A front page report in Thursday’s The Island read “NL slot: Ranil still dilly-dallying.” Dilly-dallying was the right word for describing what Wickremesinghe is doing about filling the single National List slot his party won following its zero seat debacle at the last parliamentary election. The report under reference quoted UNP Chairman Vajira Abeywardena saying that Wickremesinghe had not yet decided to occupy this still vacant seat to which his party must make a formal nomination. Several weeks earlier the UNP had decided that Wickremesinghe must take that place. According to Abeywardena, the party’s “leader for life,” as some deride him, would decide on returning to parliament (or not, we presume) in a month or two. But recent weeks have shown Ranil showing his face in the political scene, though from outside parliament, via media interviews and public appearances signaling that he’s not yet past tense.
Soon after his party’s rout last August, Wickremesinghe went on record saying he will not accept the National List position, but he showed no signs whatever of giving up the UNP leadership. President J.R. Jayewardene, Ranil’s kinsman and mentor, crafted the 1978 constitution to ensure via a proportional representation (PR) system for future elections that no major party can suffer a landslide defeat. The UNP had suffered one under the old Westminster-style order in 1956 when late Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike said that “the last nail had been driven into the UNP’s coffin.” The SLFP led by Bandaranaike’s widow suffered the same fate in 1977 when the once proud old left, comprising the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and Communist Party (CP), suffered the same zero debacle that was the UNP’s lot at the last election. Under the previous order there were no National List straws for drowning political parties to clutch.
JRJ proved Bandaranaike wrong at the Colombo Municipal Council election that the followed the 1956 “people’s revolution” when the UNP, which governed the country since Independence, was stunningly swept out of office. By March 1960, after Bandaranaike’s tragic assassination, the greens were back in national office, albeit briefly. But five years later, the party served a full term under Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake until a second debacle hit it in 1970. Such blows, no doubt, influenced Jayewardene to use the five sixth majority he won in 1977 under a constituency system to build constitutional safeguards against history repeating itself. But the best laid plans of mice and men can go awry as the contemporary political history of this country has amply demonstrated.
If Ranil Wickremesinghe did not wish to occupy the UNP’s only National List seat in Parliament when his party decided he should fill it, he should or could have said so. He did clearly say that he will not take that seat in the immediate aftermath of the last election resulting in other’s staking claims and John Amaratunga, a party heavyweight, believing he would be back in the legislature. Thereafter the weeks and months were allowed to roll by leaving the whole matter suspended in midair. Wickremesinghe, who has been prime minister of this country several times, has by his conduct both in and out of office shown that he is a believer in the beneficial effect of attending various poojas in South India and probably has astrological beliefs. As such, none can be blamed for wondering whether he is awaiting a propitious moment – a nekatha – to return to Parliament if such is his intention. Given his recent interviews, last week on the Colombo Port City which his coalition promised to scrap but only delayed at substantial cost to the nation, and his retention of the UNP’s leadership, he does not seem to want to cut and run or retire gracefully.
The western traditions towards which he had long tilted would have required him to quit after a debacle of the proportions of August 2020. This he did not do. As UNP leader, he thrice chose not to run for president, first conceding the opposition slot to Sarath Fonseka, then to Maithripala Sirisena and finally to Sajith Premadasa whom he wanted to field not as UNP leader but as deputy leader. Premadasa did not accept that, split the UNP taking most of its parliamentary group with him, leaving Ranil with a rump. Some analysts would say that the not running concessions were made in the belief that two of those candidate’s would not win. In Sirisena’s case, the common opposition candidature was structured in a manner that enabled Wickremesinghe to call the shots if victory was achieved.
But it must also be said in Wickremesinghe’s defence that he probably would have won the 2005 presidential election but for the LTTE’s intervention, closing exit points from territory the Tigers held to government-controlled areas where polling stations were located, preventing thousands of
Tamils from voting. It has been alleged that there was heavy rigging at the previous presidential race which Ranil narrowly lost. He’s among the most experienced among our politicians, thrice served as prime minister, had long stints as opposition leader and is widely acknowledged as man of ability. He is slightly older than President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (both were born in 1949) but younger than Mahinda. Wickremesinghe catapulted to the UNP leadership as a result of the assassinations of Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali and Ranasinghe Premadasa.
JRJ once famously said that he had succeeded in climbing the greasy pole outliving his opponents. But none of them were assassinated. It’s difficult to figure out now what Wickremesinghe’s game plan is. He is keeping his cards close to his chest and fending off questions during occasional public appearances.
Beds and talkathons
Thursday 13th May, 2021
The government has bowed to the inevitable at last. Countrywide travel restrictions are now in force. Belated as this measure may be, it will go a long way towards curtailing the rapid spread of the pandemic. If only the government had summoned the political moxie to do so during the recent festive season. It is hoped that the unruly government politicians who think they know better than doctors will desist from bulldozing the health authorities into lifting movement restrictions in their constituencies purportedly for the sake of daily wage earners.
The ruling SLPP has undertaken to manufacture 10,000 beds for the Covid-19 treatment centres. This campaign has drawn heavy criticism from the Opposition and a section of the media; it is viewed as an exercise aimed at gaining political mileage and covering up the many failings of the ruling coalition. True, nothing is devoid of politics in this country, and the bed-manufacturing mission smacks of a political project intended to shore up the government’s crumbling image, but its importance and usefulness cannot be discounted. The demand for more beds is bound to increase exponentially as infections surge. What other political parties should do is to stop scoffing at the SLPP project and make a contribution to the country’s fight against the pandemic. They can get together and provide pillows, bed sheets, pillowcases and other such materials for the benefit of the Covid-19 patients receiving residential treatment.
Meanwhile, there has been a call for an all-party conference to discuss ways and means of tackling the national health crisis. Parliament continues to meet, and it, we reckon, is the best forum for matters of national importance to be discussed and decisions thereon to be taken. After all, that is what those in the current Opposition demanded when the last general election was postponed for months on end due to the pandemic. They even demanded that the dissolved Parliament be re-convened to help solve the health crisis. A new Parliament was elected in August 2020, but the country’s problems have not been solved. So, the question is whether there is any need for an all-party conference, which, in our book, will end up being a political circus. The leaders of the political parties worthy of the name are in Parliament and have the ear of the Prime Minister. The President also visits Parliament and they can meet him there, if they care to.
Most political powwows are NATO (No-Action-Talk-Only) events, where politicians who have got talking hind legs off a donkey down to a fine art display their oratorical skills to the point of queasiness. It may be recalled that nothing came of such gatherings even in the aftermath of the worst ever natural disaster that shook the country—the Boxing Day tsunami (2004). So, why waste time on talkathons?
There are however several other ways in which the main political parties and their leaders can help the public in this hour of crisis. They receive colossal amounts of funds for elections, and, as is public knowledge, only a small portion of them is spent on electioneering, and the balance simply disappears. The last parliamentary polls were held less than a year ago, and the main political parties that are making a public display of their concern for the public should contribute a part of their surplus campaign funds to the fight against the pandemic. They can help look after the needy.
Hospitals and quarantine centres require manpower, the demand for which is increasing, and it is not fair to overtax the military personnel, who are rendering a commendable service. Frontline health workers are also exhausted due to the increasing caseloads. Will the patriotic political party leaders and their backers volunteer to do whatever they can at these health institutions under severe strain? Having talked the talk, shouldn’t they now walk the walk?
If political parties can make their leaders and rank and file behave responsibly, that will be the greatest service they can render. They should also prevail on their supporters to follow the Covid-19 protocol strictly and help stop the spread of the pandemic.
Stop playing blame game, heed expert advice
Wednesday 12th May, 2021
There is a lot of brouhaha over the government’s claim that it influenced the World Health Organization (WHO) decision to approve the emergency use of China’s Sinopharm vaccine; the WHO is reported to have denied this claim. Government propagandists cannot resist the temptation to perform foot-in-the-mouth stunts that embarrass their masters beyond measure. However, the real issue is not how the WHO approval was granted for Sinopharm, or any other vaccine for that matter. The issues that warrant public attention are whether enough vaccine stocks will be available; how effective the jabs will be against the new variants of coronavirus, and how to face the socio-economic issues caused by the pandemic.
Thankfully, some vaccine stocks are arriving here while the pandemic transmission and death toll are increasing steadily although there is a shortage of AstraZeneca vaccine for booster doses. Inoculation is a prerequisite for beating the virus, and given the ever-worsening health crisis, one does not have the luxury of picking and choosing vaccines, especially in respect of the first dose. If the people (as well as the government) had behaved responsibly during the recent festive season, they would have been able to wait until the arrival of the vaccines of their choice. On the other hand, all Covid-19 vaccines currently in use have been found to be highly effective in preventing severe disease and hospitalisation although their efficacy rates are said to vary.
The WHO says everyone has to get the Covid-19 jab fast, and the world must strive to attain global herd immunity through vaccination as soon as possible if the transmission of the virus is to be curbed. WHO lead scientist Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove has, in the weekly epidemiological update, said, “We do not have anything to suggest that our diagnostics or therapeutics and our vaccines don’t work.” This may be some good news in these troubled times, but the situation is far from rosy. One should not lose sight of the fact that Dr. Kerkhove, on Monday, announced that the WHO had changed its classification of the B.1.617 coronavirus variant first found in India last October from a ‘variant of interest’ to a ‘variant of concern’; it has already spread to several countries including Sri Lanka and is wreaking havoc.
Some scientists are of the view that certain coronavirus variants may have the potential to evade antibodies induced by natural infection or vaccination. This, however, does not mean that one should not get inoculated. Instead, one ought to realise that one should not lower one’s guard simply because of the ongoing vaccine rollouts. Nothing should be left to chance in fighting the virus. One should bear in mind WHO chief scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan’s wise counsel as regards India.
Dr. Swaminathan is reported to have said that the Indian variant is not vaccine resistant, but India has to depend on its tried and tested public health and social measures to curtail the transmission of the pandemic in addition to boosting its national vaccination drive. This, we believe, is applicable to Sri Lanka as well. Hence, measures such as the ban on interprovincial travel are welcome albeit long overdue. The government has apparently begun to take expert opinion seriously. If such travel restrictions had been imposed during the recent April holidays, the transmission of the virus could have been reduced to a manageable level.
Head of the National Operations Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak and Army Commander, Gen. Shavendra Silva, has warned that unless the pandemic situation improves, district borders too will have to be closed. Chances are that far more stringent measures will have to be adopted unless the public fully cooperates with the health authorities to bring the pandemic under control and prevent the projected death rates from becoming a reality. The Association of Medical Specialists (AMS) has already urged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to impose ‘lockdowns’ at the district level with immediate effect.
The country is in the current predicament because both the government and the public acted irresponsibly. They have to stop blaming each other for the explosive spread of the pandemic they have jointly brought about, share the blame and act responsibly. There is no other way out.
From shaman’s syrup to docs’ pills
Tuesday 11th May, 2021
The Covid-19 morbidity and mortality rates have been on the rise steadily since the conclusion of the recent avurudu celebrations. What we are experiencing at present looks the early warnings of a viral tsunami, whose landfall is only a matter of time. The national healthcare system has reached breaking point, as a collective of professional outfits––the Sri Lanka Medical Association, the Government Medical Officers Association, the Association of Medical Specialists, and the SLMA Intercollegiate Committee––have pointed out in a letter to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Unless urgent action is taken to reduce the worsening caseloads, people will start dying here in their numbers on roads without treatment, as in India. The first thing that needs to be done to prevent the rapid transmission of the pandemic is to impose movement restrictions, which the good doctors have recommended in their letter. If travel among districts had been banned, or at least restricted, during the recent festive season, the country would not have been in the current predicament. The government allowed the public to do as they pleased, for political reasons, and we are where we are today.
The doctors’ associations have, in their letter, made some science-based recommendations such as the imposition of movement restrictions, the isolation of areas depending on density of caseloads, the strengthening of the curative sector by supplying adequate facilities, especially oxygen, ICU facilities and laboratory services countrywide for diagnosis of COVID-19 with PCR testing, and the acceleration of the national vaccination drive.
Some of these recommendations may not find favour with the government, which tends to lay everything on the Procrustean bed of political expediency. But they are the proverbial stitch in time, which, if implemented urgently, will spare the government and the country a lot of trouble in the future. The pills that docs have prescribed are bitter but have to be swallowed.
It is popularly said in this country that when politicians have power, they have no brains, and vice versa—mole thiyanakota bale ne, bale thiyanakota mole ne. So, the problem with most government politicians is that they consider themselves far more knowledgeable than experts such as doctors, engineers, scientists and environmentalists. One may recall that a minister of the current administration once asked what the use of having oxygen was, during a heated argument with an intrepid female Forest Officer who opposed a move to destroy a mangrove forest, pointing out that environmental degradation would reduce the oxygen level in the air. He demanded to know whether oxygen could be eaten—oxygen kannada. A ministerial colleague of his did something cretinous, the other day, exposing the public to Covid-19.
Piliyandala, a populous section of the conurbation of Colombo, accounted for nearly one half of 755 Covid-19 cases reported from the Colombo District, yesterday. The health authorities’ decision to impose movement restrictions in the Piliyandala police area, last week, has been vindicated by the rapid increase in infections there during the past few days. If the restrictions had not been lifted at the behest of Minister Gamini Lokuge, the situation could have been brought under control. Lokuge has sought to justify his intervention to have the decision of the Director General of Health Services (DGHS), who alone can decide on lockdowns, movement restrictions, etc., countermanded, by claiming that such action would have affected daily wage earners in Piliyandala, which is his electorate. True, the vulnerable sections of society have to be protected, but an explosive transmission of the pandemic will have a far more devastating impact on them as well as others than a lockdown. Of economic hardships and an increase in the pandemic death toll, which is the worse? It is not only the residents of Piliyandala who undergo economic hardships owing to lockdowns and other such Covid-19 preventive measures. What if the ruling party politicians in other parts of the country emulate Lokuge? The DGHS will not be able to have any area locked down, in such an eventuality.
Meanwhile, other countries battling the new variants of the virus have adopted double masking, which has proved quite effective in curbing the spread of the pandemic. Why it has not been made mandatory here is the question.
One can only hope that the doctors’ letter at issue will knock some sense into the ruling party politicians and their officials in charge of the anti-Covid-19 campaign. There is no reason why a government that chose to do as a crafty shaman said, and even promoted his peniya or syrup, touted as a cure for Covid-19, should not take the views of respected medical professionals on board and act accordingly.
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