Connect with us

Features

SRI LANKA AT CROSS-ROADS AND THE NEW DEVELOPMENT PARADIGM

Published

on

by Dr. Dayanath Jayasuriya

President’s Counsel

Compared with most other erstwhile British colonies, independence was granted to Ceylon virtually on a silver platter. This statement is not meant to undermine the efforts of our own freedom fighters who without bloodshed managed to convince the colonial ruler that the country was gradually getting ready for independence. The Donoughmore system of government was a precursor to the decision for self-rule. When the first independence constitution was drafted, with the able assistance of Sir Ivor Jennings, there were simmering issues that the draftsmen took into consideration. Rights of minorities and stateless persons, religion, language of instruction, parity of status and land rights were among the many issues which multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual issues that typically encounter when power is to be transferred from a colonial ruler to a self-elected body of representatives. The British approach varied from country to country; in India, for instance, the issue of the division of India and East and West Pakistan was left to be resolved after independence was granted.

In 1972, the first constitution was replaced with the country becoming a Republic and changing the name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka. Prior to the enactment of the Constitution, which followed an ad hoc method of working through a Constituent Assembly, the right of appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was abolished. Her Majesty the Queen ceased to appoint her representative as Governor. During the period 1971 to 1977 the country witnessed many issues; an insurrection by a large number of youth was quelled within a short-time by then then Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike and the rise in global petroleum prices had a severe impact on the country. Import restrictions, ceiling on ownership of houses and land, nationalization of foreign industries etc. took place but with mixed results.

In 1977 a new Constitution was enacted. The Executive President, J. R. Jayewardene, led the initiative to liberalize the economy. With free trade and various expensive developmental projects, corruption began to erode the system slowly but surely. Even though the early signs of Sri Lanka becoming a transit centre for international drug smuggling, arms smuggling, illegal gambling, casino and sex establishments became evident but these were largely ignored by law enforcement agencies. This Constitution still remains in place, notwithstanding a record of 19 amendments. The 19th amendment was meant to curb the powers of the Executive President and to empower the Prime Minister. But on two occasions a President and a Prime Minister belonging to two different political parties led to disastrous results.

At the Presidential elections of 2019 and at the general elections of 2020, a major issue was the amendment or repeal of the 19th amendment and/or the adoption of a new constitution. The Government has opted to amend the 19th amendment through a 20th amendment as the first step.

The case for a strong Executive President is based on the assumption that the country can make rapid development under such a regime. In several speeches broadcast over the media the current President has requested that he be provided with the freedom to accomplish his developmental agenda without undue hindrance. Over the 72 years since independence the country has made only marginal gains in relation to many widely accepted socio-economic and related indicators. In the early 60s, the Sri Lankan model of development was studied by countries like Singapore and Malaysia but today Sri Lanka lags behind these and most other developing countries. Gains in the health and education spheres have had a major set back, caused partly by the 30-year long separatist war which exacted a heavy toll. Issues of internationally orchestrated calls for accountability for war crimes, justice for displaced minority groups, the rise in Islamic militancy as was evident by the brutal attack on churches and hotels in April 2019, the large numbers unemployed or underemployed due to COVID-19 are among a few of the major issues that loom large.

It is in this background that the Government is poised to push ahead with a new constitutional amendment. Only time will tell whether this was timely or not, as the country has had a major setback due to COVID-19 and the closure of the airports and the economy is barely recovering. The economy also took a major beating a few years ago when an expatriate Singaporean friend of the then Prime Minister possibly caused what is now regarded as the biggest Central Bank robbery.

This article looks at the enabling environment required for selected priority national development to gain speed under the enhanced powers of an executive President.

a) People-centred Development

The exact size of the wealthy class cannot be estimated. Operations against drug traffickers with large quantities of drugs, arms and currency notes and multiple bank accounts raise credibility issues with regard to our banking system and customs controls. The Financial Intelligence Unit has remained silent as to how banks would have done a genuinely serious job with regard to due diligence and ‘Know your Customer’ requirements; otherwise one cannot explain the large deposits in accounts of people who cannot possibly provide any legitimate sources of income. Political patronage and corrupt officials within the law enforcement agencies would have provided their blessings for crimes of such great magnitude to take place. Over the decades the poor classes have become poorer and a new class (nouveau riche) has emerged vying with the traditionally rich upper class. Large numbers have gone to the Middle-East for employment and have been remitting part of their relatively modest salary but this alone has not been sufficient to raise their standard of living.

Unlike India, Sri Lanka lacked a permanent National Planning Council. Several governments did set up small national planning cells but without any real impact. A national poverty alleviation plan requires precise information of unmet needs at the micro-level of villages and in the fringes of urban centres. Media coverage often shows how the impoverished classes live. Basic facilities such as safe drinking water are lacking in many parts of the country. Empirical evidence suggests that well nourished children live healthier lives and perform better at examinations but large numbers find it difficult to have even a square meal.

We have recently seen the current President visiting selected villages and ascertaining problems and immediately suggesting to officers a solution. This is reminiscent of late President Premadasa’s taking the “Kachcheri to the villages and towns” concept where a one-stop improvised centre promptly attended to unmet needs, particularly documentation such as national identity cards, birth certificates etc. This is what should be done by Provincial Councils and other local authorities and respective ministers. It is to be hoped that the example that is now being set will trickle down to ministers, state ministers and heads of departments. For each village or cluster of villages there should be a mapping exercise done of unmet needs and the resources required for timely action. Bottle-necks should be identified and brought to the notice of the relevant authorities who should not hesitate to give directions for prompt action. Accountability mechanisms are grossly lacking or even if they do exist they are largely ineffective. ‘Passing the buck’ is a skill many public servants have effectively mastered.

The State alone cannot uplift the status or influence the life-styles of millions living in under-served villages and towns. The private sector should be assigned the responsibility of assisting selected villages for developmental activities as part of the CSR agenda or otherwise. This might result in a new paradigm shift in poverty alleviation through public sector-private sector joint endeavors. We have witnessed foundation stones being laid for so many important projects such as new hospitals and medical centres, schools etc. but follow-up action is often lacking due to bureaucratic indifference or lack of funds.

Bureaucratic indifference or sabotage is not a problem confined only to small developing nations. It is significant that a few weeks ago the Presidents of the US National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine issued a strongly worded message condemning ad hoc policy-making in relation to US health policy:

“As advisers to the nation on all matters of science, medicine, and public health, we are compelled to underscore the value of science-based decision-making at all levels of government. Our nation is at a critical time in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic with important decisions ahead of us, especially concerning the efficacy and safety of vaccines. Policymaking must be informed by the best available evidence without it being distorted, concealed, or otherwise deliberately miscommunicated. We find ongoing reports and incidents of the politicization of science, particularly the overriding of evidence and advice from public health officials and derision of government scientists, to be alarming. It undermines the credibility of public health agencies and the public’s confidence in them when we need it most. Ending the pandemic will require decision-making that is not only based on science but also sufficiently transparent to ensure public trust in, and adherence to, sound public-health instructions. Any efforts to discredit the best science and scientists threaten the health and welfare of us all.”

An Executive President should be able to periodically monitor what happens in the field by getting regular feedback from responsible ministers, state ministers, departmental heads and so on and play the role of a trouble-shooter when necessary without fear or favour.

b) Good Governance, Law and Order

When the first post-independent constitution was being drafted Sir Ivor Jennings was against the idea of providing for the justiciability of human rights stating that this would hinder administration and will become a gold-mine for lawyers. The 1977 Constitution empowered citizens to invoke the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court if their fundamental rights are violated. Though an important development per se, it comes at a cost

Reluctance by some heads of department to institute disciplinary action is impeded by several reasons, two such reasons being the possibility of the action being challenged in a court of law or due to the interference by a Minister or other powerful politician. The tradition of appointing commissions or committees to look into each and every major problem issue is a costly and often meaningless exercise. After a period of time public and media attention is diverted to new public issues.

There needs to be a robust system of accountability at every level for any issue that is subjected to investigation. On certain important national matters, the Cabinet itself or the Minister in charge of the relevant ministry, department or agency, as the case may be, must be accountable for ensuring that due process is followed and consult the Executive President where his or her guidance is required.

In matters of international relations, the country has to delicately balance competing vested interests and demands and speak with one voice. The country has to be sensitive to international commitments offered in the past. Rating agencies have given a low rating which is a red flag to possible foreign investors.

Recent media reports on the smuggling of drugs, liquor, arms, cigarettes and other contraband suggest the degree to which law and order had deteriorated within many law enforcement agencies and how certain officials have facilitated or participated in these illegal activities. The April 2019 bomb blasts could have been possibly avoided if relevant officials had done what they ought to have done with regard to such a serious matter and the officials monitoring national security had acted more sensibly in a timely fashion.

A major task ahead of an Executive President is to take stock of institutional strengths and weaknesses, identity bottlenecks and improve governance systems leaving little or no room for deviations from accepted procedures. It is when those at the top are indifferent or lack moral courage to take on problems as and when they arise, that the rot begins to percolate down the entire system and a sense of complacency arises. A proper system of checks and balances will ensure better productivity, efficiency and a better outcome. Nepotism, bribery or corruption and undue interference will gradually phase-out when a better and just governance system is in place.

Lord Acton once remarked that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Sri Lanka now has a chance to prove that even with almost absolute power there can be great and good men. As I conclude this article I hear someone playing one of Elvis Presley’s classics: “It’s now or never,… tomorrow will be too late.”

[The author is the former Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission of Sri Lanka. He has previously served as UNDP Regional Adviser on HIV and Development and Community Development Adviser for Asia and the Pacific and as Head, UNAIDS Secretariat and Senior Policy Adviser to the Government of Pakistan. He could be contacted at (ichpl@hotmail.com)]

 

Dr Dayanath Jayasuriya

Tel. 0777 384047

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Features

Trump checks-out of his job

Published

on

Populist neo-right toughies gear up for a counterattack

by Kumar David

Confirmation of the inevitability of Trump’s departure and the promise that covid-19 vaccines will be available in weeks has created euphoria not seen since the lifting of prohibition in America 97 years ago almost to the day – December 5, 1933. The Dow briefly pierced the 30,000-point ceiling, women and the elderly exposed to heightened domestic violence at the hands cooped up bar-less men espied a light at the end of the tunnel, and millions of Anthony Fauci defying covid-asymptomatic youth took to the skies to go home for Thanksgiving and infect grandparents and elders. (“The young in one another’s arms; those dying generations at their song; caught in sensual music all neglect, monuments of unageing intellect”). But there are dark sides to the jubilation. First, there is some way to go before distribution and mass administration of the vaccine become reality and science though pleased with results so far remains cautious about the duration of immunity. Most important, no vaccine can offer protection against reckless behaviour of a hara-kiri besotted populace.

 

Challenges to Joe Biden

This piece however is not about covid-19, it’s about an equally virulent plague; the rednecks and fascistic heavies gearing up for a counter-attack while Trump calls them to arms, literally, by tweeting “we must overturn the results of the election” and by making all sorts of incendiary interventions. Trump has virtually checked out of his current job as President, he rarely makes a public appearance, refuses to take questions when he does, and most significantly refuses to intercede in burning national issues such as the explosive spread of the pandemic, economy or foreign policy and China. Instead he has taken to stirring up a counter-attack on the election results and mobilising his semi-fascist troops. Mobilisation rallies have been scheduled by team-Trump in Georgia, Arizona and elsewhere though the participation of President-Reject has to be confirmed. The attacks on the incoming administration are geared up around these slogans: Biden’s nominations are an Obama third-term team; there is a retreat from standing up for US interests under the cloak of rebuilding international relations; they are soft on China trade and on will China get away stealing American jobs; Biden team’s accommodative policies in the guise of climate change harm the economy and let foreign polluters off the leash (Who is John Kerry? Obama’s Foreign Policy Tsar who sold out to Iran, now he will sell America to US-hating Global Greens), and overall, the gist is that instead of putting America First, team Biden will let others exploit America and put ordinary Americans last.

These cries will resonate with the rejected-dejected white working-class and with the majority of poor and less educated whites across a swathe of mid-western ‘red states.’ It seems Biden is putting together a clean and elitist all-liberals cricketing team to engage in no holds barred mud wresting with the muck and filth of Trump-rabble. Joe will lose unless he wakes up to reality. CNN reported that Biden has poured cold water on the idea of nominating Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders to his Cabinet, instead suggesting he would like to keep them in the Senate to carry forward his agenda. He claimed, quite incorrectly, that there is already significant representation of progressives in his cabinet but he did add that nothing is off the table.

 

Biden’s thus far yahapalana appointments

From senior appointments made thus far it seems Biden wishes to form a good-governance (yahapalana) liberal not a radical administration. Thankfully, unlike Lanka 2015-2020, he will not be encumbered by an ignorant, self-seeking nutcase like Pissu-Sira. Be that as it may, Trump’s conspiracy in collaboration with Republican leaders (Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham and media types Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity) was to execute a palace-coup but this came undone when public, political, media and business pressure mounted and Emily Murphy, Chair of the General Services Office authorised transition funds for the President Elect, and Michigan and Pennsylvania certified Biden victories; also when in Georgia Bidden scored a third win in a third count. But Trump is selfish, petulant and a vengeful liar and until his political coffin is sealed and riveted down at noon on January 20, 2021, just about anything is possible.

Musing on of Biden’s leadership team and its prospects can benefit from reflection on recent Sri Lankan experiences. Despite the chasm in wealth and historical experience between the countries, don’t dismiss the thought that there are useful parallels. Some common features are that in both cases diehard populism with racist overtones are entrenched, and in both countries, there is deep resentment against the well-to-do classes (Washington Swamp, Colombo 7 elite) who have it all while working-people suffer. A third factor is nationalism and xenophobia. A fourth is that America suffered a loutish president while in our case a suave and avuncular former leader and his near canonised brother prevailed, but in both cases these powers had a firm grip on a big section of the mass mind.

Now a there is new parallel; the Biden Administration in gestation and a hypothetical yahapalana government without Pissu-Sira, have much in common. Biden is a man of working-class origin with an earned a BA (double major in history and political science and minor in English; Wikipedia says he was rated a C student). He also has a JD (doctorate by coursework). His stutter was an obstacle, but it also endeared him to ordinary people. His team as announced so far consists of high-flying ideological liberals and liberals-in-economic-outlook (the former pledge loyalty to justice, parity before the law, freedom of speech and religion, and oppose race bias, while the latter stand for free-markets and business-friendly policies). The former Fed Chair who defied Trump, Janet Yellen (Brown and Yale) will be Treasury Secretary (Finance Minister), Antony Blinken (Harvard and Columbia) an Obama era liberal will get State (Foreign Ministry), Cuban-American Alejandro Mayorkas (Loyola and Berkeley) will head Homeland Security and John Kerry, well known as Obama’s Secretary of State is to be climate Tsar with cabinet ranking. All are policy wonks with a clear mission to rebuild, at home and abroad, the America that Trump wrecked. Non-Cabinet postings are also significant. Two able women, Avril Hains (Johns Hopkins and U of Chicago) will be Director of National Intelligence and a distinguished black Linda Greenfield (U of Wisconsin-Madison) will be UN Ambassador. Jake Sullivan (Yale) will be National Security Advisor. If you look up the CVs of these people you will see that it is a team with a strong intellectual, liberal or liberal-economic bent – better for a University Liberal Arts Faculty than a Cabinet maybe.

There is more liberal talent waiting in the wings; Susan Rice, Pete Buttigieg, Vivek Murthy, Andrew Yang, Sally Yates and too many to name. On the left we have Bernie Sanders (Political Science, Chicago and a “mediocre student” in his own words) potentially for the Labour portfolio, and Elizabeth Warren (BSc Houston, hooray a scientist at last and JD from Rutgers Law School) fit for any portfolio.

However so far, they both seem a bridge too far to the left for Biden to cross. So, Biden team may be all-liberal without a daub of red or radical. Thereby hangs a tale: Will this team deliver; will it be able to carry through a programme of economic and social restructuring which can mollify, not just the baying wolves of the Trump Base but all less privileged America? Markets are cheering the appointment of Ms Yellen instead of Ms Warren to the Treasury; America’s political and military allies heave a sigh of relief that reliable Obama era boy Blinken spells the end of a cranky President who put alliances in jeopardy. Greens the world over cheer the return of the US to climate sense. That’s what the liberals can deliver.

But there are critical issues on which liberalism will fall short; like the things yahapalana fell short on and opened the flood gates for the Rajapaksas to came storming back. The poorer three quarters of the population be it America or Lanka have problems yahapalana-type liberal economics is not designed to address. Indeed, that’s why a Trump Base came into being in the first place and why like a Rajapaksa phenomenon a neo-fascist populist option may storm back in four years in the US. The plain truth is that in January 2015 in Sri Lanka and today in the USA the middle-class, liberal intellectuals and indeed the left hail the defeat of ugly autocracy and the confirmation of democratic values, but in the medium term the lower orders of society, the majority, are driven by the need to feed their families not by the bliss of liberal nirvana. A Biden team without radical colouration does not inspire confidence that that it lives on the same planet as rust-belt workers faced with loss of livelihood and mid-west rural folk who have lost hope in modern capitalist America whose economy is networked into globalism. There is indeed no hope for an all-capitalist USA that is unable to restructure itself profoundly.

One does applaud the return of decency, diversity and political discipline to the US. One is relieved that the institutions of American democracy held up against the most brutal attack they suffered since the Civil War 160 years ago. However, none of that will save America now unless livelihood issues and the social cancer rooted in the country’s soul are taken in hand. I fear that a liberal-democratic Biden Administration which shuts out radicals and eschews a transformative programme will fall short. The failure of numerous yahapalanas style governments stud the contemporary global landscape.

Continue Reading

Features

More on the Burghers

Published

on

by HM Nissanka Warakaulle

It was interesting reading the piece by Mr. J. Godwin Perera on the Burghers (SI Nov. 22). I thought it will be appropriate to add a little more about the Burghers who had contributed in a big way to enliven the lives of many Lankans.

First I would like to thank Mr. Perera, who despite being a Royalist, mentioned Mr. Louis Edmund Blaze’, the founder of Kingswood College, Kandy. Blaze’s vision was of a school with with a close relationship between the teachers and students rather than training the boys to merely pass examinations. He wanted to make good citizens with moral values. Other than the important things mentioned by Mr. Perera, such as introducing rugger in schools, cadetting and rowing, he introduced the Prologue at the annual Kingswood prize giving. This narrated what had happened at home and abroad in the year reviewed. He wrote the Prologue until he died. It continued with an old boy doing the honors thereafter.

He also introduced addressing the students as “Gentlemen of Kingswood”, something unique to that school. He, as principal of a boy’s school, was the first to recruit lady teachers to a boys’ school here. The school had such dedicated Burgher teachers (all of them spinsters) to mould the lives of toddlers from the then Baby Class to Standard Two. Some of them were Misses Eileen Clement, Gertrude Thorpe and Muriel Elias. In the middle school there was Miss Joyce Da Silva.

The other famous educationists of the day were Mr. Oorloff of Wesley College and then Trinity, Cannon de Saram of St. Thomas’, Mrs. Labrooy of Girls’ High School, Kandy and Mr. Schockman, the founder Principal of Thurstan who came from Kingswood.

In the University of Ceylon, in addition to Prof. EOE Pereira, mentioned by Mr. Perera, there were Mr. Labrooy and Fr. Pinto in History, Prof. EFC Luduwyke and HE Passe in English, Mr. Ian Van den Driesen in Economics and Dr. Hingert in Philosophy. The Faculty of Medicine had Professors Koch and Chapman and Dr. Jansz among others.

In the sport arena there were many sportsmen and women who were outstanding. Mr. Perera had mentioned Duncan White and Eddie Gray. Duncan White’s brother Freddie (from Kingswood) was considered Asia’s best hockey goalie of his time. The National hockey team had a number of Burgher players in addition to Freddie White, such as Ivan de Kretser, who captained the team for a number of years, Richard Heyn, Derrick Harvie and Dennis De Rozairo.

In cricket there were Vernon Prins, Clive Inman, David Heyn (compared to Neil Harvey as an outstanding fielder at cover point). Richard and David were sons of Brigadier BR Heyn, who has been the only Burgher Commander of the Sri Lanka Army. He represented Sri Lanka in cricket and hockey, a unique achievement.

In tennis there was Rupert Ferdinands who carried the Ceylon flag for a long time whilst in swimming and diving Sri Lanka had the Bollings, and Swan.

As for Beauty Queens we had Maureen Hingert who put Sri Lanka on the map becoming second runner up at a world beauty contest. Like Jacqueline Fernandez joining the Bollywood beauty brigade, Maureen starred in a few Hollywood films.

In music the most famous duo were the de Saram brothers, Rohan and Druvi. Then we had Douglas Ferdinands an exceptional violinist and an excellent teacher who also played in the Symphony Orchestra and had his own junior orchestra where he trained young musicians, some of whom graduated to the Symphony Orchestra led for a long time by Eileen Prins. There were very good pianists such as Noel Forbes, Fr. Eric Bartholomeusz and Clem Croner.

In the entertainment industry there were Burghers of the calibre of Cliff Foenander, Bill Forbes, Alston Koch, Dalrene Suby, Noeline Honter, Desmond Kelly and Ronnie Leach who made their mark here and abroad.

There were a number of very good school cricketers of our vintage. Whilst Royal had Lorenz Pereira, Michael Willie, Fitzroy Crozier and Darrel and Eardley Lieversz, S. Thomas’ had Michael Sproule, Michael Tissera, Dennis Ferdinands, Errol Lisk. In Wesley there were the famous Claessen brothers. The list goes on – Trinity had Eric Roles, Errol Fernando and St. Anthony’s had Ronnie Stevens and the Joseph brothers

The national Rugger teams had very good Burgher players at various times such as Malcom Wright, Eric Roles, Van Langenberg,

In addition to doctors Noel Bartholomeusz and, RL Spittel in Colombo, Dr. Roy Peterson, Dr. Winn and Dr. Frewin who were well known in Kandy. These were in addition to Doctors Darrel Weinman and Travis Pereira.

George Keyt and David Paynter were world renowned painters whilst Wiiliam Blake excelled in cinema, Rodney Jonklaas in under sea explorations and Lionel Wendt in photography and music. He was also a patron of the arts..

And last but not least there was Donovan Andree and later his son Malcolm. Donovan was instrumental in bringing the Holiday on Ice show held on an artificial ice rink and the famous Egyptian magician Gogia Pasha and wrestlers from many countries such as Dara Singh, King Kong and Wong Bok Lee. We never had anybody else to emulate Donovan as a showman.

Editors note: The list of Burgher achievers can never be comprehensive. A reader pointed out that Chief Justice MC Sansoni and Dr. RL Brohier were notable omissions from the first piece by Godwin Perera. Undoubtedly there will be many more gaps and omissions In a long list of the best and the brightest Burghers.

Continue Reading

Features

Covid-19: The Epidemic and the Economy

Published

on

Dr. Vitarana very simply explains the basic facts about the virus, its current level of transmission in Sri Lanka, the difficulties Sri Lanka will face in obtaining a vaccine for the entire population within a short-time frame, and calls for “community action” to end the pandemic. He calls the current mode of transmission, “uncontrolled community spread.” He suggests there could be 80% asymptomatic transmission and cites a figure of 30% test positivity from a random PCR study in Colombo by the CMOH.

by Rajan Philips

“What I have learned about pandemics is you have to be very humble. There is no mission-accomplished moment.”

Dr. Vin-Kim Nguyen

Perhaps every medical professional would agree with the sentiment in the above comment by a Vietnamese Canadian doctor, who is affiliated to two international hospitals, one in Montreal, Canada, and the other in Geneva, Switzerland. Unlike doctors who would give you the unvarnished truth, governments and politicians generally have different arrangements with truth and humility. Lack of humility and premature celebrations of victory are all too common in government and politics in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. The country seems to be now paying the price for the government’s premature declaration of victory over Covid-19 and prodigal distractions thereafter – changing constitution just for the heck of it and changing the heck out of the positions of doctors in public health agencies. The infection total is now past 21,000 and the death toll is reaching 100. A sevenfold increase in both in just over seven weeks. What is worrisome, apart from the rate of increases, is the absence of any indication that the government is in control and is able to arrest the trend, let alone reverse it.

 

Sri Lankan numbers are still peanuts in the global context. At Sri Lanka’s rates, the US should have under 400,000 infections and 2,000 deaths. But the superpower has a staggering 13 million infections and over a quarter million deaths. But the finally-on-his- way-out Donald Trump, after single handedly leading America to become the super spreader of the coronavirus, maniacally believes that but for his brilliant stewardship tens of millions of more Americans would be infected by now and a million of them would have died. Americans have managed to get rid of Trump, thanks to their unsung heroes who faithfully counted nearly 160 million votes in the most contentious of situations and the judges who boldly rebuked and threw out every one of Trump’s vexatious pseudo-legal challenges. But America is stuck with the coronavirus which is still spreading in its deadly mutation. And the vaccines, though the result of globally coordinated scientific efforts at the highest level, are not going to be overnight panaceas. Again, every medical professional is saying that.

 

Logistically, there are several hoops to pass through even after one or more of the three lead vaccine candidates are approved for use. Their mass production, storage and transport are all huge challenges, which can be done but not in any hurry. And worldwide vaccination thereafter will be an unprecedented health intervention on a global scale. Then come the challenges of keeping records for multiple inoculation, verifying vaccine effectiveness, and tracking virus transmission after vaccination by pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers. According to experts the now ongoing clinical trials alone are not sufficient to be conclusive about any of this, given the speed at which vaccine development is necessarily being undertaken. The consensus upshot is that masks and physical distancing cannot be dispensed with easily or quickly even after vaccination programs get underway in different countries. All of this would invariably lead to delaying the resumption of economic activity to pre-pandemic levels. Sri Lanka is not alone in this, but there are many things that individual countries will have to do themselves on their own.

 

From Infection to Recession

 

Last week I mistakenly left out what would have been the last paragraph in my article. The paragraph was about Dr. Tissa Vitarana’s statement entitled, “Community action can end the Covid-19 pandemic,” that appeared in the Sunday Island on November 8. That statement is by far the best and the most comprehensive, if not the only, public health policy paper on the subject by anyone who is associated with the present government. There should be no surprise about such a statement coming from a former Director of the MRI and a respected professional and academic. He has also been a Minister in the previous Rajapaksa governments, briefly Governor of the North Central Province, and now a National List MP. What is surprising is that Dr. Vitarana’s expertise and thinking for dealing with Covid-19 are not able to find any resonance at any level in this government.

Dr. Vitarana very simply explains the basic facts about the virus, its current level of transmission in Sri Lanka, the difficulties Sri Lanka will face in obtaining a vaccine for the entire population within a short-time frame, and calls for “community action” to end the pandemic. He calls the current mode of transmission, “uncontrolled community spread.” He suggests there could be 80% asymptomatic transmission and cites a figure of 30% test positivity from a random PCR study in Colombo by the CMOH. He fears that waiting for the vaccine to control the virus could be a “distant dream.” The reason is that apart from logistical delays, Sri Lanka should be in a position to buy the available vaccine for 60% of the population in addition to the expected WHO’s free vaccine for 20% of the population, to vaccinate 80% of the population – the threshold “to break the chain of transmission in a population.”

Until then, it is “community action” that should be relied upon, along with the public health infrastructure and a knowledgeable population observing basic health practices, to contain the community spread of the virus. Dr. Vitarana is confident that “if a good example is set from the top (no large gatherings etc.) and the people follow the health guidelines, the country can get rid of the Covid-19 scourge.”

In fairness to Dr. Vitarana, he is not asking to be in charge of this community action plan, and he is confident in the abilities of doctors in the Epidemiology Unit and of the armed forces for tracking and tracing. And if Dr. Vitarana is just a retired professional without political involvement, no one would be suggesting that he should be recalled from retirement to head this or that coronavirus task force. The only reason that some of us are puzzled about his apparent exclusion, is that he has been so much a part of the PA/UPFA/ULF/SLFP/SLPP governing political formation for 26 years – all the way back from 1994, when some of the current bigwigs were in and out of the country and would not have known the difference between a parliamentary system and a presidential system.

Put another way, the mystifying exclusion of Dr. Tissa Vitarana and the inexplicably ridiculous transfer of Dr. Anil Jasinghe from Health to the Environment, are not signs of a government that is prepared to utilize the best available people and the all the available institutional resources to “methodically” (to borrow presidential terminology) deal with the current pandemic crisis. Equally, if things have been working, and there is no surge of infections, nobody will be talking about Dr. Vitarana or Dr. Jasinghe. And there is no certainty either that everything about containing Covid-19 is going to get better. At least, there are no encouraging signs that things are indeed getting better.

The saving grace for everyone is that the recovery rates are high and the death rates are still low. It would also seem that the symptoms of infected are people are not as severe in Sri Lanka as elsewhere, and hospitalization is not currently overwhelming. Will all these factors hold at their current manageable levels, or can they get out of control? I have not come across any discussion about future projections either through technical modelling, or based on experience and commonsense. The overall uncertainty affects decision making about the levels to which social and economic activities can be allowed to open up or resume. In the absence of certainty and determination, it will not be possible to plan for or promise economic growth, let alone prosperity. Even if Sri Lanka is somehow able to resume significant economic activities, it still will have to face a very sluggish world outside.

It is a sign of the times that the British government has officially declared that it is heading towards its worst recession in three centuries. That last one was in 1709 and was caused by a fierce European winter which ravaged economies and caused famine. This time the British economy is expected contract by 11.3%, worse than every country in Europe other than Spain which is staring at a 12.4% GDP drop. Rishi Sunak, Britain’s Punjabi-Hindu Chancellor of the Exchequer, told the House of Commons last week, “Our health emergency is not yet over, and our economic emergency has only just begun.” The emergency could apparently get worse if Brexit goes wrong. In any event, the British government is not expecting the economy to return to pre-pandemic levels until the end of 2022. That generally is the sentiment in most countries. And China cannot play the same saviour role it played during the 2007-2008 global financial crisis.

This is also the context in which Sri Lankan government leaders should rethink and revisit many of the premises and projections that were included in the new budget. If it is “day-dreaming” to think of buying vaccine to vaccinate 60% of the population, by what yardstick of reality can one expect 60% market capitalisation? Until Covid-19 is brought under reasonable control, it would not be realistic to expect the economy to return to anywhere near full throttle. Clearly, a total lockdown is not the answer, even though it would be the easiest to implement and to claim victory.

Economic targets and infrastructure investments that are inappropriate for the current situation, that are environmentally harmful, and do not carry long term benefits should be avoided. Inappropriate examples include construction of highways and mass paving of 100,000 kilometres of currently unpaved rural roads. The latter would be a drainage disaster. Potential projects that deserve investment green light, are helping garment factory workers to build their own houses, urban and rural water supply and sanitation schemes, countrywide drainage control, and water management as part of agriculture and food production. Such targeted economic activities can go hand in hand with “community action” to contain Covid-19.

Continue Reading

Trending