BY Dr. Asoka Bandarage
SARS-CoV-2, the corona virus that causes COVID-19, has been spreading exponentially across the world over the last ten or so months. As of November 6, according to the Center for Systems Science at Johns Hopkins University, there were 49,195,581 cases of COVID-19, including 1,241,031 deaths. More than a third of the global population has been placed under lockdown. The global economy is experiencing the deepest recession since World War II and massive numbers of people are losing livelihoods and suffering serious effects on their physical and mental health.
The pandemic has allowed states and corporations to tighten technological surveillance and authoritarianism, curtailing privacy and democratic protest. As virulent second and even third waves of the pandemic speed across countries, people are gripped with fear and despair over their own survival and what the future holds for humanity.
The origin and prevention of the virus are mired in controversy and conflict between conventional and ‘conspiracy’ theories. This unprecedented, multi-faceted global crisis, however, calls for deeper exploration and broader discourse on its causes and long-term solutions. Biomedical science, social science and ecological and ethical perspectives need to be integrated to overcome this pandemic as well as other pandemics predicted in the years ahead.
Controversy over Origin and Prevention
Given the lack of media coverage, there is scarce public awareness of the likely laboratory origins of previous pandemics like the H1N1 outbreak of 1977-78. The global scientific and media establishments attribute the origin of COVID-19 to an animal-to-human (i.e. zoonotic) transmission at a seafood market in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. While US intelligence sources also originally asserted this, they claimed, in March 2020, that the pandemic may have originated in a leak from a lab.
Hollywood films, such as 2011’s Contagion presented eerie premonitions of the COVID-19. In 2015, billionaire and global population control proponent, Bill Gates warned of a huge threat of a global pandemic. A pandemic simulation called Event 201 was conducted in October 2019 by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Economic Forum projected up to 65 million deaths due to a coronavirus.
However, the global biomedical, political and business leaders who were well aware of the impending Covid pandemic did not take the precautionary action needed to safeguard people. The United States, Europe and other countries found themselves without adequate testing kits, respirators, hospital beds and medical personnel when the virus started to spread. A failure of leadership lies behind the massive destruction of human life, livelihoods and social life that we are experiencing today.
Controversy over Mitigation
While lockdowns, curfews and the isolation of entire communities and regions seem to be the norm, the effectiveness of this approach and its enormous negative consequences on the economy, society and mental health are coming into question. The success of the mainstream approach depends on a host of local socio-economic factors such as the age of the population, health infrastructure, leadership, mobilization of people as well as just, uniform and compassionate enforcement of preventative measures.
Double standards in enforcing Covid health protocols can contribute to resentment and weaken overall conformity jeopardizing the health and safety of entire populations. Apparently, under strict Covid guidelines in Australia, some individuals have been prevented from visiting with dying family members while at the same time, VIPS and celebrities have been exempt from strict quarantine measures. Likewise, in Sri Lanka, high powered delegations from China and the United States (led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo) arrived in the midst of the worsening second wave in October 2020, seemingly foregoing national Covid guidelines.
Many countries in the global south such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Senegal and Rwanda have contained the pandemic more successfully than the United States and the rich European countries. As of November 1, Rwanda and Senegal, reported 0.28 and 2.04 Covid deaths per 100,000 people respectively, whereas the corresponding number for the US is a staggering 70.4.
The vast majority of those infected recover easily and only the elderly and those with other pre-existing illnesses are the most vulnerable. Thus far, on November 6th, of the total confirmed 49,195,581 cases, 32,368,883 have recovered. Given this reality, many epidemiologists are suggesting ‘focused protection’ of the most vulnerable groups, allowing the rest of the population to develop ‘herd immunity;’ the point at which the majority of a population becomes immune and limits the spread to those that are not immune.
Sweden is the leading example of a country that went against the global norm of mandatory lockdowns, physical distancing and use of face masks. It experienced much higher numbers of cases and deaths than its Scandinavian neighbours during the first wave of the pandemic. However, Sweden has had relatively fewer deaths during the current second wave while other Scandinavian and European countries which imposed strict lockdowns early are facing massive spikes in infections and deaths. Given the relative failures of the mainstream lockdown approach and its negative socio-economic and psychological impacts, alternative long-term approaches like that of Sweden warrant consideration.
A May 2020 report from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in the US suggested that the COVID-19 outbreak would not end until 60% to 70% of the human population became immune to the virus, which could take anywhere from 18 to 24 months. Meanwhile, many virologists and global leaders argue that the only way to eradicate the virus would be with a vaccine ‘delivered to every human being’ as quickly as possible. Pharmaceutical companies are now racing to provide a vaccine, the magic bullet to end the pandemic, and a highly profitable one at that. However, there is no certainty that a vaccine against COVID-19 would act as effectively as previous vaccines against diseases such as smallpox.
What would happen to those who refuse to get vaccinated for COVID-19, or other mandatory, possibly gene-altering, vaccines in the future? Will they be denied access to essential services and cast off from society? Do the kind of research and practices introduced in the name of disease prevention pose greater threats than they provide protection of human and planetary life? And how do the unprecedented shifts in human behaviour seen this year with increasing reliance on artificial intelligence undermine age-old patterns of human connectedness to nature and to each other?
Notwithstanding political and cultural differences, the rising economic power of China is pursuing the same growth driven developmental model as the declining Euro-American alliance. The pandemic has brought to light the dangers inherent in this technology- and market-driven system. While conventions against biological weapons and bans of Gain-of-Function Research and the like are necessary, the multifaceted Covid crisis calls for a fundamental change of the global military-industrial system.
It is said that a crisis is a turning point, an opportunity to change. To understand where and how to turn, it is necessary for more and more people to question the values of the dominant globalization paradigm, including the management of the Covid crisis.
How has prioritising unbridled economic growth over environmental sustainability and human wellbeing contributed to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic? How have deforestation, climate change and human expansion into the habitats of other animals contributed to easier transmission of viruses between species? How has the pollution of the earth’s water, air and soil by industrialised agriculture and militarism, led to the depletion of human immunity and increase susceptibility to new viruses and diseases? How has the reliance on the globalized import and export economy resulted in massive losses of employment and shortages of essential food and medicine during the Covid crisis?
It is time to fashion a more balanced, ecological way of living that respects the environment, upholds bioregionalism and local communities. More and more people are questioning the prevailing notions of success and development and shifting to agroecology, community-based and healthier ways of living. These developments need to be complemented with demands for greater transparency, ethics and accountability in the use of technology, especially biotechnology and vaccines against COVID-19 and other viruses.
The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic is making people more sensitive to the fragility and insecurity of life and our physical and emotional interconnectedness to each other and the rest of nature. The crisis can teach us to overcome fear, excessive greed and individualism and develop compassion for the suffering of humanity and other species of life. It offers an opportunity to overcome despair and powerlessness and to collectively challenge oppressive political and economic structures and turn the world in a more equitable, ecological and healthier direction.
Why record export earnings may not be good news
By Gomi Senadhira
The press release by the Central Bank on the external sector performance ,in June 2022, perhaps was the first piece of good news we had received for a long time. According to the press release, “Earnings from merchandise exports, in June 2022, increased by 23.9 percent over the corresponding month, in 2021, recording US dollars 1,248 million, which is the highest ever monthly export earnings recorded. An increase in earnings of both industrial and agricultural exports contributed to this favourable outcome, …. Cumulative export earnings, from January to June 2022, also increased by 14.3 percent, over the same period in the last year, amounting to US dollars 6,514 million.” So, most of us would think we have enough dollars to cover our essential imports. But, apparently, that is not the case.
Earlier, the Central Bank Governor, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, had said that exporters only converted about 20% of their export earnings into Sri Lankan Rupees and the rest was not brought back to Sri Lanka. That amounts to the US $800 million a month! The Governor had also said “… At least 40% of the total export earnings should be added to the formal financial system of the country. So exporters have a responsibility, at a very difficult time like this, to bring back their foreign exchange, through the banking system, and if that happens, then we can resolve the fuel crisis comfortably.”
(Diesel shipment that arrived in Colombo, on 16 July, still not paid for want of dollars – The Island July 30th) It appears as if the Governor is pleading with the exporters to bring back at least 40% of their export earnings. More notably, from Dr Weerasinghe’s statement, it is clear that the exporter had only converted 20% of their export earnings to rupees during the last five months. Did they convert their export earnings to rupees during the last year, or in the previous years? For how long has this been going on? When the Central Bank says “… exporters have a responsibility, at a very difficult time like this, to bring back their foreign exchange, through the banking system,” does that mean the foreign exchange earned, with the exports, is brought through the hawala network, or other similar arrangements?
Exporters deserve credit for the great service they provide and should be rewarded, appropriately. But not disproportionately. The export earnings are not earned by the exporters alone. These earnings are earned by all those who contribute to manufacturing the export products. All of them should be getting their fair share of the export proceeds. If not, there is something terribly wrong with the system. Is this normal in international trade?
During the last few years, some of the studies by Indian scholars, including Utsa Patnaik and Shashi Tharoor, have placed in the public domain some of the less known facts on the effects of the British colonial rule on India. They explain how the British seized India, “… one of the richest countries in the world – accounting for 27% of global GDP in 1700 – and, over 200 years of colonial rule, reduced it to one of the world’s poorest,” and how during the period British Raj siphoned out $45 trillion from India.
How was this done? Patnaik explains, “In the colonial era, most of India’s sizeable foreign exchange earnings went straight to London—severely hampering the country’s ability to import machinery and technology in order to embark on a modernisation path, similar to what Japan did in the 1870s. …, a third of India’s budgetary revenues was … set aside as ‘expenditure abroad’. The secretary of state (SoS) for India, based in London, invited foreign importers to deposit with him the payment (in gold and sterling) for their net imports from India, which disappeared into the SoS’s account in the Bank of England. Against these Indian earnings he issued bills… to an equivalent rupee value—which was paid out of the budget, from the part called ‘expenditure abroad’.” Patnaik underlines that this was “something you’d never find in any independent country,”
But it appears something very similar is happening in Sri Lanka, many years after the independence! If the exporters do not “bring back their foreign exchange ,through the banking system,” or only bring back 20% of it, then how do they pay for goods and services obtained locally? The local value addition for most of our exports is 70% to 80% or higher! The only major exception is cut and polished diamonds. Tea exporters buy tea with rupees. Some of the imported inputs, like fertiliser, or diesel, are sourced locally! The garment industry had moved up the value chain during the last 40 years and provide many value-added services, like designing, locally.
How do the exporters pay for all these goods and services, if they keep more than 60% of their export earnings outside the country? Do they get it through “hawala” or similar arrangements? During the British Raj, payments to local producers were done with the taxes collected by the Raj. In present-day Sri Lanka, how does one manage to raise a large amount of cash to operate such a system?
If a sizeable chunk of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange earnings goes straight to banks in London, New York, Zurich, or elsewhere, severely hampering the country’s ability to import essential items, doesn’t that mean, Sri Lanka’s wealth is getting siphoned out through our exports? And there is not much of a difference between what happened during the colonial period and the post independent Sri Lanka!
So, June’s record export earnings also mean nearly US$ billion was siphoned off during the month! A new record for the month of June! And that means Patnaik was wrong when she said this was not “something you’d never find in any independent country”
That is not good news.
(The writer is a specialist on trade and development issues and can be contacted at email@example.com)
Improving trend needs to be sustained on multiple fronts
by Jehan Perera
The government appears to have secured political stability in the short term. So far President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s efforts to restore stability appear to be working. Political stability is necessary for decisions to be made and kept. It is a necessary element for international support to come in. One of the IMF’s conditions to provide the country with the multi-billion-dollar loan it seeks is political stability that would ensure that commitments that are made will be kept. The protest movement has not mobilised public demonstrations on the very large scale of the past after the appearance of Ranil Wickremesinghe in leadership positions, initially as prime minister and subsequently as president. This would be seen as an achievement by the government. The present governmental line that protests should be within the law is difficult, and also frightening, to challenge when a state of emergency is in force.
The government has shown its ability to wield the emergency law with deterrent effect. Under the state of emergency that President Wickremesinghe declared on July 18, the period that a person may be detained before being brought before a magistrate has been increased from 24 to 72 hours. The authorities have been granted additional powers of search and arrest, and the military has been empowered to detain people for up to a day without disclosing their detention. The state of emergency also gives the president and the police broad powers to ban public gatherings, allows the police or military to order anyone to leave any public place or face arrest, and makes it an offense to cause “disaffection” or to spread “rumours.” However, in a sign that Sri Lanka’s system of checks and balances is still working, the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Court has rejected a request by the police to ban a public protest planned by political parties and multiple organisations on September 9.
Human Rights watch has pointed out that “these provisions are vague, overly broad, and disproportionate in violation of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, and movement.” The midnight strike on the protestors who had camped for over three months at the main protest site at Galle Face would make any reasonable person think twice before getting into physical confrontation with the government. The social media coverage of events that night showed men in black uniform and wearing masks, attacking the unarmed protestors. As these men did not wear identification badges, there is a question whether they were part of the official security forces or drawn from other groups that work with them. This response brought discredit to the perpetrators and disturbed both Sri Lankan people and the international community that have the welfare of Sri Lanka at heart.
The government has also used the full power of the draconian law to ensure that the leadership of the protest movement is neutralised. Several of them have been arrested, some of them given bail, others remanded, which would send a chilling message to the others. The government has also shown its willingness to offer high positions to those who are prepared to join it. This has led to a situation where two trade union leaders active in the protest movement have been treated very differently. One has been offered a high post while the other has been put into prison, although he has now been given bail. In a signal that he is sensitive to public pressure and human rights concerns, President Wickremesinghe had spoken to leader of the Ceylon Teachers Union, Joseph Stalin, after he was remanded and reportedly said he admires the members of the protest movement who talk of a system change.
Apart from the appearance of political stability there is also the appearance of economic stabilisation. The shortages of cooking gas, petrol and diesel, and the 13-hour power cuts were among the main catalysts of the protest movement. It was during the period of long power cuts, when staying at home became unbearable, that neigbourhood groups began to converge in urban centres to hold candlelight protests. However, at this time the supply of gas, petrol and diesel has improved significantly and the kilomere-long lines in front of fuel stations are much less common. Credit has gone to the QR code system put in place that gives to each vehicle a weekly quota.
The challenge for the government is to ensure that the economic situation continues to be stable without experiencing the acute shortages of key items that causes distress to the general population. The QR code system can only work if there is petrol and diesel to be distributed. The current imports of cooking gas, petrol and diesel appear to have been made possible by a World Bank loan which was re-purposed to the purchase of essential items. However, these funds will dry up soon. The question is what will happen after that. There is apprehension that the country will fall once again into a situation of severe shortage. The government needs to take the people into its confidence regarding the future. The government also needs to be trusted if it is to be believed.
The World Bank has given an indication that they are still to be convinced regarding the provision of further assistance to Sri Lanka. Earlier this month, the World Bank issued a statement “expressing deep concern about the dire economic situation and its impact on the people of Sri Lanka yesterday said it does not plan to offer new financing to Sri Lanka until an adequate macroeconomic policy framework is in place. Issuing a statement, the World Bank Group said it is repurposing resources under existing loans in its portfolio to help alleviate severe shortages of essential items such as medicines, cooking gas, fertiliser, meals for school children and cash transfers for poor and vulnerable households. To date, the World Bank has disbursed about US$160 million of these funds to meet urgent needs.” This is extremely concerning as the World Bank is closely connected to the IMF on which Sri Lanka is pinning its hopes for a big loan.
The issue of political stability is highlighted by the government as being necessary to obtain international assistance and also as a justification for quelling the protest movement through emergency laws. There is explicit blame being apportioned to the protest movement for creating instability in the polity that is deterring the influx of foreign assistance and investments. However, the fuller picture needs to be seen. The IMF as much as the World Bank, and indeed other potential sources of donor support, want their resources to be used for the intended purpose and not be squandered or siphoned away corrupt practices and in sustaining loss-making state institutions.
The hoped-for IMF-supported programme to provide assistance to Sri Lanka is being developed to restore macroeconomic stability and debt sustainability, while protecting the poor and vulnerable, safeguarding financial stability, and stepping up structural reforms to address corruption vulnerabilities and unlock the country’s growth potential. IMF mission team to Sri Lanka last month specifically mentioned the need to reduce corruption stating that “Other challenges that need addressing include containing rising levels of inflation, addressing the severe balance of payments pressures, reducing corruption vulnerabilities and embarking on growth-enhancing reforms.”
Both the international funding agencies and the protest movement are on the same page when it comes to opposing corrupt practices. The main slogans of the protest movement during their heyday was the ouster of the then president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers, and indeed the entire parliament, on account of the corruption that they believed was responsible for having denuded the country of its foreign exchange reserves. This was not simply the replacement of one set of corrupt leaders by another. There are disturbing signs that some of those accused of corruption are once again on the ascendant.
The underlying demand of the protest movement was and continues to be the very “systems change” that the president has said he admires in his reported discussion with remanded trade union leader Joseph Stalin. Civil disobedience to obtain a government that is transparent and law abiding, that does not steal the wealth of the country, is a noble goal, no less sacred than the civil disobedience struggles engaged in by Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in the United States. The ingredients for a rebound of the protest movement continue to be in place and hopefully the evidence of a systems change will become more convincing.
Brenda Mendis… ‘Gindara Kellek’
I first got to know Brenda Mendis when she was very much a part of the group Aquarius, before joining Mirage..
With Aquarius, her dynamism bloomed, on stage, when she partnered two other female vocalists – from the Philippines.
And…yes, they certainly did rock the scene; the three girls were the talk-of the-town and they were featured at some of the best venues in the city.
She was also, at one time, associated with the band 2Forty2.
Brenda now operates with an outfit called C Plus Band, and with whatever free time, that comes her way, the talented artiste is now working on originals.
The latest is the song ‘Gindara Kellek’ and this is what Brenda has to say:
“I have known this guy Chathurangana de Silva for a very time and he has been involved in composing certain songs for the C Plus Band.
“We then got down to discussing about putting together a song which could be classified as a fast genre in music, and Chathurangana, along with Sampath Fernandopulle, came up with the suggestion for the lyrics, and they did so, based upon a proper observation of my lifestyle and the personality portrayal of myself, and that’s how “Gindara Kellek’ came into the scene.”
Brenda went on to say that the composing was done during a tight schedule.
“As I am the female vocalist, on a full time basis, with the C Plus Band, it took us more time than what is usual spent at a recording session, because of our public performances.”
‘Gindara Kellek’ is not Brenda’s maiden effort. She has been involved in quite a few other originals, including ‘Tharu Peedena Seethale,’ ‘Obai Mage Thaththe,’ ‘Mage Raththaran,’ ‘Kaprinna (Chooty),’ ‘You Never Know,’ ‘Mea Nilwan Nimnaye, and ‘Sitha Igilee Gihin.’ And, they are all uniquely different to each other, she says.
With the country going through a tough period, Brenda, spends her free time working out and reading.
“I would take this opportunity, through your very popular music page, to thank all those who helped me throughout my journey in this wonderful field of music.
“I shall continue to keep music lovers happy, with my music, and I would also thank my followers for supporting me and for being with me throughout my career in showbiz.”
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