarking on a foreign assignment that will take them to Dubai and Oman, and Yohani, as well as Falan, will be a part of the setup – as guest artistes.
The Dubai scene is not new to Yohani – she has performed twice before, in that part of the world, with her band Lunu – but this would be her first trip, to Oman, as a performer.
However, it will be the very first time that Yohani will be doing her thing with Rajiv and The Clan – live on stage.
In the not too distant past, Rajiv worked on a track for Yohani that also became a big hit. Remember ‘Haal Massa?’
“She has never been a part of our scene, performing as a guest artiste, so we are all looking forward to doing, it in a special way, during our three-gig, two-country tour,” says Rajiv.
Their first stop will be Dubai, on February 5th, for a private party, open-air gig, followed by another two open-air, private party gigs, in Oman – on February 10th and 11th.
Another attraction, I’m told, will be Satheeshan, the original rapper of ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’
He will also be a part of this tour (his first overseas outing) and that certainly would create a lot of excitement, and add that extra sparkle, especially when he comes into the scene for ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’
Yohani and her band, Lunu, last performed in Dubai, a couple of months back, and Satheeshan, they say, was the missing link when she did her mega internet hit song – live, on stage.
There was a crowd to catch her in action but it wasn’t a mind-blowing experience – according to reports coming our way.
A live performance, on stage, is a totally different setup to what one sees on social media, YouTube, etc.
I guess music lovers, here, would also welcome a truly live performance by Yohani de Silva.
In the meanwhile, I’m also told that Rajiv Sebastian plans to release some songs of the late Desmond de Silva which he and Desmond have worked on, over the years.
According to Rajiv, at this point in time, there is material for four albums!
He also mentioned that he and his band have quite a few interesting overseas assignments, lined up, over the next few months, but they have got to keep their fingers crossed…hoping that the Omicron virus wouldn’t spike further.
We all know Trishelle as the female vocalist of Sohan & The X-Periments, so, obviously it came to me as a surprise when it was mentioned that she is a highly qualified Bharatanatyam dancer, as well.
What’s more, she has been learning the skills of Bharatanatyam, since her kid days!
And, to prove that she is no novice, where this highly technical dance form is concerned, Trishelle, and the disciples (students) of State Dance Award winning Bhartanatyam Guru, Nritya Visharad Bhashini, Thamesha Herath, will be seen in action, on January 29th, at 4.00 pm, at the Ave Maria Auditorium, Negombo.
Said to be the biggest event in Bharatanatyam, this Arangethram Kalaeli concert will bring into the spotlight Avindu, Sithija, Mishaami, Nakshani, Venushi, Veenadi, Amanda, Sakuni, Kawisha, Tishaani, Thrishala (Trishelle), Sarithya, Hewani, Senuri, Deanne and Wasana.
In addition to her singing, and dancing skills, Trishelle has two other qualifications – Bachelor in Biomedical Science, and Master in Counselling Psychology.
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