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Port City on the Beira: looking a gift horse through its derriere

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by Jolly Somasundram

“I thought I saw a turquoise sea, billowing smooth and bright.

Wrong! It was an emerging Republic, a 700 acre wee sovereignty,

Passport and flag ready, she awaits an anthem, to enter the UN.

Defying scurrilous on-line disinformation, out of nothing came something.”

It has been done or has it? The Port City Bill has received overwhelming approval of Parliament, all amendments suggested by the Supreme Court were incorporated, so that a referendum or 2/3rds majority requirement were foreclosed. On the Speaker signing it, following due process, the Bill became law: it is within the constitution. But social media, for which truth is not a troubling issue, are carrying out a carping, personalised campaign of innuendo and insinuation against it. It would be useful to revisit the foundational bases for this law, to judge whether there is something genuine in their concerns or social media is merely flying someone else’s flag for advantage.

Natural harbours are created by nature, artificial ones by man. Both enclose the sea. Sri Lanka provided a wrinkle: a sea was drained, at a cost of US$ 15 Billion, creating a land mass on which six million square meters of built space will be erected, for commercial users. This collectivity is the Port City. The entire operation- of reclamation, building, and providing equity and debt finance- was undertaken by the Chinese: there were no Chinese loans given to Sri Lanka for this purpose, thereby leading her to debt enchainment and traps. Sri Lanka will receive half of the reclaimed land as a gift to her people. The balance, on which Chinese driven development will take place, was leased back to the Chinese for 99 years, an instance of one’s own product being back- leased. It will be managed by a corporate body headed by a very senior, experienced and highly respected Sri Lankan. This deal was riskless for Sri Lanka, for it was an asset created with no debt or funding from the Budget. Those who risk going far, would only know how far they could go! The reward of this deal came in aces. What was the catch? Punch drunk with debt blows and Sri Lanka on the fiscal ropes, Sri Lanka was not an enticing investment market. The public could not believe this deal. It was so good, it must be bad! Conspiracy theories sprouted. Social media referred to secret deals (if there were, how would they be known?). It had a whale of a time, broadcasting fake news- Galle Face Green will become a brown, they said, but a quarter mile of verdant green had already been added. The cliché, there is no free lunch, was widely bandied. Classical Latin vendors darkly quoted Aeneas, “beware those who come bearing gifts.” (Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.)

The fable of the Arab and the Camel was invoked, the Camel, given accommodation in his tent by the trusting Arab, used its vantage fulcrum point, to craftily mount a successful reverse takeover bid and later, dispossess the owner. This 700-acre transistor Republic- smaller than any municipal ward in Colombo – would be the first stop in making the country a Chinese colony, to be renamed Sino Lanka, they alleged.

There is confusion between rights of equity providers and of sovereignty governors. Lever Brothers, a British multinational, owns significant land parcels in Grandpass. They have managerial rights over company activities but these do not morph to exercising governance powers over Grandpass. Debt-equity swaps are a standard management tactic, to transfer risk from a debtor to owner, as Hambantota showed, but they are not equity-sovereignty swaps, like the Louisiana purchase of the US from France, a century and a half ago. In the Port City project there is no debt, all the equity is held by Sri Lanka. The Port City asset leased to China for 99 years is unlike Guantanamo, where the US forced Cuba to renounce sovereign rights over this parcel of Cuban territory to itself and in perpetuity too.

History repeats but, it is now claimed, with Chinese accents. 70 years ago, newly independent Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was in dire straits as there was a severe shortage of rice. The Korean war was on and the price of rubber rose precipitously. Sri Lanka being a rubber exporting country was unable to take advantage of this bonanza because the US frowned on rubber trade with China. China countered with a win -win offer. She sold rice to Sri Lanka at a lower price than the market and purchased rubber at a higher price than what the market offered. The nay-sayers were aghast, “there is a catch in this. It is the first step in the takeover of our newly independent country by China,” they growled. The government, though a West oriented one, stood firm. The US retaliated by cutting off assistance under the Battle Act. Today, sanctions would be the retaliatory measure. These alarmists need only scan a map. A Chinese air fleet would take eight hours flying time to reach Sri Lanka with a refuelling stop in-between, a navy will take three days. Napoleon was defeated by General Winter in his abortive invasion of Moscow. General Distance with stretched supply lines, would prove an invader’s nemesis with respect to Sri Lanka. A successful invasion of Sri Lanka is a fantasy of unthinkers, futile as The Charge of the Light Brigade.

The Rice-Rubber agreement has lasted 70 years with no adverse repercussions. It was renewed periodically by every government, irrespective of ideology. The same anti-China arguments offered then, were now dusted and re-presented. But the international situation has changed. A Thucycydian trap has inserted itself. What happens when an upstart power challenges a long established one? The US superiority is in hard power- land, sea (750 bases all over the world, some nuclear armed), undersea, air, cyber, nuclear and space. China’s counter was soft power, build infrastructure all over the world, a dire need if the third world were to benefit from development. The Port City furore is all about geo-politics, of a change of power relations, whether a numero uno would let itself get downgraded tamely without resistance.

The US used its superior public relations repertoire to denigrate China by instilling fear of the Chinese Dragon swallowing innocent Sri Lanka, the Arab and the Camel fable re-furbished. Social media provided the billboard.

Anything is permitted for debaters. For them,

To be or not to be, is not a question,

But a continuing answer.

The time has come to talk of many things,

Whether pigs have wings?

These debaters are eternal talkers of the ‘could’ (the possible), but not of the ‘can’ (doable) or making the doable an ‘is’ (done). Only a century ago did human beings grow wings to fly. Perhaps, eventually, pigs too may get air borne! Just seven years ago an entrepreneurial chance was offered to Sri Lanka, to get built a Port City. The central issue was how, a ‘Could’, be made to become a ‘Can’ and later, an ‘Is’. The challenge was taken. Rewards go only to the venturesome, whether in life or in love. The losers, chagrined, then take recourse to social media, with gossip, unsupported accusations of corruption, abuse- the fox and grapes- and fake news. Social media played the Game of Losers: they lost. Their opposites- past masters- played the Game of Winners: they won and handsomely too.

When new projects are proposed, professional contrarians and fundamental rights lawyers are attracted to them, like blue bottles to rotting protein or gossipy social media, to gain carrion comfort. Columbus had a trying time getting acceptance to go West, to an unknown land mass. This was the time when Flat Earth was the prevailing cosmology. The question was posed, what will happen at the end of the outward journey? When the Gal Oya scheme was proposed all the Left political parties opposed it, saying the reservoir will silt in twenty five years. If the current social media were in existence then, they would have talked of deforestation, environmental degradation, rights of those living in the this doomed habitat- the Vedddahs. If these protests were heeded, one could imagine what Amparai would be like today. With the wave of new independent countries post- 1950, the UN wanted to set up regional Economic Commissions. One was proposed for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE). The headquarter location was offered to Colombo. Sri Lanka turned it down. Bangkok grabbed the chance.

“No” is the ugliest word in the vocabulary of development. It gives power to those who do not take responsibility for their decisions like the ECAFE one. It is against entrepreneurship, it conspires against innovation. The cost of projects undertaken could be measured but not the cost of projects not undertaken, caused by the fall of the kaduwa, no. No is reactionary, it congeals existing social and economic structures to an unchanging permanence which induces a violent revolution to dissolve. No Bungawewa!

Saying “yes” to a postage stamp Port City has developmental benefits, a sea change of the land where the sea had been drained. The investment is very high. To be able to pay the interest on loans taken by the Chinese, instalment payments and have a modicum of return on capital, the Port City cannot depend on cultivating turmeric, green chillies, setting up garment factories or exporting domestics. It has to go very high tech with high value addition serving overseas markets. A matured Port City is not for this century but the next. As much as the determining economic activity of this century is Information Technology, the next would be Artificial Intelligence (AI)- in which robotics will have a major part to play- cryogenics, global financial innovation where economic activity is a 24 hour business cycle following the sun in its progress from East to West and East again. In none of these activities has Sri Lanka significant experience. The Sri Lankan work force entering the job market are journeymen, making their daily journeys to homes of politicians in search of permanent, pensionable government unsackable jobs. The Port City will be a training ground for high paying jobs in high tech, jobs having international demand.

There is downside too. The lubricant coursing through Port City’s different functions and parts is cold cash. The Port City will have a different culture where cash is king. There will be cultural costs where value is determined by cash not morals. Port City could become a cesspit like Havana under Batista. The governing board has to keep a laser eye peeled to prevent it.

Change is necessary for stability. Sri Lanka, instead of getting involved in Thucycydian dialectics, should clearly survey the current scenario through unprejudiced eyes. Spurning China is monumental folly. China is becoming a superpower. The Port City project is giving Sri Lanka an opportunity to prepare herself for next century’s strategic commitments. Decisions taken now will determine whether she will be an exporter of domestics, which brings her, her highest foreign exchange earnings or a Singapore, who, when she was ejected from the Malaysian Federation had to import drinking water. Today, she is the third highest exporter in the world of oil products, though she does not have a drop of oil.

Will Sri Lanka be a Nepal or a Singapore?



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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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