Tuesday 29th December, 2020
The country’s focus is apparently shifting from the pandemic to polls, of all things. The government is in a mighty hurry to conduct the Provincial Council (PC) elections, and the Opposition has let out a howl of protest. The SLPP is trying to consolidate its power in the PCs before COVID-19 and the attendant problems take their toll on its popularity and electoral performance. Facing another election is a worrisome proposition for the Opposition, which is in disarray; hence its opposition to the PC polls.
A germ which is worse than coronavirus has afflicted Sri Lankans. It is divisive politics, which has torn society asunder and made people blind to reason. It has not spared even the country’s battle against COVID-19; the government and its opponents are engaged in a political war instead of joining forces to beat the virus once and for all.
Elections are ‘superspreader’ events in that politicians and their supporters throw caution to the wind as we saw in the run-up to the last general election several moons ago. There are two schools of thought as regards the beginning of the second wave of infections. One argues that there has been no second wave as such, and what we are witnessing is an extension of the first one, which could not be brought under control due to the general election; the other maintains that a group of garment factory workers flown here from India caused the explosive spread of COVID-19 in Minuwangoda and triggered the second wave. Attorney General Dappula de Livera ordered a probe, a few weeks ago, to ascertain how the current wave of infections had come about, but the police have been dragging their feet presumably under political pressure. Some government politicians have sought to obfuscate the issue by claiming that a group of Ukrainians were responsible for the Minuwangoda cluster. There is no gainsaying that the parliamentary polls contributed to the spread of the pandemic considerably.
What needs to be taken into consideration in deciding whether the PC polls should be held is not the ongoing constitution-making process or arguments for or against the 13th Amendment and the PC system. The national health emergency must take precedence over everything else when decisions are taken on elections.
Health experts are urging the government to adopt stringent measures such as travel restrictions and even lockdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19; they fear that the new coronavirus variant, which is ripping through the UK and some Asian countries, is likely to find its way here sooner than expected. The healthcare system is showing signs of being overwhelmed. There are only 641 state-run hospitals with 84,728 beds. About 510 patients can be treated in ICUs. The number of infections has already crossed 41,000 with 191 deaths; thousands of patients will require ICU treatment unless the spread of the virus is curbed.
Besides, problems abound on the economic front. The economy cannot take any more shocks. It is gasping on a ventilator, so to speak. The tumble of the rupee continues against all major foreign currencies, and the export sector is virtually crippled. It will be an uphill task for the government to bridge the budget deficit. The country cannot afford any more nationwide lockdowns. Businesses are collapsing and people are losing their jobs. Most people are struggling to keep the wolf from the door. Hence the need for the government to act prudently without resorting to anything that will aggravate the national health emergency and send the economy into a tailspin.
Troubled by the pangs of hunger and fear of death, the people need an election like a hole in the head, at this juncture. Safety comes before franchise. Polls can wait.
Admit them young
Wednesday 27th January, 2021
The Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) has woken up to the chronic delay in the process of producing medical graduates. By the time a doctor completes his or her internship he or she is about 30 years old, it has said, calling for action to ensure that students gain admission to medical faculties at the age of 18 and pass out when they turn 23. The GMOA’s call must have struck a responsive chord with all students who are dreaming of becoming doctors, and their parents. This problem affects undergraduates in other faculties as well, and action must be taken to enable all students who pass the GCE A/L examination in the first attempt to enrol for university education when they turn 17 or 18.
This is something eminent educationists have been calling for, through the pages of this newspaper, for the last so many years. We have editorially supported their campaign. But successive governments have ignored the issue. In fact, what is being urged is tantamount to reinventing the wheel. Dr. B. J. C. Perera, a senior paediatrician, who contributes valuable articles to this newspaper, informs us, in a letter published on the opposite page today, that he entered the Colombo Medical Faculty when he was about 18 years and graduated at the age of 23 in 1965. Something has gone radically wrong in the education sector over the years.
It looks as though the Sri Lankan universities had become adult education centres of sorts, given the average age of graduation. By the time Sri Lankan students complete their first degrees, those in the same age cohort, in other countries, have obtained postgraduate qualifications and secured employment. Failure on the part of successive governments to take remedial action has not only placed the Sri Lankan youth at a disadvantage but also contributed to youth unrest, which finds expression in brutal ragging and bloody clashes in universities.
It is jokingly said that Sri Lankans are over the hill by the time they tie the knot after completing university education and gain employment, and when they go the way of all flesh, their children still too young to understand death, much less cognitively process the implications of bereavement, play marbles near their coffins! This, one may argue, is not too cynical a view, given the average age of graduation in this country.
The GMOA deserves praise for having taken up the plight of medical students albeit belatedly. Other trade unions and professional associations also should come forward to campaign for having the factors that delay the process of producing graduates eliminated once and for all. This is something easily attainable if schooling is limited to 12 years as in the past and the GCE A/L examination advanced to April, experts have pointed out.
If the GCE A/L examination is held in April, and results are released within a couple of months, students who qualify for university education can enrol in August during the same year without wasting one whole year. Latest technology and enough evaluators are now available and the task of evaluating answer scripts and releasing results should not take more than a few weeks. If the Examination Department needs more resources, let them be made available.
There are other reasons for delays in the university system. The national universities are in the clutches of ultra-radical groups that further their political interests at the expense of undergraduates. Students must not be denied their right to engage in politics and protest against injustices, etc., but disruptive elements must not be allowed to have universities closed at will to advance their anarchical agendas. Everything possible must be done to keep seats of higher learning open and conduct examinations on schedule so that students can graduate and compete in the job market without wasting the best years of their lives.
There are two eminent scholars at the helm of the education sector––Education Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris and Secretary to the Education Ministry Prof. Kapila Perera; they are also former Vice Chancellors. It is hoped that they will prevail on the government to give serious thought to introducing education reforms to enable students to gain university admission at the age of 17 or 18.
Contempt, freedom and responsibility
The imprisonment of MP Ranjan Ramanayake for contempt of court has perturbed the SJB beyond measure. Some Opposition legislators were at their oratorical best recently in Parliament, waxing eloquent as they did on the virtues of freedom of expression and other such democratic rights of citizens and lawmakers. They would have the public believe that Ramanayake’s jail term is too harsh a punishment. True, many were those who expected him to receive a lenient penalty. But that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Ramanayake should have known better than to run around repeating the statement that had landed him in trouble. Somebody should have warned him.
Those who are currently in the Opposition, shedding copious tears for Ramanayake, derived immense perverse pleasure from the plight of their political rivals who were sent to jail during the yahapalana government. The SLPP politicians are apparently elated at what has befallen Ramanayake, who is their bugbear. However, the general consensus being that the contempt of court laws need revision, the Opposition and the government ought to prevent partisan politics from colouring their standpoints on this important issue and work together.
Ramanayake’s jail term has given rise to a debate on the laws pertaining to contempt of court, and flaws therein. This issue should have been addressed a long time ago. It is unfortunate that an MP had to go to jail for Parliament to take it up. Better late than never, though. Parliament should set about examining the contempt of court laws and take action to rid them of flaws and specify penalties. This issue has to be sorted out once and for all.
Meanwhile, the need to revise the laws anent contempt of Parliament cannot be overemphasised. Parliamentary privileges also deprive people of freedom of expression. Some MPs shamelessly take cover behind their privileges and defame others with impunity. But the MPs raise privilege issues at the drop of a hat. It is being argued in some quarters that the regular courts should not hear contempt of court cases, for one should not hear one’s own case. If so, the same principle must apply to Parliament as well where contempt issues are concerned. Thankfully, some of the draconian powers the legislature was vested with as regards contempt and breaches of privilege have been whittled down, but Parliament still has the power and jurisdiction to punish summarily certain offences.
Judicial officers who hear cases of contempt of court have necessary educational and professional qualifications to carry out their duties and functions. But the same cannot be said of the lawmakers who range from the sublime to the ridiculous. If the very serious charges they level against one another in the House during debates are anything to go by, then there are murderers, fraudsters, chain snatchers, drug dealers and swindlers among them. Some of them have admitted that they benefited from the largesse of the owner of the company involved in the biggest-ever financial crime in this country—the Treasury bond scams; they also went out of their way to defend the bond racketeers. Therefore, how advisable it is to allow the lawmakers with such bad eggs among them to sit in judgment is the question.
There is no gainsaying the fact that lawmakers cannot perform their legislative duties and functions without a certain amount of legal immunity. But restrictions are called for to prevent them from abusing their privileges and legal immunity to defame others, who are left without any legal remedy. Legislators must not have the freedom of the wild ass.
Syrup promoters in the soup
Monday 25th January, 2021
So, it should now be clear that the Dhammika peniya or syrup, which the Department of Ayurveda has undertaken to test, is no cure for COVID-19. All intelligent people knew it was fake, but others including some government politicians were convinced otherwise. Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi, who swigged the syrup to protect herself against coronavirus, has contracted COVID-19. Several other MPs who ingested it have also tested positive for the virus. The Health Minister is currently at a treatment centre, we are told. We wish her as well as all other patients a speedy recovery, but cannot help wondering why she did not opt for treatment at shaman Dhammika Bandara’s shrine, where a goddess is said to have revealed the COVID-19 cure to him while he was in a trance state.
A previous Rajapaksa government (2010-2015) collapsed as it took the advice of shamans and astrologers seriously and even advanced a presidential election at their behest. Everything it did was astrologically determined. It, however, was not alone in falling for astrological advice, etc., hook, line, and sinker. Its predecessors had even launched military operations according to schedules prepared by astrologers. Most of those offensives ended in disaster. It is said that the launching of operations in Eelam War IV was based on sound military advice; that may be the reason why they succeeded.
The incumbent government is the old Dhammika peniya in a new bottle, as it were, in that it consists of the superstitious elements who were in the aforesaid ill-fated Rajapaksa regime. It has sought to banish coronavirus with the help of some rituals such as dropping pots into rivers. Thankfully, it has stopped short of appointing a minister for superstitious affairs.
Health Minister Wanniarachchi committed something unpardonable by promoting the shaman’s concoction. Wanniarachchi was responsible for triggering mass hysteria by ingesting the peniya at an official event together with some of her SLPP parliamentary colleagues. Thereafter, tens of thousands of people from different parts of the country converged on a village where the shaman distributed the syrup free of charge. They blatantly violated the quarantine laws, but the police looked on. Perhaps, the government let that happen as it wanted public attention distracted from its failure to contain the pandemic and other burning issues such as the soaring cost of living. There may have been many coronavirus infections in that seething mass of humans near the shaman’s syrup distribution centre, and that may be one of the reasons why the pandemic has spread throughout the country.
Nothing could be more disgraceful to a country than to be ruled by a bunch of superstitious politicians who fall for false claims of quacks and deify shamans. The question is whether the Health Minister who promoted a quack’s concoction without any scientific evidence to prove its efficacy and misled the public should be allowed to continue to be in that position.
Some government ministers took on the critics of the Dhammika peniya, calling them traitors. They mixed their brand of patriotism with the untested syrup. They have cut pathetic figures. Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena ought to act cautiously hereafter without letting intellectually challenged ministers and MPs use Parliament to promote concoctions touted as remedies for diseases. We are afraid that he, too, has blotted his copybook.
Another fake indigenous physician has claimed to have found a cure for COVID-19. His potion is said to contain hawks’ eggs. If so, the quack must be arrested forthwith, for hawks are a protected species and it is an offence to destroy their eggs. Will the Department of Wildlife get cracking?
Given the sheer number of superstitious politicians in the present government, one can only hope that the new Constitution being drafted will not have a provision for giving superstition the foremost place.
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