Wednesday 7th July, 2021
The government has decided to reopen the state-run schools on a staggered basis after inoculating all teachers and school workers against Covid-19. The schools with fewer than 100 students each on roll will be reopened first, and they number 2,962, the Education Ministry has said. Teachers’ trade unions inform us that there are 10,165 government schools in the country, and of them 373 are the so-called national schools under the government; the others are under the Provincial Councils. Worryingly, 1,468 schools have fewer than 50 students each.
The manner in which the government is planning to reopen schools has attracted criticism from some quarters, but we believe that it was a wise decision on the part of the education authorities to refrain from biting off more than it could chew. The progress of the school reopening programme should be monitored carefully, flaws therein rectified and remedial measures adopted before schools with large numbers of students on roll are allowed to recommence their academic activities. This will help prevent the formation of Covid-19 infection clusters in schools. The police and the health authorities will have to keep a watchful eye on the so-called school vehicles, whose operators obviously have no concern for students’ convenience or health. These contraptions with students shoehorned into every conceivable space lack proper ventilation and could, therefore, be hotbeds of viral infections.
The task of reopening schools could be far more formidable than it looks, given its complexity. There are two quondam Vice Chancellors in charge of the education sector—Education Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris and Secretary to the Education Ministry Prof. Kapila Perera. We hope they will succeed in their endeavour.
Meanwhile, the above-mentioned statistics are really disconcerting. The small schools that do not have more than 100 students on roll cater to the marginalised sections of society, and many of them face the prospect of closure. During the last decade alone, about 300 such schools have been closed down. The political authority does not want to keep the schools with only several dozens of students each open. These seats of learning are being closed under what has come to be known as the ‘school rationalisation programme’, we are told; the education authorities inform us that the idea is to make the best use of the scarce resources allocated for school education. This newspaper has, over the years, carried quite a few pictures of abandoned school buildings overgrown with tall, rank weeds. One hopes and prays that the same fate will not befall the small schools to be reopened soon.
The geographic proximity of schools to poor communities is of crucial import where the education of the underprivileged children is concerned. Trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty and semiliteracy, these children tend to stay away from the schools located far away from their homes, thereby causing the school drop-out rate to increase significantly. The need to keep the small schools open, regardless of the number of students on roll, and develop them cannot be overemphasised.
School closures are due to several factors. Public transport has improved relatively over the decades and rural students can now travel to urban and suburban schools with better facilities, and many poor students drop out before completing primary education, thereby bringing down the number of pupils in underprivileged schools drastically.
The closure of small schools is also due to what is known as the exit phenomenon; when the influential sections of society leave a state institution/service, the latter deteriorates because only the voiceless people become dependent on them. The state-owned bus and train services serve as examples. This is why we keep arguing in this space that the people’s representatives, especially the MPs, must be made to use public transport as far as possible, seek treatment at government hospitals and send their children to the schools in their electorates so that there will be pressure on the governments they represent to improve those institutions and services. Countering the ill-effects of the exit phenomenon is half the battle in improving the lives of the underprivileged people and their children.
The State should seriously consider providing the students in the underprivileged schools with midday meals besides free textbooks and free uniforms so that their nutritional and educational needs could be taken care of simultaneously. This, we believe, should be a main prong of the government’s poverty alleviation strategy. Education is the most potent antidote to poverty, as is public knowledge. The State is duty-bound to ensure the right of every child to access a full cycle of, at least, basic education. Developing the small schools on the verge of closure and attracting more students thereto will be the first step towards achieving this noble goal.
We run today a letter written by the mother of a victim of daylight robbery that is rampant today. She did not direct her signed letter to us, but it was widely circulated and shared and a reader who received it from four different sources sent it on to us. We have withheld the writer’s name out of prudence and also because she did not write directly to us. But given the extent of the problem and its relevance particularly to mainly urban and suburban dwellers, we felt it appropriate to run it in our columns as a warning to others at risk. Believe it or not, the particular victim who lives a Sri Saranankara Road, Dehiwala, had his house broken into for the sixth time a few days ago. His mother says that CCTV footage shows the burglar “calmly and confidently breaking in, absolutely unafraid.”
The thief had battered his way into a house that was presumably empty at the time, using a huge pole which is likely to have made quite a din. But obviously the noise had not raised the alarm, possibly because the house had been targeted as it was relatively isolated. Alternatively, any neighbor who heard the racket chose not to investigate for reasons of personal safety or an ‘it’s-not-my-business’ attitude. Whether the thief, who had helped himself to anything he could lay his hands on including personal effects, shoes, a gas cylinder and all the food and drink in the house, was ignorant of the fact that his activities were being recorded on CCTV, we do not know. He may also not have known how to disable the security device or perhaps not seen it. However that be, hopefully the police would be able to use the available recording to catch the thief. These devices, like the ubiquitous mobile phones, are a tremendous help in law enforcement today. The CCTV in the home referred to may have been new in the context of previous robberies as otherwise some progress would/should have already been made.
The letter writer’s statement that “this is what happens when people have no money and are starving” will strike an empathetic chord among many. It is very well known that drug addicts will do anything and everything to feed their habit and god knows there are many of them around. But now a new factor, hunger, has come into the equation. The pandemic induced restrictions have cost tens of thousands of daily wage earners their livelihoods. They have no way of feeding their families or eking out a precarious existence. Although there is the Samurdhi social security net long in existence, it does not catch many of the needy and too often benefits go to the unqualified or the undeserving. Supplementary efforts like distributing packages of essentials or modest allowances have been attempted both by the state and private parties doing their best to intervene. But these are nowhere near enough and reach only the tip of the iceberg. Despite all professions to the contrary, the economy is in obviously bad shape and the country barely limping along. Resources for badly needed social security support for the poor especially in the current context are non-existent.
Added to all this, the police are over-stretched and its law enforcement and investigative capabilities have become increasingly ineffective. A significant proportion of the force have been thrown to provide personal security to various politicians. We have a Presidential Security Division, a Prime Ministerial Security Division, a Ministerial Security Division and many more. Additionally Members of Parliament are assigned personal security officers. Thousand of police officers being thrown into such duties was justifiable when LTTE and JVP terrorism was a fact of life. But today, with the war over, such deployment on the present scale appears unnecessary to most people. It would be a worthwhile exercise to compare the situation prevailing here with that in other countries particularly in our region. Excess manpower freed from such duties can be usefully deployed for other work like crime prevention.
We have a Minister of Public Security today but the letter writer asks “What security has he provided us?” The Kohuwela Police had advised the robbery victim to never leave his house unoccupied. His mother asks whether her son must then give up his job? The security service industry has been growing exponentially over the past several years with industries and even households taking the advice famously proffered by President J.R. Jayewardene during the JVPs second adventure to “Look after your own security.” Many retired policemen have set up companies to do the work that the police once did and these are prospering. Watchers of yore are something of the past perhaps found only in plantations and ‘walauwas’ deep in the countryside. People today are more watchful than in the past about both themselves and their property. Instances such as that highlighted are all too common though not heavily publicized. Many do not report suspicious activity to the police as they do not expect a useful response. The moral of all this is to ‘Be Prepared’ like the Boy Scouts are exhorted to and always be careful.
Tears of little use
Saturday 24th July, 2021
The police have gone into overdrive to get to the bottom of the tragic death of Ishalini, 16, who is believed to have committed self-immolation at SJB MP Rishad Bathiudeen’s residence. They arrested the MP’s wife and father-in-law yesterday over the incident. There have been demonstrations in some parts of the country, demanding justice for the victim.
Unfortunately, Ishalini’s death has come to be politicised. Perhaps, it would not have become a mega issue if her employer had not been MP Bathiudeen, embroiled in several other controversies. The government is using the girl’s death as a bludgeon against the SJB. It has taken moral high ground, demanding to know why the SJB is silent. True, the Opposition would have taken to the streets if the suspects concerned had been connected to the government. But no one must stoop so low as to make political capital out of the poor girl’s tragic end, which has shaken the conscience of the nation.
If the government politicians who are shedding copious tears for Ishalini are so considerate towards girls and women as they claim to be, will they explain why they did not demand action against a UPFA local government chairman who deflowered scores of women and girls and even celebrated his criminal acts by throwing parties during a previous Rajapaksa government. The late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera publicly called upon the yahapalana government to take legal action against the rapist, but his call went unheeded, and the monster subsequently joined the SLFP, which was part of the so-called National Unity government, and is currently a constituent of the ruling SLPP coalition.
The government is said to be planning to raise the minimum age for domestic workers to 18. One cannot but agree that no one below this age should be allowed to work as domestic helpers. However, increasing the age limit alone will not help these workers who are exploited in every conceivable manner. Even some of those aged over 18 years suffer cruelty at the hands their employers. The need to enhance punishment for such offences cannot be overemphasised.
The problem of child labour is best stopped at source. Underage domestic workers mostly come from the families of plantation workers who earn meagre wages and live in abject poverty. Low literacy levels and lack of skills prevent most of the estate youth from being gainfully employed elsewhere, and it is not surprising that children in the plantation sector opt to work at a tender age. Ishalini also volunteered to work in Colombo because her family was up to its neck in debt, and loan sharks were threatening her parents.
There must be thousands of domestic helpers like Ishalini throughout the country, starving, slaving away and suffering sexual abuse. Let the ongoing campaign to have justice served for Ishalini, posthumously, be extended to achieve the emancipation of all these hapless children. It may not be difficult to trace them and ensure their return to their families, but who will feed and clothe them? Their families cannot do so, and that is why they have started working. The state will have to look after these children if it really wants to deliver them from suffering. There are various organisations championing child rights, and they must be willing to contribute to this worthy cause. The government may be able to enlist their support.
The best place for a child is his or her home. If the underage workers from the poor families are to return home, their families will have to be economically empowered. As for the plantation workers, their lot will have to be improved significantly through a state intervention to ensure that their wages are commensurate with their work. If children have enough food on the table and access to education, there will be no need for them to work. The tragic death of Ishalini and the suffering of other such children reflect the failure of the state to look after the poor.
The National Child Protection Policy has remained unimplemented for over two decades, as we reported the other day. So much for the concern of successive governments for children! The onus is on the incumbent government, which has so many bleary-eyed members within its ranks, making a public display of their love for children, to implement this vital policy urgently.
A flaw in jab drive
Friday 23rd July, 2021
The national vaccination campaign is gaining momentum with more vaccine doses coming in and a significant number of them being administered daily. It has received a tremendous boost from the armed forces’ involvement in the inoculation process. A senior medical doctor, in a letter published on the opposite page today, pays a glowing tribute to the Army, which deserves accolades for its good work. Government health personnel are also working tirelessly to inoculate as many people as possible to help the country achieve the much-needed herd immunity.
There is however a flaw in the ongoing vaccination drive and it needs to be rectified urgently. Thanks to the vaccine war the western bloc has declared on China, etc., the Sri Lankans who have not received the vaccines produced by western multinationals have to pay through the nose for quarantine when they travel to the developed countries.
The government has, with the help of the Army, launched a programme to give Pfizer and Moderna jabs to the students scheduled to migrate to the countries that refuse to recognise the efficacy of other vaccines. This is a welcome move, which has stood thousands of students in good stead. But, curiously, there is no such scheme for the Sri Lankans who migrate for foreign employment. They will have to pay colossal amounts of forex for quarantine in the host countries unless they are given Pfizer or Moderna jabs at this end.
Sri Lanka is facing a grave foreign crisis, as is public knowledge, and restrictions have been imposed on the outflow of foreign currency, and, therefore, there is no way those who are scheduled to migrate for foreign employment can carry the required amounts of foreign exchange even if they are ready to pay for quarantine after reaching their destinations. If they are given Pfizer/Moderna jabs here, the government can prevent millions of dollars being taken out of the country for quarantine.
Sri Lanka is heavily dependent on remittances from its expatriate workers. Therefore, the Sri Lankans leaving for foreign employment should be given Pfizer or Moderna jabs on a priority basis. Why the government has not realised the need to do so is puzzling.
It is said that a proposal has been submitted to the Health Ministry for including the Sri Lankans to be employed overseas also in the category of those eligible for receiving Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. If so, the Health Ministry must act fast. Perhaps, a presidential intervention may be necessary because some health bigwigs are not well disposed towards the military involvement in the vaccination campaign, which they consider their preserve.
Meanwhile, it defies comprehension why the developed world has chosen to promote the vaccines produced by some western pharmaceutical corporations that have earned notoriety for questionable business practices. In September 2009, The Guardian (UK) reported that Pfizer had been hit with the biggest criminal fine in US history as part of a $2.3 bn settlement with federal prosecutors for ‘mispromoting’ medicines and paying kickbacks to compliant doctors. Pfizer pleaded guilty to misbranding the painkiller Bextra, withdrawn from the market in 2004, by promoting the drug for uses that were not approved by medical regulators. Besides, it took 15 years for Pfizer to make the first compensation payment to the families of the Nigerian children who died or were disabled in a disastrous meningitis drug trial in 1996. This tragedy has made the Nigerians express serious concerns about the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine rollout at home.
One of the main reasons why the world has failed to end the Covid-19 pandemic is the hypocrisy of the Global North. The People’s Vaccine Alliance has said that the self-interest of the G-7 countries is the biggest obstacle to overcoming the Covid-19 crisis, for these nations block proposals for waiving patents and sharing life-saving technology. They have also stockpiled vaccines, causing a jab shortage in the rest of the world. The prevailing world order reflects the law of the jungle.
The developing world is left with no alternative but to follow the vaccine rules set by the rich nations. One only hopes the Sri Lankan government will act wisely and ensure that all Sri Lankans leaving for foreign employment receive the jabs acceptable to their host countries so that they will be spared the trouble of paying huge amounts of dollars for overseas quarantine.
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