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Tomorrow’s International Order will be decided in Sri Lanka’s immediate neighborhood: German Ambassador

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Affirms Brexit won’t change an iota of EU’s firm commitment to Sri Lanka

‘It may not be easy to attract German investors. However, it’s certainly worth the effort because once committed to a country, they stay. Besides, German investors not only bring capital, they also share know-how which adds sustainability to the partner country’s development’

BY SANATH NANAYAKKARE

At a time both India and Japan – members of the informal Quad grouping – which includes the U.S. and Australia is seen as a counter to Beijing’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region, the German Government decided on new ‘Policy Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific’, in September 2020, The Island recently interviewed senior diplomat Holger Seubert, the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to Sri Lanka; he threw more light on why Germany made this key decision as well as the long-standing relations between Sri Lanka and Germany. Excerpts of the interview:

 

How do you view the trade between Sri Lanka and Germany?

The balance of trade between our two countries has always favored Sri Lanka – in other words – there’s a significant export surplus for Sri Lanka. In recent months, Germany’s exports to Sri Lanka plummeted by an excruciating 50% year-on-year. Given the fact that overall German exports to the Asia Pacific region declined by only 11% in the same period of time, this is alarmingly above-average. It is obvious that Sri Lanka’s import restrictions played an important role here. On the other hand, Sri Lankan exports to Germany fell by only 10% which can be explained by the pandemic. The bilateral trade balance has thus further deteriorated from Germany’s point of view. Germany currently imports goods and services of more than double the value from Sri Lanka than it exports to it. Bilateral trade between our two countries is becoming more and more of a one-sided affair which of course is of concern to the disadvantaged German side.

 

How do you asses German assistance to Sri Lanka all these years?

Technical and financial cooperation between Germany and Sri Lanka has a long history, going back to the year of 1956. Currently there are bilateral programs in the fields of vocational training, promotion of small and medium enterprises (SME), biodiversity, renewable energies and national reconciliation.

Support in the vocational training sector has for long been the flagship of our bilateral cooperation. The Ceylon-German Technical Training Institute in Moratuwa, which was established in 1959, is a well-known example for successful cooperation in this area. Based on the experiences of vocational education in Germany, we support vocational schools in implementing demand-driven training programs in close cooperation with the private sector. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the project is working with private sector partners to develop an innovative e-learning platform that will improve accessibility to ICT-related training courses. By 2024, a total of 45 million Euros will have been invested by the German Government in this sector, including major projects like the Sri Lankan German Training Institute in Kilinochchi and the planned establishment of the Sri Lankan German Training Institute in Matara.

Regarding the development of the SME sector, we put strong emphasis on improving business development services for SMEs through digitalization. In the period 2020-2022, a total of 3.5 million Euros will be allocated to this program, plus an additional 1.7 million Euros for immediate COVID-19 response. Our joint efforts include facilitation of export processes and micro insurances for SMEs as well as the establishment of crisis resistant business plans leading to better market access for SMEs in the agricultural and tourism sectors.

We also cooperate with our Sri Lankan partners in promoting renewable energies and in increasing energy efficiency. The “Green Energy Champion” campaign has just concluded its third competition round. It is showcasing innovative ideas (government, private sector and civil society) and enabling the winners to realize their vision. Up to now, a total of 600,000 Euros has been invested and we are looking forward to continuing the initiative in close cooperation with the Sri Lankan government.

 

How have relations between the European Union (EU) and Sri Lanka evolved economically?

With 27 Member States and 450 million customers with high income, the EU is the largest market in the world. Over the last 25 years, the EU has become Sri Lanka’s second largest export market (behind the US). Trade with the EU significantly benefits Sri Lanka that has a trade surplus with the EU of over 1 billion Euros. Sri Lanka’s top export goods to the EU are, in this order, garments, rubber, vegetables, machinery, tea and fish.

Since the opening of the EU Delegation in the country in 1995, the EU taxpayers have provided roughly one billion Euros in development assistance, the environment, human rights and academic exchanges being main contents. Furthermore, the EU is assisting low-income communities in Sri Lanka, for instance by making sure that farmers get adequate prices for their products in the EU.

Through its preferential tariff system GSP+ (Generalized System of Preferences), the EU has granted duty free access to about 7,000 Sri Lankan products. In my view, GSP+ has worked very well for Sri Lanka although its full potential has not been used yet. Exports to the EU have increased by more than 25% under GSP+. Fish exports have even doubled; other notable growth sectors include clothing, tea, tyres, gems and motor vehicle parts. It is a fact that Sri Lanka, being a “lower middle-income country”, benefits significantly from the EU’s GSP+ scheme.

 

How do you view German Investment, doing business, regulatory framework?

German investors have a strong reputation of being faithful, albeit demanding partners. Faithful because a German investor’s decision is always based on long-term considerations, i.e. on plans to uphold and extend investment for a long period of time; rarely will you see a German investor to withdraw, once engaged in the country he is most likely to stay there for decades. On the other side, German investors tend to be quite demanding, before going ahead with an investment they undertake a thorough check of the business environment in the future partner country. They are doing so to make sure that their investment will not just be temporary but sustainable. To recap, it may not be easy to attract German investors. However, it’s certainly worth the effort because once committed they stay. Further to this, German investors not only bring capital, they also share know-how which adds sustainability to the partner country’s development.

Sri Lanka has a number of strengths making the country an attractive destination for German investment. The Island’s geographical position is perfect for doing business in the Asia Pacific region. Sri Lanka has the chance to further develop its position as a regional trading hub and major trans-shipment centre. Furthermore, education in Sri Lanka is generally good, the quality of locally produced goods is high, environmental standards are in place and observed.

However, not everything is perfect, of course. A look into the World Bank’s latest Doing Business Report shows Sri Lanka ranking number 99 (out of 190) with a pronounced weakness in the field of “enforcing contracts”. When I talk to German entrepreneurs, they tell me that reliability has to be considered key to any investment. Hence, if the World Bank’s assessment is accurate, Sri Lanka might wish to work on this weakness as it might then be able to attract more foreign investment.

From a German investor’s perspective, there is room for improvement in other areas as well. Over-protecting local industries does not add to an investment destination’s attractiveness. Closing borders to imports cannot be considered conducive to this objective, either. What German investors expect is the establishment and protection of a level playing field for foreigners (i.e. no discrimination against local companies), a consistent tax policy and reliable application of international rules and regulations.

To give you an example for the latter: German investors are currently concerned about the application of rules known as UCP 600. This Uniform Customs & Practice for Documentary Credits (UCP 600) is a set of rules that apply to finance institutions which issue letters of credit, i.e. financial instruments helping companies to finance trade. These rules and regulations aim at standardizing international trade, thus reducing risks of trading goods and services. German investors would like to see UCP 600 strictly applied in Sri Lanka.

 

How does Germany view Sri Lanka’s relationship with China as an Indian Ocean nation?

As a diplomat, I cannot comment on other countries’ relations.

However, I am in a position to inform you about Germany’s relations to the Indo-Pacific Region. In this regard, there is news to tell: Just recently (September 2020), the German Government decided on new German “Policy Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific“. The motivation for these guidelines lies in two indisputable facts: Asia’s growing importance – economically as well as politically – and an increasing strategic rivalry between the US and China. Germany is convinced that the shape of tomorrow’s international order will be decided in the Indo-Pacific, thus in Sri Lanka’s immediate neighborhood.

As an internationally active trading nation, Germany cannot content itself with remaining on the sidelines of these dynamic developments. Consequently, in its Policy Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific, Germany defines its main interests in the region as follows:

* Open shipping routes: A disruption to the maritime routes would have serious consequences for the prosperity for all countries in the world.

* Open markets and free trade: Germany firmly believes that rules-based free trade enhances freedom and prosperity on all sides.

* Protecting our planet: In the interest of future generations, the aim must be to ensure that growth in the Indo-Pacific region is environmentally friendly. Germany is ready to engage with partners to manage natural resources, to preserve biodiversity and to use energy efficiently.

* No hegemony: Germany firmly believes that no country should – as in the time of the Cold War – be forced to choose between sides. Every country should be free to choose membership in economic and security structures.

In its policy guidelines, the German Government underlines its commitment to intensify dialogue with BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). By doing so, Germany will build on already existing projects such as the one on maritime governance with Sri Lanka. This project, implemented by the renowned German Max Planck Foundation, provides expert advice to Sri Lanka with regard to the implementation of UNCLOS (United Nationals Convention on the Law of the Sea) which Sri Lanka joined in 1994.

 

How will a potential Brexit deal affect Sri Lanka?

I am not in a position to comment on how relations between the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka may be influenced by Brexit. However, there is one thing I am absolutely sure about: Brexit will not change an iota of EU’s firm commitment to Sri Lanka. The EU will definitely continue to be a close partner and a friend – as will Germany as one of the EU’s major players. This is what I will be primarily working on during my tenure as German Ambassador to Sri Lanka.

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A year into Rajapaksa presidency amidst Covid-19 pandemic

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by Harim Peiris

The Rajapaksa administration completed its first year in office, a few days ago, with Sri Lanka being in the midst of a raging Covid-19 second wave, which has seen confirmed cases of the virus in the country, pass the 20,000 mark, with the highly populated and economically crucial Western Province, being the new epicentre.

Twelve months, since the historic and momentous victory of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its presidential candidate, have passed quickly. With a year that was dominated by the twenty first century’s first global pandemic, to perhaps the Spanish flu about a century ago. Sri Lanka dealt with the first wave earlier this year, relatively successfully with few infections and single digit Covid-19 related deaths. The newly installed SLPP / Rajapaksa Administration claimed credit for an efficient epidemic management and possibly reaped some political benefit from the same, winning an unexpected and massive two-thirds majority in the general elections to parliament in August this year. Surpassing the seat tally received by a prior Rajapaksa Administration, under the UPFA banner, in the post war euphoria, elections of 2010. Quite a credit then to the current Rajapaksa administration, for surpassing itself.

However, the political year 2019/20, was not without its significant events, which will shape Sri Lankan national life for the next few years. First, it is the absolute implosion of the United National Party and the emergence of young Sajith Premadasa as both the credible runner-up in the presidential race and the new Leader of the Opposition. Replacing long serving UNP leader and former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose refusal to concede defeat in his internal political battle with his erstwhile deputy, has resulted in the weakest political opposition in a decade, seriously weakening the checks and balances so essential in a democratic society. But a political transition has taken place, in both government and Opposition from Mahinda to Gotabaya and Ranil to Sajith.

Militarization of civilian space and centralization of political power

Probably, the most defining aspect of the current Rajapaksa administration is the militarisation of civilian space in public administration and governance. While Prime Minister and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa ascended to the apex of national governance through the democratic political process, the path which brought younger sibling and current President Gotabaya Rajapakas to power, lay through a career in the military, culminating in the highest office in the Ministry of Defence. Accordingly, governance under the current Rajapaksa administration has been dominated by the military, either serving or retired. The Covid-19 public health emergency has been placed under the serving Army Commander, rather than the Health Minister or the Health Ministry. Accordingly, there has been criticism of a reduction in health expenditure, lack of any increase in hospital bed capacity and Sri Lanka’s relatively low rate of Covid-19 testing.

Most of the high official positions in the administration including foreign affairs, health, ports and customs among others are occupied by retired or serving senior military men, competent undoubtedly, but not from the civilian Sri Lanka Administrative Service. Other key government functions seem to be allocated to presidential tasks forces, headed and dominated by military and security personnel, rather than relevant line ministries. Accordingly, such objectives as the Eastern Province archeological site preservation and the creation of a disciplined and virtuous society have been entrusted to military task forces.

The centralisation of political power in the executive presidency through the recently enacted 20th Amendment to the Constitution, mostly rolls back the modest democratic gains associated with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, and once again establishes Sri Lanka’s executive president as an elected absolute ruler. The administration required the help and support of some breakaway Opposition Muslim MPs to manage and mitigate its own internal dissent on the 20th Amendment.

A Covid-19 influenced economic meltdown

A significant factor in the single term demise of the Sirisena / Wickremesinghe Administration and the return to power of the Rajapaksas was likely the dismal governance performance, the anaemic economic growth and the absence of a peace dividend during the 2015 to 2019 period. Recognising this and that generally good economics is always good politics; the Rajapaksa administration has been keen to try and up its economic management game. This attempt has been seriously stymied by the Covid-19 pandemic and the effect of the lockdowns and the airport shutdown on the tourism and general services sectors. We are headed for a recession in excess of perhaps negative five percent (-5%), though we would have to await the Central Bank reports for the exact figure. The administration doesn’t really seem to have an answer to the serious economic challenges ahead, with their first budget earlier this month, seemingly more wishful than realistic or pragmatic.

 

 

A serious foreign policy tilt to China

Also, in the area of foreign policy, Sri Lanka’s decades long and carefully crafted non-aligned and neutral foreign policy, which followed a balance between the competing interests of major powers in the region, including of India, seems to have been jettisoned in favour of a serious pivot towards China, notwithstanding government lip service to the contrary. This is unwise and weakens key relationships with our largest trading partner the United States and, of course, our historical and huge sub continental neighbour India, to the detriment of our own national interests.

The first year of the new Rajapaksa administration would draw mixed reviews, dominated as it has been by the Covid-19 pandemic and its management, but pursuing and implementing policies, which avoid serious scrutiny and debate, precisely because of the pandemic. But those policies and their effects will be keenly felt and should be more closely examined later on in the administration’s term of office.

(The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2016-2017)

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How rot set in

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Rubber:

By Dhamsiri Dasanayaka,

Ex-Advisory Officer, Rubber Research Board

Rubber could be considered bread and butter of bona fide smallholders. They have cultivated their lands with rubber plants and manufacture Ribbed Smoked Sheets (RSS) out of their harvest by using traditional knowledge. The government in order to help them initiated an extension service for cultivating rubber. This article attempts to show how this extension mechanism came about.

In 1972, the Rubber Research Institute (RRI) established two extension departments, namely Smallholdings Department (SHD) for rubber smallholders and Estate Advisory Department (EAD) for large estates. In 1974, both were amalgamated into a separate scientific extension department called Advisory Services Department (ASD). From 1953, under the Rubber Control Act, non-scientific Rubber Control Department (RCD) provided subsidies to rubber farmers. The RCD issued permits to relevant land owners for replanting and new planting. Copies of these permits were referred to the ASD of the RRI for initiating the extension activities. Rubber Instructors of the ASD carried out this extension service successfully. They guided the small holders in multiple ways, such as planting, processing, marketting, bark exploitation, and other agricultural activities. This was the rubber extension system that took place during the decade of 1970.

In 1984, Smallholder Rubber Rehabilitation Project 01 (SRRP1) was implemented with World Bank assistance. The Advisory Services Department (ASD), with its flexible financial management system, the well-set theoretical, and practical links with the RRI, functioned effectively to improve the smallholdings sector. Both RRI and ASD were under the Rubber Research Board (RRB) highlighting the “Research- Extension- Farmer” academically recognized agricultural development model, and the SRRP planners decided to entrust this project to the ASD, which consequently became a well-organised active Extension Department like the RRI structure under the (RRB). Chairman of the RRB was a rubber industry professional. RRI and ASD were headed by two PhD qualified Directors. The think tank of the ASD was a scientifically qualified active group competent enough to implement the SRRP project successfully. During this project period, the role of the RCD was to issue permits to rubber farmers.

The Rubber Control Department (RCD), which essentially consisted of administrators, appointed a field staff of rubber Inspectors to handle the extension programme on field. They were too involved in subsidy administration in the field thus duplicating field work of rubber which caused confusion among rubber smallholders according to administrators. To eliminate this farmer confusion from the field, the ASD, which constituted experienced scientific think tank was removed from the RRB in 1994 and attached to RCD think tank, which was mainly an administration body and formed Rubber Development Department (RDD), which was also an administration body. This non-scientific administration think tank (RDD) was not conducive to effective agricultural extension.

By 2002, there were too many irregular segments causing duplication and, hence, excess staff in the RDD were transferred to RRI without having a clear mandate. As a result, 35 extension officers of the RDD who came back to the RRI were entrusted to handle extension programme under the RRI Director. This again led to creation of a dual extension officer situation in the field as in 1994.

At present there are six more institutions formed by the MPI and the relevant authorities to supply services to rubber sector as mentioned below.

As a result, there are four officers from the institutions 1, 2, 3 and 5 in the field handling extension and related functions. Now, the rubber farmers are again in a dilemma, unable to figure out which officer should be contacted to get advice on multiple services such as cultivation and processing, etc. Hence, it is questionable why the MPI and relevant authorities have ignored this multiple officer situation. This is in spite of a number of institutions dealing with rubber cultivation and wasting rubber growers cess fund meaninglessly.

 

Source: Rubber Development Department

Table 1 and articles authored by Mr. J. A. A. S. Ranasingha, Dr. L. M. K Tilakaratna and Professor. C. S. Weeraratna, in The Isalnd during the last few weeks indicate that the rubber production in the country has decreased substantially. Table 2 shows the production and imports of RSS in the year 2017. This implies that RSS manufacture should be increased which has a direct link with the smallholder production of RSS. RSS is an input to rubber industry. To improve the productivity of the rubber sector, which is on its way to extinction, there is a pressing need for an effective scientific rubber extension organisation to cater to the needs of rubber farmers. This will enable agronomically qualified think tank to assist rubber farmers to carry out agronomical activities such as outdoor farmer training , indoor training at Nivthigala Kelle, adaptive research activities, planting practices, soil conservation measures, establishing cover crops, fertilizer application, exploitation methodologies, manufacture of better quality rubber sheets, nursery management, smoke houses management, fixing rain guards and marketing, etc., more effectively like in 1994 and before.

One crucial factor which can be attributed to this calamitous situation in the rubber sector was the extremely unsatisfactory situation in the scientific extension, created by the amalgamation of the ASD and the RCD in 1994, removing the extension-oriented ASD think tank from RRB and forming the RDD administration think tank for the sake of development of the rubber sector. This action led to a breakdown of the well-established “Research – Extension – Farmer” inter faced academic development model. This model is a must in agricultural development and it must never be converted to a “Research – Administration – Farmer” model even though the extension label is affixed to the administrators. As a whole it was counter-productive as evident from the decreased production of rubber and increased imports of RSS due to the extension mechanism.

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Quadriplegic doctor aspires to walk again

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Dr. Dinesh Palipana Queensland’s Australian of the Year 2021

By Sajitha Prematunge

Dr. Dinesh Palipana does not have the full command of his fingers and his usual offer of a handshake took the form of an awkwardly extended fist. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, like a good sport, fist bumped the quadriplegic doctor, gangster-like, an act of empathy Palipana appreciates to this day. Such are the trials and tribulations Sri Lankan-born Australian doctor, lawyer and disability advocate, Dinesh Palipana is faced with, on a daily basis. But such technicalities didn’t prevent him from recently being named Queensland’s Australian of the Year 2021.

The quadriplegic doctor, the first of its kind in Queensland, and the second in Australia, is currently a lecturer at the School of Medicine, Griffith University; Adjunct Research Fellow at Menzies Health Institute Queensland and Senior House Officer (Emergency Department) at Gold Coast University Hospital. “Eleven years ago I was lying on an intensive care bed, I couldn’t move my arms and legs, I couldn’t eat or breathe. My life was falling apart all around me. But to be here after all that trauma seams surreal. But I am grateful for life, for my community, friends and family that supported me,” said Dr. Palipana.

He is a founding member of Doctors with Disabilities Australia, an advocacy group for physicians with disabilities and the ambassador for Physical Disability Australia. Palipana is a member of the scientific advisory committee of Perry Cross Spinal Research Foundation. In 2019 Palipana was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his service to medicine; Junior Doctor of the Year at the Gold Coast University Hospital; Henry Viscardi Achievement Award, a global award in recognition for his work in disability advocacy; and ‘Change Making’ in National Awards for Disability Leadership. All these accolades and achievements would have been impossible without the love and support of his mother, Chithrani Palipana. “My mother taught me what love, strength, commitment and perseverance are.”

 

Tragedy

Born in 1984, Palipana and his family migrated to Australia in 1994, when he was 10. Not only physical disability, Palipana knows only too well how debilitating mental health disorders are as well. He battled with depression, anxiety and panic disorder while studying law. “It took some time. I had to readjust my life and thinking. Finding my purpose really helped.” He realized that law was not his calling. He commenced his Doctor of Medicine at the Griffith University in 2008. When he was 25 and half way through his medical degree, he lost control of his car while driving home on a wet night. The car aquaplaned and rolled. When it finally stopped, he realized that he could not move or feel his legs. Palipana was far enough in his medical education to self diagnose it as a spinal cord injury. It left him quadriplegic.

He lost all sensory and motor function below his chest due to the injury. “I can’t move my fingers,” said Palipana. He has had to make a lot of adjustments to life. “Initially, going from a normal life to being paralysed, was very challenging.” Palipana pointed out that even day-to-day activities can be difficult with impaired movement. Despite a life-changing disability, Palipana decided to go back to medical school. Against all odds he graduated in 2016, with quite a few awards, as the first quadriplegic medical graduate in the state of Queensland, the second in Australia. He also completed a medical clerkship at Harvard Medical School.

Prof Harry McConnell of Griffith University was instrumental in getting Dinesh back on his feet, no pun intended. “He is a passionate believer in inclusivity and has always fought for the rights of those with different abilities. He did a lot of work to facilitate me coming back to medical school. He also helped me a lot with getting my life back together.” Palipana was inspired by Dr Harry Eeman, Australia’s first doctor with tetraplegia, who sustained a severe form of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare neurological disorder that left him paralysed, halfway through medical school. “Dr. Eeman spent time with me to figure out solutions to some of the physical challenges. His experience really laid the foundation for my journey.”

 

Medical school

Palipana adapted new methods to train as a quadriplegic doctor, in partnership with Griffith University and the Gold Coast University Hospital. Quadriplegia can turn everyday activities into obstacles, but he learned his way around them. “Before coming back to medical school I spent a lot of time finding solutions to challenges. I had a great team helping me.” And with persistence, he learned how to hold a stethoscope making use of the natural grip of his fingers. He learned how to examine patients. “I even learned how to insert a cannula with some assistance.”

When asked how inclusive Australian professional culture is, in terms of employment opportunities for the differently-abled, as opposed to a country like Sri Lanka, Palipana admitted that it initially proved difficult to secure an internship in medicine in Australia. Despite two years in clinical training as a medical student at the Gold Coast University Hospital, Palipana had trouble securing an internship. In 2016, he was the only Queensland medical graduate without an employment offer. “I worked really hard in medical school and got good grades. It was very frustrating that non of those things mattered.”

Palipana admitted that medicine is not the most inclusive profession, but said it has improved much in the past five years. Although he explored the possibility of pursuing a medical degree in a Sri Lankan University, Palipana said that most university administrations were reluctant to accommodate him, “Except for Kelaniya University. Other universities have a long way to go in terms of inclusivity.” As a quadriplegic doctor working in Australian, Palipana said that shortcomings of accessibility are not restricted to Sri Lanka. “Accessibility needs a lot of work globally.”

His perseverance paid off. He was eventually employed by the Gold Coast University Hospital as Queensland’s first quadriplegic intern. His disability makes him no less capable as a doctor compared to an able-bodies person. Gold Coast Health, Emergency Medicine Director, Associate Professor David Green, speaking to the Today Show Australia, vouched for Palipana’s ability to pull his weight, albeit on a wheelchair. “In a big, busy emergency with a lot of staff, his value is enormous…After a while you just forget about his disability,” said Green on the Today Show. Dinesh said that the team spirit gets him through. “Besides, there are plenty of patients, I can examine, who do not require me to perform any procedure.”

When asked whether his disability has made him more empathetic towards his patients and whether the accident and subsequent hospitalization made him more able to relate to his patients, Palipana said he remembers what it felt like to be a patient. “It can be disempowering and terrifying. Anchoring myself in my own experiences helps me to remember what it’s like being a patient.” On the other hand Dinesh said that he has never had a patient react negatively to him. “Every single patient has been amazing. I am privileged to be a part of their journey towards recovery.”

Cutting-edge rehabilitation techniques for spinal cord injuries has a major research appeal for Palipana, who is determined to walk again. As Griffith University’s Biospine Project co-lead, Palipana explained that thought-controlled rehabilitation involves translating thought patterns into movement. “For example, if someone’s thinking of walking, we can translate that thought to movement by electrically stimulating the leg.” Promising results suggest that it can re-programme the spinal cord to restore some function in people with paralysis. “Therapies such as thought-controlled rehabilitation, drug therapy and digital twins have separately shown to restore some function in people with chronic paralysis. It is our hope that people like me will be able to stand on their own power again.” His ultimate goal is to come up with a therapy for spinal cord injury.

 

Advocacy

After recuperating at hospital for eight months, Palipana came back to Sri Lanka, where he spent another year, recovering in the company of family and friends. While in Sri Lanka he raised awareness and funds for spinal cord injury victims. In fact, his disability was a catalyst to his advocacy for training medical students with disabilities in Australia. “I’m lucky to be in a position to advocate for people with different abilities,” said Palipana.

Palipana obtained his law degree from the Queensland University of Technology in 2007 and was admitted as a lawyer in 2020. His background in law gave new impetus for his advocacy work on inclusivity in medical profession and education in Australia. “Law is a great tool that can be used to do a lot of good. It allows us to navigate legal and social structures.” His advocacy work with the Australian Medical Association has paved the way for national policies on inclusivity in medical education and employment. He used his story to demonstrate how the community can work with disability, to overturn a set of guidelines issued by the Medical Deans of Australia and New Zealand in 2015, vesting Australian medical schools with the power to exclude students with a range of disabilities. “Another major obstacle faced by students with disabilities was the attitudes of education establishments such as universities and academics.” Palipana said that Griffith University was an exception.

Palipana is also vocal about disability rights in the times of COVID-19. “The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted some of the inequities that differently-abled people face. Everything from healthcare access to employment has been an issue,” said Palipana. When health resources are scarce, some would argue that they are better utilized on those with a higher chance of survival. When governments of the developed world are forced to consider how to ration ventilators between people with disabilities and those without, how has COVID-19 affected those with disabilities?

If one with lungs as compromised as those of Palipana’s, were to contract COVID-19, the prognosis would indeed be bleak. Palipana explained that people with disabilities, depending on the disability, can be at high risk of increased complications due to COVID-19. “Many disabilities affect lung function. My lungs for example, don’t function as well, because of the spinal cord injury. It’s 30 percent of what it should be. If I were to get COVID-19 or even the flu, the chances of an adverse outcome is relatively high. Similarly, people with multiple sclerosis and stroke victims are susceptible,” pointed out Palipana. That should not justify sidelining people with disabilities. Palipana maintained that it is all the more reason to safeguard such vulnerable groups. “Through different forums and organisations, I am fortunate to be able to make a contribution in this important area.”

His message to people with debilitating disabilities and illnesses, who may be contemplating giving up on life is, “As a good friend once said, life is about ups and downs. Whenever there is an up, just know that there will be a down. Things can get challenging, but anyone can overcome them and live their dream, if they have the will. If I can become a doctor and lawyer others can too. Just find your passion and chase it.”

Going from being unable to breathe without the aid of a respirator, to advocating for disabled people and developing medical aid, real life success stories such as that of Robin Cavendish, never cease to inspire. Dinesh Palipana who proved his mettle by doggedly pursuing a career in medicine, while advocating for disability rights is, without a doubt, of that same calibre and hopefully will inspire multitudes more to achieve similarly extraordinary aspirations.

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