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The Crash of Bristol Britannia HB-ITB

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BY Capt. G A Fernando MBA
RCyAF, Air Ceylon, Air Lanka, Singapore Airlines and Sri Lankan Airlines
gafplane@sltnet.lk
Life Member Air Line Pilots’ Guild
Former CRM Facilitator, SIA

This has reference to the interesting article by Capt Elmo Jayawardene in The Island on Tuesday 10th November 2020, regarding the Bristol Britannia aircraft crash in Nicosia, Cyprus on 20th April 1967. May I also add a few observations? It was certainly a mystery as to why Capt. St Elmo Muller didn’t divert his Globe Air flight to Beirut, Lebanon which was forecasting good weather. The law says “The pilot-in-command of an aircraft shall have final authority as to the disposition of the aircraft while in command.”

Being an airline Captain (from a different era), putting myself in Capt Muller’s shoes, I think I can shed some light to what may have happened. It was the run up to the ‘Six Day war’ in the Middle East that happened in June 1967. Syria was ‘sabre rattling’ and vociferous accusing other Arab nations like Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon of being ‘cowards’ and not taking on Israel who had got too big for its boots. My ‘research’ shows that on 7th April 1967, Israel’s Mirage aircraft flew into Syrian airspace and shot down seven Syrian MIG 21 aircraft that were ‘scrambled’, overhead Damascus. (The year before, the Israelis had bribed an Iraqi Air Force Pilot with one million US Dollars to defect to Israel with a MIG 21 the mainstay of the Arab Air power, so that they could study its capabilities and weaknesses!). These developments would have been of interest and known by Capt Muller as he had been working with EL AL the national airline of Israel.

Capt Muller was the son of a doctor from Matara, Ceylon. After being demobilised from the Royal Air Force, after WWII, decided to stay back in England and was hired by the Bristol Aircraft Company as a test pilot. When EL AL (meaning ‘To the sky’ or ‘Skywards’) bought Bristol Britannia aircraft which was also known as the ‘Whispering Giant’, for their growing fleet it was natural to have Capt Muller go to Tel Aviv as Chief Pilot as he would have known that aircraft type inside out. The ten years from 1957 to 1967, it is said that it was relatively peaceful in that part of the world. El AL operated Britannia’s from New York and London to Tel Aviv. These aircraft were used for both overt and covert operations (Like the transport of Adolf Eichmann in 1960, from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Tel Aviv)

Meanwhile in Switzerland, after Charter Company, Balair came under the management of Swissair, in 1957, the void created was filled by many other foreign operators, were using the city of Basel as a charter ‘gateway’ (Perhaps the word ‘Hub’ was yet to come!) Therefore there was a need for a second Swiss Charter Company to operate out of Basle and that was how Globe Air was established in 1957. By the sixties it was very successful and operated to 20 European destinations by using short haul Ambassador and Handley Page Herald aircraft. By the mid-sixties they had their eyes on long haul charters and therefore acquired two Britannia aircraft from EL AL in April 1964 (HB-ITB) and March 1965 (HB-ITC) as an interim measure till they acquired De Havilland Comet 4 jet aircraft. Thus facilitating long haul flights to commence to destinations like Colombo, Lourenço Marques (now Maputo in Mozambique), San Juan (in Puerto Rico), Montego Bay and beyond.

Some RCyAF Air Traffic Control Officers at Colombo Airport Katunayake like Wing Commander Wimal Fernando remember Capt Muller heading off to Matara to visit his father, on occasions when there were long layovers on his roster patterns.

Coming back to this particular flight of Britannia HB-ITB, with all the ‘hype’ created in the Arab countries like Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon after the Israeli attack on Syria, these airports were not the ideal airports to divert to as there would have been disruptions and delays caused by hostile elements. The Globe Air Flight was a multi-stop flight and couldn’t afford to have delays. The best option would have been to have avoided all the potentially violent Arab airports and divert to Nicosia, Cyprus which gained independence from the UK as recent as in 1960. Capt Muller had a lot on his plate and would have been under tremendous stress. They were tired, his crew was inexperienced, working on the wrong side of the biological clock, it was a dark night with intermittent rain over unfamiliar terrain, a non-precision approach with a low level bad weather circuit, low on fuel and he had to continuously evaluate the risks for the flight. Today’s experts in human factors say that the Captain (Commander) of a flight should know himself, know his crew, know his mission, know his aircraft and above all things evaluate the risks.

The flight was a victim of what is known today as Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT) where a perfectly serviceable aircraft flies into high terrain. This type of accident is considered by Air Safety Experts as the greatest killer in modern times. By installing a mandatory device known as a Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS) and practicing regularly the response to the warnings in simulators, a large percentage of such accidents are now avoided. There is now even an ‘Enhanced’ GPWS which provide the pilots with a colour coded Global Positioning System (GPS) map display of the surrounding high ground available to the pilots, to make an informed decision to avoid terrain.

After this accident, the international press gave wide publicity to the fact that at the time of the crash, the crew had exceeded legal flight duty time limitations and that the First Officer didn’t have many hours on Britannia aircraft. As a result the Insurance Company refused to pay. Globe Air had to foot the bill for the insurance commitment, as a result they went financially ‘belly up’. Eventually, at the end of 1967, the Swiss regulator withdrew the Globe Air, Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC) and were forced to cease operations.

In the seventies yours truly was in the Committee of the Air Ceylon Pilots’ Guild and during negotiations with the members of the Board of Directors in Air Ceylon and Air Lanka, who looked only at the ‘bottom line’ and were there as beneficiaries of political ‘pay –offs’, who didn’t have a clue on how Airline Administrations should operate, ‘The story’ of Globe Air, the airline which held much promise and the repercussions of their Managements’ irresponsible behaviour,(pinching pennies and pushing pilots) were narrated frequently to highlight the serious ramifications. Some of them then listened.

Years later the same accident was discussed in detail in Singapore Airline Crew Resource Management (CRM) sessions for pilots. The attendees were pilots from over sixty different countries, employed by SIA. It was a ‘text book case’ full of if’s and but’s, but many participants didn’t know the Sri Lankan connection. The purpose was to analyse the cause behind the cause.

The Airline pilots say that for improvements in air safety to take place, ‘blood must be spilt.’ The need to develop an approaching terrain warning device was highlighted by this accident, making flying safer for future generations.

Therefore, considering all factors, I believe that Capt Muller, his Crew and 126 passengers did not die in vain, as improvements to Air Safety were made as a result.

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Trump checks-out of his job

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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.

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More on the Burghers

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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.

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Covid-19: The Epidemic and the Economy

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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.

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