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Perils of Vaccine Diplomacy

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by Dr Sarala Fernando

Prime Minister Modi led the global response to Covid 19 with his vaccine maithri diplomacy. By end of March 2021 India had supplied 60 million doses of its locally produced Astra Zeneca or Covishield to over 70 countries through grants in aid, gifts and commercial transactions. Sri Lanka was fortunate and grateful to be one of the earliest beneficiaries under the Indian gift, receiving 500,000 doses at the end of January. This, together with a similar amount purchased from the Serum Institute combined with the WHO first Covax donation of 264,000 doses enabled the vaccination roll-out in Sri Lanka to begin early.

However, in a twist of fate, the Modi government is now being criticized in India for generosity to the world without providing sufficiently for India’s own needs while at the other end of the spectrum, governments like the UK are being criticized for hoarding vaccines in an abundance of caution over new variants!

As a recipient country Sri Lanka’s dilemma was different, having made the initial mistake of deciding to control the import and distribution of the vaccines without private sector participation. These controls have led to unending charges of lack of equity and transparency, generating a public uproar which has become like a ticking time bomb for the government. Take for instance the first WHO Covax donation to Sri Lanka which was intended for the most vulnerable, the elderly, numbering some 2.65 million over 60’s . However the elderly are way down on Sri Lanka’s priority list. Now that Covax has confirmed it will provide a second round of Astra Zeneca, will the authorities target the elderly, at least those within the 600,000 waiting for the second jab?

When the vaccine shortfall erupted, it was thanks to Sri Lanka’s non-aligned diplomacy that it could turn to China which immediately provided a gift of 600,000 doses of its Sinopharm in March followed up by 500,000 doses in May. This gift was initially administered in both doses to the Chinese community in Sri Lanka and enabled a trial run to see its efficacy on new infections and morbidity rates. It is a pity the Sri Lanka government has not released this data which would help build confidence in the Chinese vaccine even as the Western manufacturers are ramping up their publicity for their own vaccines. France has recently announced free entry for visitors having one of the western vaccines, Pfizer, Moderna or Astra Zeneca, casting those with the Chinese and Russian vaccines into quarantine requirements.

However now that the US coming out of the Covid crisis, Sri Lanka’s best hope for meeting its urgent needs of the Astra Zeneca, resides with the US which is holding large stocks of this vaccine (which has not been authorized there). The question is whether Sri Lanka, applying its friendship-with- all foreign policy, will be able to lobby at the highest levels in the US and obtain the required second doses for those waiting here patiently for almost four months now. President Biden’s plan is to make available immediately some 19 million doses through Covax and he has refuted any political bias: “We are sharing these doses not to secure favors or extract concessions… we are sharing these vaccines to save lives and to lead the world in bringing an end to the pandemic, with the power of our example and with our values.” South Asia, including Sri Lanka, was supposed to receive some seven million of these doses through Covax. So why has there been no public announcement here on this second donation from Covax?

Mr Biden has spoken of an “arsenal of vaccines” and has pushed the G7 to match his pledge with another 1 billion doses in this new global campaign. However some worry that this American campaign may become part of a new Cold War to push back on the Chinese and Soviet vaccines that have come to the forefront thus far, supplying many developing countries in their time of need. Domestic politics is clearly playing into vaccine manufacture around the globe. President Biden’s new campaign to donate billions of vaccine doses will focus on the Pfizer vaccine developed by BionTech in Germany and produced in the US. Nevertheless, good intentions and public relations apart, the US campaign may run into trouble given that the Pfizer requires stringent cold chain conditions, not generally found in tropical developing countries.

The Government here has been unable to obtain vaccines in any predictable fashion although from time to time we hear that supplies for the missing 600,000 doses have been secured from one country or the other. Some say Sri Lanka is misreading diplomatic courtesy eg. “to give sympathetic consideration” to our request does not mean that the vaccine donation has been agreed. Even the Japanese embassy in Sri Lanka has not confirmed the press reports in Colombo that they have promised to provide the vaccines needed in Sri Lanka. How can Japan make such an announcement amidst their domestic crisis where infections are rising and there are huge protests over whether the July Olympic Games will become a health threat to the country. Nor is it clear whether any future Japanese donation, will be Covishield or Pfizer manufactured in Japan.

The Government has recently announced that 300,000 doses of Pfizer has been paid for and will arrive in July and that it will be like a “trial run.” Pfizer has to be stored and distributed at below zero conditions and in Sri Lanka for example, the only such cold storage is said to be at the Blood Bank. Significantly Japan has extended a grant of US$ 3 million through UNICEF to enhance cold storage capacity (cold chain equipment, walk in cold rooms, ice lined refrigerators, vaccine carriers) in Sri Lanka. This is only part of the problem, as everyone agrees the Pfizer is best given in hospitals and clinics and is not suitable for mass vaccinations such as at Campbell Park. Judging by the chaos of the vaccine roll-out so far, if indeed the purchased Pfizer vaccines are arriving in July in Sri Lanka, should they not be administered as a public-private partnership to better manage the huge crowds defying social distancing requirements? How will the government address the competing demands for different vaccines at a time when the Sinopharm and Sputnik are being rolled out around the island?

Another problem amidst the confusion on statistics is whether the government knows how many in fact have already obtained the second Covishield jab, by hook or by crook? At hospitals like Lady Ridgeway and Army hospital where the immunization campaigns were conducted professionally, they had retained sufficient to give the second jab to those vaccinated on their priority list. However several scandals have broken out recently alleging some have obtained the second jab through political pressure and “secret” vaccination campaigns such as in Galle are being investigated. It is well known that the GMOA had demanded and obtained the second jab at the National hospital for thousands of their members, families and households provoking much public anger. These scandals bring into focus the plight of those who are waiting patiently to receive the second jab of Covishield. Do they have reason to fear that any new stocks will not go to the intended beneficiaries, the elderly, despite the promises made recently by the Director General of Health Asela Gunawardene, who is at last speaking out and is probably the only credible voice on government vaccine policy.

Sri Lanka’s public health service has a fantastic reputation and is known for its stellar performance and ability to handle crises such as the Tsunami. Even during the armed conflict, children were vaccinated under a truce with the LTTE. Today it is apparent that this system has broken down and many are questioning the lack of vaccines, the modalities of the roll-out, even the accuracy of the statistics. No explanation yet about the validity dates of the Government held Covishield stocks still being given in driblets through various centres, while some African countries are reported to be destroying vaccines that had expired.

A larger problem is looming on the horizon with many manufacturing countries ramping up production. By the end of the year, some believe there may even be a glut of vaccines in the market leading to a price war. For all these reasons, the government should be cautious in trying to enter into any speedy local manufacturing of the Chinese or Russian vaccines in this country. There are several manufacturers now with long experience and reliability accelerating production in India including on the new Novavax and it is a matter of time by the end of the year when the Serum Institute resumes its exports of Covishield and fulfils its contractual obligations.

Instead of going into local manufacturing of vaccines, shouldn’t the government focus instead on a big problem that has already arisen in Sri Lanka on disposal of Covid waste, vials, needles, PPE and masks? Not so sexy as local manufacture of vaccines but perhaps a more enduring problem for the nation’s environment and wildlife.

 

(Ms. Sarala Fernando, retired from the Foreign Ministry as Additional Secretary and her last Ambassadorial appointment was as Permanent Representative to the UN and International Organizations (including WHO) in Geneva . Her Ph.D was on India-Sri Lanka relations and she writes now on foreign policy, diplomacy and protection of heritage).



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The battle against KNDU: Renewing our contract with the people

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By Sivamohan Sumathy

The KNDU Bill is designed to single-handedly change the face of education in Sri Lanka. Since the ‘90s, successive governments have tried to roll back the gains of the Free Education Poliicy of 1945. The history of free education is not linear, nor is it without contradictions. It is implicated in the hierarchies of class, ethnicity, gender and the multiple vectors of violence of state and civil society. Despite and because of these very contradictions Free Education has come to represent and symbolise the often contradictory but powerful assemblage of social aspirations and social desires of the general body of citizenry, particularly the vast majority situated on the margins or near margins of society. Free education does not serve everybody equally, but over the years and across decades, it has come to represent the hope of a vast majority for a better place in society. For a populace that is increasingly disempowered, it opens up opportunities toward social mobility, limited as they are; and as or more importantly, becomes the ideological and political weapon of the vast majority in the struggle for justice, social justice and bid for a democratic pact with the state.

Privatisation, Corporatisation, Militarisation

The State university system is an integral part of the state apparatus. Successive governments, have attempted and, to some degree, succeeded in undermining its integrity from within, creating parallel systems of higher education that would be on par with it. Privatisation of higher education follows a two pronged plan; the creation of fee levying centres and bodies of education and the degradation of state universities through under funding and sub-standardization. The fortnightly Kuppi Talk column in The Island has consistently foregrounded the pressures exerted upon the state university compelling it to carry out multiple reforms that compromise on standards and force it to privatise itself. From the ‘90s onwards (if not before), spending on university education has steadily deteriorated and in the post war years spending on education has stayed under 2% of the GDP (Niyanthini Kadirgamar, “Funding Fallacies,” https://island.lk/funding-fallacies-in-education/). The Humanities and Social Sciences are the most affected as highlighted in the various contributions of the Kuppi Talk column. It is no accident that the most recent move toward privatisation from within and without takes place by fiat and through militarisation. Much has been written about the principles of militarised authority that the KNDU bill enshrines. I do not have to reinvent the wheel here, but want to note that by rolling back the gains of free education and its potential to empower people, the KNDU bill points toward a future of repressive technocratic governance and repressive exclusions of those who most desire education as the path to mobility.

While the ‘80s and ‘90s saw a few stuttering steps toward privatisation of education, at the turn of the new millennium one is witness to the onset of an aggressive campaign toward the the dismantling of the long cherished free education apparatus as we know it. I trace this historical trajectory in “SAITM: Continuities and Discontinuities” looking at the different impetuses behind the establishment of NCMC and SAITM, the ideological similarities notwithstanding (http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=161915

Certain forms of privatised tertiary education have existed for a long time and have expanded in recent years, but to this day, the establishment of a fully-fledged private university has run into problems. Popular will stood in its way. But it is also a fact that the country simply does not have the infrastructural, intellectual and investment-capacity for a viable private university to take off. Private sector in fact is weak in Sri Lanka. In the post war years, the then Mahinda Rajapaksa Government, with S. B. Dissanayake as Minister of Higher Education spear headed a move to formalise private universities through an umbrella organization that would act as an accreditation council, bringing private and state universities on par and under the same purview and placing this purview within the ambit of corporate interests. In their eyes, Sri Lanka is to become an education hub, attracting foreign investment (“Education and its discontents,” ). The Yahapalana government is no better and blindly follows through on the privatisation plans of the previous regime with its Private Public Partnership policies, SAITM, and the degrading of Arts Education to some vague notion of soft skills development. The KNDU Bill was gazetted in April 2018 and was opposed by the academic communities and members of civil society. As with most corruption ridden neo liberal moves that render all aspects of life commodified, in this instance too, the state becomes an investor in privatised education. We hear that Bank of Ceylon and NSB have been ordered to pledge 36.54 billion rupees to KDU. (https://www.sundaytimes.lk/210725/business-times/kotelawala-uni-gets-over-rs-36-bn-from-boc-nsb-449828.html) If the rationale for privatising education is to ease the burden on the state, why does the state continue to subsidize these institutions? The logic boggles the mind.

The Democracy Call

From 2011-2012 the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) launched the greatest challenge that the teachers had ever made to an incumbent government and in the post war era brought together diverse disgruntled forces under its slogan of Save State Education and the 6% GDP campaign. It brought together different groups and a wide range of actors together to formulate a response to the neo liberal forces that were riding rough shod over the needs of an anxious working and professional class. Its call for action was framed by the call to save democracy. However, in the Yahapalana years and after, the struggle for education lost its momentum. FUTA itself was riven from within, preoccupied by its members’ narrower preoccupations, diverse aspirations, and loyalties. Other disparate groups took up the mantle to fight against privatisation, some of which may not have developed in desirable directions.

Today, the bill threatens to become a dangerous reality. It is not just Universities that are threatened by the KNDU. School teachers led by their unions have jumped into the fray. Beaten by the crippling conditions of COVID 19, teachers and students are facing the dire consequences of years of underfunding in education. FUTA is joining the protest as a key player, a mighty powerful player, but not as the only player. As Shamala Kumar eloquently put it at a press conference called against the KNDU bill on 24 July, 2021, the struggle against the authoritarian bill is a struggle against the PTA, a struggle for working people’s rights, guaranteeing safety of working conditions in the informal sector, particularly women, and a struggle for democracy within the university, including raising one’s voice against ragging. University teachers, rallying forces under FUTA, are once again on the cusp of a decisive moment of the history of education in the country. Let’s defeat the KNDU bill together!

 

Sivamohan Sumathy is attached to the Department of English at the Univ. of Peradeniya

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Condolences, warnings and admonition never to forget

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Two great Sri Lankans have died and we as a country are much the poorer, and mourn their deaths. Manouri de Silva Muttetuwegama has vacated her long held position as a wise, consistent, fearless combatant for women and particularly those underprivileged, discriminated against, and helpless against forces of war and ethnicity that caused them suffering. Another noteworthy trait of the woman and characteristic of her work-ethic was quiet efficiency in going about her remedying, healing work with no fanfare and never seeking of publicity and praise. She was a lovely friendly person, always with a sincere smile lighting her face. Manouri served the country well and her daughter carries the torch.

Business magnate and media moghul R Rajamahendran, who used his money, influence and power to help the country is mourned, more so as he could have served his company Capital Maharaja Organisation and Sri Lankan media longer. The appreciation of him by Rex Clementine in The Island, Monday July 26, detailed the great good he did for Sri Lankan cricket. Teaming up with Gamini Dissanayake he literally fought for test status for our country, amply justified by teams of yore, one of which won the World Cup and another nearly did.

(Note: Cass uses the verb ‘died’ and the noun ‘death’ in preference to the softer, gentler ‘passing’, ‘passing away’ et al as she prefers the more real though stark word to euphemisms. Death is death.)

 

Never forget crimes committed

This is the thought that came to mind when coincidentally Cassandra, on 22 July watched the movie 22 July, almost a documentary on the 32 year old Anders Behring Breivik, who parked his bomb-laden van outside the PM’s office in Oslo; it killed eight people and caused utter damage, and then crossed to a summer camp on an island where he shot, point blank, the manager who welcomed him as a police officer but then wanted to see his ID, and a woman in authority. He embarked on a killing spree, which left 69 Youth League workers dead and many more injured. When the police arrived he tamely surrendered. At his trial he said he wanted to save Norway and Europe itself from multiculturalism, particularly naming Muslims, and that the killing of innocents was a wakeup call. His defence attorney attempted pleading schizophrenia but on hearing the awfully heartrending testimony of some of the young campers who escaped death but were injured grievously, he was found guilty on all counts and jailed in solitary confinement for more than two decades.

We, most fortunately have had no single mass murderer like Breivik and American school killers but murder most foul continues and may surface any time.

Cass’ thought was never forget terrible crimes committed on persons who were innocent or who were doing their duty. Yes, we as a nation must never forget these grievous crimes. The death of Richard de Zoysa stands out stark, but the police person who took him away from his home and his mother ‘for questioning’, tortured and killed him and dropped him far out at sea died gruesomely along with Prez Premadasa on May 1. Richard’s body washed ashore though weighted and dropped far out at sea. The person who probably ordered his demise too was killed by the same LTTE bomb. Thus, they paid for their heinous crime.

Others who murdered or ordered murders seem to live on powerfully and mightily. The gruesome murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge is kept alive by his daughter, but to no avail. Never to be forgotten or forgiven is the killing of the young, harmless ruggerite whose only ‘crime’ was cocking a snook at those who thought they were superior. What the telling vine conveyed was that the rugger captaincy almost going to him had him tortured and killed. Again a coincidence or overconfidence brought to light the crime: Thajudeen’s body was placed next to the driving seat and his car pushed against a wall to fake an accident. It was all covered up. But people remember this murder, though no one shouts for justice for Thajudeen’s grieving parents.

When you question how come murderers and torturers seem to thrive, the answer is karma, Cass supposes. Maybe, the perpetrators suffer in the midst of utter luxury and in power. Maybe, even slightly, they are overcome with shivers of fright, but never remorse, we surmise.

Unanimously, we are all triumphant that the 15 year old Tamil girl’s death by immolation after prolonged rape in an ex-Minister’s home is being investigated. We hope it will move to correct, just conclusion.

 

Notes on news items

Highly commended is the article ‘Whither the Sangha and Buddha Sasana?’ by S M Sumanadasa in The Island of July 26. If you have not read it, and are a Buddhist, please retrieve the article and read it. It is spot on though gently written, very timely with so many protests going on, most headed by yellow robes. He starts by saying “As a keen observer …, I feel confident and justified in what I say…” Perfectly justified and every point made is valid. The majority of our Sangha strictly follow the 200 odd vinaya rules and render invaluable service to Buddhist lay people, to Buddhism, and the country, but the yellow robed bad eggs are truly rotten. The Sangha may only advise leaders and from a back seat. Sumanadasa queries why the Buddha Sasana Ministry and the Nayaka Theros do not stem the growing tide of indiscipline and reprehensible behaviour of men in Sangha robes. We ask the same. He states a truth that the death of Buddhism in Sri Lanka is really caused by the Buddhists themselves and some members of the Sangha.

An agreeing opinion by Piyasena Athukorale is in The Island, Wednesday July 29.

Proposed Plantation University and its economic benefits by Dr L M K Tillekeratne appears in the same newspaper. Cassandra retorts: Oh goodness! Enough universities! What benefit when sane advice by university dons and experts in agriculture and related subjects have been completely ignored by the President, the PM, the Cabinet and others in power. They have still not rescinded or withdrawn the overnight ban on import and use of inorganic fertilisers. When famine stares us in the face after the demise of the farmer (the country’s so called backbone) through suicide or utter disgusted exasperation and loss of livelihood, we Ordinaries will have to suffer hunger pangs and malnourishment while those who ordered the very ill-advised and too sudden ban, will live on happily. Maybe, exotic food from around the world will be helicoptered to them!

Professor Channa Jayasumana, I was told, has said that the long awaited and longed for Astra Zeneca vaccine was delayed in transport to our land by the Olympic Games. Cass really did not know that these Games blocked air routes or interfered with air travel. Maybe, the Prof meant that the vaccine gifted (we seem never able to buy this absolute requisite) by Japan was stymied by the Games in Tokyo. He should know as he is a professor.

Why Cass mentioned this tale is because thanks to Professor Jayasumana, she increased her life span by ten years, rolling around choking with laughter (bitter though) at the explanation of why the A-Z Vaccine is so delayed.

 

Enough is absolutely enough

Please, whoever the authority is, stop that telephone message that comes in the three languages exhorting us to act with care during this period. I have forgotten the terms used in

Sinhala and English as I don’t listen when the message comes through, but they are synonyms of urgencies, calamities, crises; which last short spells of time, not months and months as the telephone message has been. This is parallel to the Sri Lankan habit of hanging bunting, posting posters but never bothering to remove them.

It is better the government just calls up protesters for meetings (even though it intends doing nothing) so that spreader of the C19 will cease or at least decrease. We stay home – telephoners – so why have we to suffer a double whammy – eternal message and risk contracting C19. We completely disapprove of teachers protesting en masse all over the country for salary hikes. Not done, not done at all during a country’s economic crisis.

Will we ever learn to put the country’s good and people’s wellbeing before our acts of self-seeking and selfishness?

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Organic fertiliser

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Doing the right thing the wrong way

By Jayasri Priyalal

Nurturing nature is the right thing to do when mother nature is struggling to adjust to the manufactured damages taking their toll and challenging the mutual cohabitation of all living beings on earth. Feeding seven billion people with depleted natural resources and a degraded environment is a mammoth task for humanity. During the past ten millennia, homo sapiens have evolved to adjust and move ahead with their advanced cognitive abilities. However, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there is ample evidence and warning signs to suggest that human beings have crossed the line in harming nature. Maintaining balanced biodiversity is advised by experts to mitigate natural disasters triggered by climate change.

Research in 2020 by the World Economic Forum found that $44 trillion of economic value generation – more than half of the world’s total GDP – was moderately or highly dependent on nature and its services and is therefore exposed to ‘nature loss’, including tropical forests.

This article was prompted by the presentation delivered by Senior Professor Buddhi Marambe, Department of the Crop Science, University of Peradeniya, yesterday (24 July 2021). My special thanks go to the Peradeniya Engineering Faculty Alumni Association [PEFAA] for organising the timely event.

The learned Professor presented his arguments with facts and figures from authentic sources and clarified many myths about synthetic fertiliser and pesticides use in Sri Lanka. All Sri Lankans are truly indebted to all these professionals dedicated to improving our agricultural productivity in a scientifically sound manner, causing minimum impact on biodiversity. Sri Lanka’s ranking in the use of synthetic fertiliser and pesticides, and emergence above our competitors in the region on maintaining food security was an alarming highlight of the lecture.

The discussion heightened the public awareness of the proposed move by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to ban the import of synthetic fertiliser and agrochemicals and switch to organic fertiliser. Professor Marambe dealt with points and forewarned the dangers of these short sighted policy directives that appear to have been formulated without sufficient consultations with experts dealing with agriculture, instead relying on ill-advised opinion makers, based on assumptions instead of scientific facts.

Recent developments in the country, mainly various draft bills, attempting to militarise higher education, attempting to dispose of the country’s iconic properties to attract investment, indicate the quality of advisors to the President. Those who teamed up with him as Viyath Maga experts appear to have misled President Rajapaksa.

At the webinar, Prof. Marambe revealed that he and other agricultural experts had been appealing for an audience with the President to explain the dangers of this policy directive, which entails long-term adverse repercussions to an agricultural economy. President Rajapaksa has come out with strong convictions on the benefits of using organic fertiliser and sadly lacks scientific evidence to back the perceived benefits and advantages of the proposed policy directive.

I am making a humble appeal to President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and his team of advisors to seek expertise from the experts and decide on the policy directives instead of counting on assumptions.

Fareed Zakaria devotes a chapter on why people should listen to experts and experts should listen to people, in his book ‘Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World’. He refers to President Donald Trump being questioned about experts he consults, during the 2016 Republican nomination campaign. Trump responded, “I am speaking with myself, number one because I have an excellent brain; my primary consultant is myself.” His idea to inject a cleaning solution to treat COVID-19 patients could have surfaced through this process of self-consultation. Trump ridiculed the experts in 2016 thus: “Look at the mess we’re in with all these experts that we have.” The rest is history; the mess he created during his tenure as the US President. These are useful lessons for many other political leaders.

 

 

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