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The elephant in the room

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Should we open or close the country/economy with regard to Covid-19?

by Dr. Sumedha S. Amarasekera

Virtually all the articles, news bulletins, discussions that I have read and watched with regard to Covid -19 do not seem to address the obvious obstacle in our management pathway of Covid 19. The elephant in the room to me is the absolute contradiction in terms of what one must do to safeguard oneself and the country and what one must do in order to ‘boost the economy’ of the country.

To safeguard oneself one needs to practise social isolation as much as possible. Be confined to one’s house. Only venture out to obtain what is urgent/important and essential for one’s ‘survival’. That is what we are advised to do over the news and informational service TV/radio. The required list gets distilled down to essential food (and water) and medicine. No unnecessary trips. No more ‘shopping. No eating out. No holiday travel. No entertainment, etc.– which is a death knell to the economy. So, the question that needs be to first answered is, can we reconcile this contradiction? If so, how do we reconcile it?

In my opinion these two issues of safety and economy can only be reconciled at a practical level if we remain isolated. This concept of isolation works equally well whether one considers it in terms of geography or economy. For apart from internet/digital content all other goods and services need to be delivered physically at the end of the day to the consumer.

In the absence of a proven /effective vaccination, the only method of ensuring that there is no spread of the virus- absolute safety- is a ‘lockdown’. Strict quarantine to be implemented on anyone who enters the country/zone. After a period of time, there would be no virus in the community. We (Sri Lanka) achieved this status somewhere around June /July of this year. Please note I am referring to the absence of any new cases i.e. patients showing symptoms of Covid-19 and testing positive for Covid-19, presenting from the community for over a two-month period. If Covid-19 had spread among the community a positive case should have appeared from the community during that time. The fact that there were positive cases in quarantine does not count, as they are in quarantine because of this very fact. The moment we ‘opened our borders’ and the virus could come from overseas, we lost our protection. Thereafter after it was only a matter of time before the Covid-19 started to spread and began to appear from the community as we have witnessed at this point in time.

Once the country/zone is free of Covid-19 following a lockdown /quarantine, it can get back to normal without the need for any precautions as the infective agent i.e. Covid-19 is no longer present though the vector i.e. Human being, is present. Much like the situation we have achieved with regard to Malaria. The mosquito is here but not the disease. The economy will get boosted within this context at a domestic level. Selling and buying of locally manufactured stuff, home garden cultivation, local tourism, etc.

However if this status is to be maintained and one wants to open the country to international trade (put aside tourism) every single person who comes from abroad and more importantly every single person who gets in contact with any such person needs to be quarantined before allowing to mix with the rest of the community. Which means, every single staff member working at the airport, harbour, etc., needs to be quarantined. The logistics of doing this over a period of time while maintaining a strict barrier between these groups and the rest of the country would be an extremely complex procedure. This scenario also assumes that all the products that are coming from overseas are virus free or they in turn have to be stored in isolation till they become virus free. Which is why I said I do not feel that at a practical level one can open the country and remain ‘safe’.

The reality is that probably we will need to remain open in some manner as we are not self-sufficient and also according to the prevailing economic advice ‘we need to remain open’. The point I want to make is that if the country were to remain open in any sort of manner, Covid-19 will spread and there will be deaths due to it. This phenomenon has been witnessed all over the world. You can control Covid-19 with quarantine and ‘lockdowns’, but once these are lifted and you allow a new source of the virus to enter; it will spread again. This cannot be avoided. Provided that all else is equal the degree of a country’s openness will determine the speed at which the disease spreads. ‘Another wave’ will appear as we saw here and now what is happening in Europe. It has to be understood that masks, social distancing, washing hands, etc., will only slow down the spread of the virus – the so-called flattening of the curve – but it will spread. Once it starts spreading people will get sick and a percentage of them will succumb to this disease. This is the reality.

To put it differently, within the current context it would be impossible to boost the economy without concomitantly increasing the spread of Covid-19. For example, open the country to tourism. The more tourists that come, the more places they visit, the more they shop, the more they interact with us, the better it is for the economy. The spread of Covid-19 will also match the pace of this boost in economy secondary to the influx of tourists.

This reality i.e. the fact that keeping the country open and boosting the economy while being ‘safe’ is irreconcilable, needs to be told to the people. The public need to be made to understand that there is no getting around this. It is imperative that all ‘stake holders’-for lack of a better word-are on the same page on this. The government should come out and explain this, laying down the ‘ground rules’ so to speak. The spokesmen for the different aspects of the health sectors need to stress this point; not just raise grave concerns that the disease could be spreading. The Opposition has a vital role in this. Firstly, they need to acknowledge the reality of this situation and ‘endorse’ the government. Then they need to provide constructive criticism. They also need to act as a responsible opposition; refrain from painting this picture that if they were in power there would be no problems related to Covid-19, everything would be under control and the economy would be doing back flips.

We all need to unite to find the best strategy to ‘boost our economy’ while keeping the fallout at a minimum.

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Features

Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation

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By Jehan Perera

Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.

Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.

Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”

Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.

 

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE

 

The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”

It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.

International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.

 

 

SEQUENTIAL IMPLEMENATION

 

In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”

As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.

The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.

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Features

Album to celebrate 30 years

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Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.

However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.

All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.

Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.

Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.

Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.

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Features

LET’S DO IT … in the new normal

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The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)

Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.

But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.

Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.

Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.

However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.

And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.

Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.

“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”

The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.

“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”

Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.

In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.

Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.

Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!

Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.

 

 

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