We are happy to carry today an open letter to the Director General of Health Services, Dr. Asela Gunawardene, by an eminent group of academics, professionals and civil society activists. This deals with many questions agitating the minds of ordinary people on the roll out of the ongoing Covid-19 vaccination program of the government. They have raised many matters of concern to everybody – how efficiently and fairly is the program is being carried out and also why, as is too often the case in our country, politicians have been allowed to muscle their way into the process to help their friends and supporters to the detriment of the majority. Also favours have been done to the rich, powerful and influential, something that is not uncommon in this country of ours for as long as anybody can remember.
The questions fired are undoubtedly tough and whether Dr. Gunawardene personally, the Health Department, Ministry or the Government itself will quickly respond to them remains to be seen. Indisputably the pandemic has presented this country as well as the wider world with challenges unprecedented in living memory. Some countries have dealt with them better than others and in this era of instant communication, people everywhere have been able to inform themselves of how well or badly the world is handling the pandemic. Initially this country did quite well dealing with the problem and, as is too often our wont, boasted about our achievement. No doubt the existence of a long established public health system countrywide helped us. Also our front line health workers and others contributed much. But it was not long before much more than the proverbial spot of dung polluted the pot of milk and we are today reaping the consequences of many acts of omission and commission.
The various television news bulletins that reach most homes in this country every day have shown us wild scenes of disorder at various vaccination centers as this long running Covid drama continues. Some of the episodes we have seen, such as policemen clad in PPE (personal protective equipment) physically carrying/dragging non-mask wearers and travel restriction offenders to buses to haul them off to police stations, are ridiculous by any standard. These people were not resisting arrest. Whether the police were playing to television cameras we do not know. But it looked to those viewing the pictures that the victims would have willingly walked into the buses if they were directed to do so. Maybe those concerned wanted to convey the message that those defying health guidelines and other restrictions will be roughly handled.
There is no escaping the fact that a large segment of the population defied the various restrictions and guidelines imposed fueling the flames of increased infection. The entire country is paying the price for that. Our politicians too did what was best for themselves regardless of consequences for the country as a whole. That began with holding the last election, easing restrictions during the New Year holiday period against good advice from experts ostensibly to gather some cheap popularity by not killing the holiday spirit for two years in a row. Undoubtedly special interest lobbies would have influenced this decision. More recently, Covid control considerations were subordinated to securing the passage on the Port City legislation. Nobody will or can dispute that the government is walking a tightrope balancing the health and economic interests of the people. We all know that a substantial section of our population, notably daily wage earners, are in a tight bind with current restrictions preventing them from eking out their precarious livings. There has been some government (read taxpayer) funded assistance and more has been promised, but financial as well as administrative constraints have affected efficient delivery. As in the case or Samurdhi, many undeserving families not entitled to the benefit collect while those in genuine need are left out in the cold.
Since the first phase of the vaccination process began over a year ago, there have been repeated assurances from authorities including the Army Commander in his capacity of Head of the Covid Task Force, senior health officials and the Minister and State Ministers responsible that adequate vaccines are being procured and there was no reason to fear shortages. It must be said in fairness that the explosion of infections and deaths in India, affected contracted supplies of vaccines manufactured there. But there appears to have been complacency that the problem will sort itself out and delivered stocks physically available here were not properly managed. The whole country was privy to ugly scenes such as that of the Moratuwa Mayor’s odious attempt to intimidate a woman Medical Officer of Health (MOH) in charge of a vaccination center to give preferences to bearers of tokens issued by himself while ordinary people languished in long queues. The police looked on as the doctor courageously held her ground while the loud mouthed politician dropped the name of a powerful politician who he alleged was doing likewise to claim parity for himself. He was eventually arrested and placed in remand though not paraded in handcuffs before television cameras unlike many others produced in court.
Undoubtedly the authors of the statement including respected personalities like Prof. Savitri Goonesekera and many more depended on material in the public domain to fire their battery of tough questions. These deserve answers and hopefully they will be forthcoming sooner rather than later. Admittedly the health sector is facing a massive challenge to which it has responded magnificently. The always vocal GMOA which aligned itself politically at recent elections has a lot of egg on its face having been unable to explain away some of its actions, notably arrangements for its members and their families to jump the vaccination queue. Undoubtedly they as medical officers deserve some preference. So do nurses and many others now demanding parity. But kissing goes by favour.
Poaching: Grasp the nettle
Saturday 19th June, 2021
India has denied media reports that its Navy recently assaulted a group of Sri Lankan fishermen, who claim the attack took place on the high seas. We cannot either confirm or deny these claims. Both sides cannot be expected to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Fishers are notorious for fish tales, and so are diplomats, who are said to lie abroad for the good of their countries. But the question is who actually set upon the Sri Lankan fishermen, whose torsos and limbs are wealed and raw. (It is not possible that they assaulted themselves or came under an alien attack.) Sometimes, Indian fishermen also complain of attacks by the Sri Lanka Navy, and Colombo promptly denies such allegations.
The real issue here is poaching, and not the complaints that the Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen are occasionally assaulted at sea. Sri Lankan fishers are not entirely blameless; there are times when some of them get arrested for illegal fishing in Indian waters. But the number of these poachers pales into insignificance in comparison to that of their Tamil Nadu counterparts who frequently swarm the territorial waters of this country.
The Indian poachers seem to think they have a legitimate right to enter Sri Lankan waters for fishing. Hence their chutzpah to oppose Sri Lanka’s efforts to create new fish breeding grounds by sinking old buses in its territorial waters; these contraptions will damage their boats, they have argued. They have admitted, albeit unwittingly, that they fish in Sri Lankan waters! The actual reason for their protests is their fear that the submerged buses will damage the nets they use for bottom trawling, which is illegal, as Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda has pointed out. Many more old vehicles must be sunk in the sea to prevent bottom trawling.
Poaching is a far more complex issue than it looks, and the politics of it has not been factored into the efforts being made to resolve it. On 04 December 2013, the then Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne disclosed that certain Tamil Nadu politicians were behind the illegal fishing operations in Sri Lankan waters. He said they owned boats, which they made available to Indian fishers on the condition that they fished in Sri Lankan waters. These elements are bent on belittling Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, and pitting the Central government of India against this country.
The issue of poaching has remained unsolved all these years because Sri Lanka and India have been seeking a diplomatic solution to a legal problem. Their interventions, purportedly on humanitarian grounds, only encourage poachers, who know their governments will get them off the hook when they get into hot water.
When Indian poachers are taken into custody, Tamil Nadu politicians pressure the Central government to make interventions, and Colombo meekly releases them. Illegal fishing is a punishable offence under the internatioanl law, and must be treated as such. If Sri Lankan fishers enter India’s territorial waters purposely, they must be brought to justice, and the Indian poachers caught in Sri Lankan waters must be dealt with in a similar manner.
The weak-kneed Sri Lankan leaders release the Indian trawlers taken into custody for illegal fishing. This practice must end. All the vessels used for poaching must be confiscated and serious thought must be given to sinking them in the sea as part of the ongoing project to create new fish breeding grounds. This is the way to make the Tamil Nadu politicians stop promoting illegal fishing. India can do likewise to safeguard its interests. Then only the poachers of both countries will realise that they are not above the international law and feel the need to act with restraint. Half-hearted attempts to solve the problem will never reach fruition. Let the nettle be grasped.
Cheers and tears
Friday 18th June, 2021
The government is behaving like an inebriated nitwit, doing exactly what it should not be doing during a grave health crisis. The ruling party pundits seem to think the only thing people lack in these troubled times is alcohol; it permitted online liquor sales. Thankfully, doctors succeeded in derailing the ill-conceived scheme. But there is no guarantee that it will not be reintroduced during or after lockdowns.
There is a catchy political slogan popular among Sri Lankans: emathilata caar, golayanta baar, janathawata soor—cars for ministers, bars for their henchmen and intoxication for the general public. This political aphorism has held true, over the decades, under successive governments, and the thinking of the present-day leaders exemplifies it.
What possessed the government to permit online liquor sales? Doctors have rightly pointed out that as many as 63 Sri Lankans die of various diseases related to alcoholism daily; this is more or less the number of lives the pandemic is snuffing out at present, here. They argue that the state expenditure on treating alcohol-related diseases is much higher than the revenue from liquor taxes.
The government has failed to ensure that the supplies of essential commodities reach the public efficiently during lockdowns. It has introduced a mobile delivery system, which is not working properly, and there are many complaints of the captive consumers being fleeced by vendors. Allegations abound that even some established supermarket chains abuse the online delivery system to cheat consumers who are made to pay for rotten onions, fruits, etc. Instead of streamlining the existing distribution system and providing economic relief to ensure that the people are fed, the government, in its wisdom, sought to introduce online liquor sales to quench the thirst of tipplers, of all people. Are the SLPP leaders themselves three sheets to the wind?
Problems, nay miseries that lockdowns bring about affect everyone. There is hardly anyone who is not troubled by the lockdown blues. Online liquor sales are certainly not a solution to any of these issues. They, if permitted, would have worsened the suffering of many families with their heads using credit cards for liquor purchases and racking up more debt in the process. The bigwigs of the government who conceived this crazy idea certainly need help from the men in white coats.
Some Excise Department grandees have reportedly sought to justify online liquor sales by claiming that owing to the temporary closure of licensed liquor outlets, bars, etc., bootleggers are having a field day. If so, then it is the fault of the Excise Department and the police. Illicit breweries and shebeens must be raided regularly and the culprits brought to justice. That is what the Excise officers and the long arm of the law are there for. The country is awash with illicit brews of all sorts because bribery and corruption are rampant among Excise officers and police personnel. They have allowed the illegal artificial toddy industry to thrive although extremely harmful materials such as old batteries and urea are used to manufacture the illicit brew, as SJB MP Buddhika Pathirana has revealed in Parliament.
Meanwhile, it is prudent to make all pandemic-related relief programmes female-oriented, for women husband financial resources much better than most men, and selflessly look after their families. Not that all men are selfish, pleasure-seeking creatures who neglect their families, but many males are addicted to alcohol, smoking and even narcotics in some cases and do not scruple to buy intoxicants at the expense of their families. This is why swarms of desperate men jostle and shove near liquor outlets when lockdowns are lifted, and unflinchingly waste their money, which could otherwise be used to meet the nutritional requirements of their families, especially children.
What should be given priority during lockdowns is feeding the public and looking after their health needs. Nobody dies due to being without alcohol for a couple of weeks; in fact, during ‘dry’ lockdowns tipplers’ health improves significantly as their vital organs get some rest. This is the best time for unfortunate dipsomaniacs to kick the habit. About 48 percent of smokers have done so, according to a recent news item in this newspaper. Lockdowns thus have the potential to control three pandemics—Covid-19, smoking and alcoholism. Let the government be urged to heed doctors’ advice.
No faith and no sense
Thursday 17th June, 2021
The SJB is apparently trying to justify its existence. It is planning to move a motion of no confidence against Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila over the recent fuel price hikes which have made the public scream. It is eager to see the back of Gammanpila. Interestingly, it has taken the same position as SLPP General Secretary and MP Sagara Kariyawasam, who accuses Gammanpila of having aggravated the economic woes of the public and made the government unpopular by jacking up fuel prices, and called for the latter’s resignation. The SJB politicians and Kariyawasam are sworn enemies, but it just so happens that they are singing from the same hymn sheet, so to speak, as regards the allegations against Gammanpila.
The SJB’s move to oust Gammanpila from the Cabinet will lead to an interesting situation; the government will defeat the no-faith motion in question for its own sake rather than Gammanpila’s, but in so doing it will give the lie to Kariyawasam’s claim that Gammanpila alone should be held responsible for the fuel price hikes. Thus, the SLPP’s vote against the no-faith motion will become an indictment of its own General Secretary! Whether MP Kariyawasam, who is out for Gammanpila’s scalp, will eat his words and vote against the SBJ’s motion remains to be seen.
The SJB knows that its vote of no confidence will flop and give the government an opportunity to score another win in Parliament. Why is it tabling the motion, then? It is apparently trying to put the government on the defensive at least temporarily, and divert the attention of Parliament as well as the public away from the problems it is expected to face after the swearing-in of UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is said to be eyeing the post of the Opposition Leader; the SJB is apparently trying to get all anti-government political parties to vote for the no-faith motion against Gammanpila, who is immensely disliked by the JVP and the TNA as well, in a bid to claim that its leader Sajith Premadasa commands the support of the entire Opposition. Maybe, the SJB is also trying to prevent the anti-government forces that are disappointed with its poor performance as the main Opposition party, from rallying around Wickremesinghe.
The SJB is barking up the wrong tree. The government has stood by Gammanpila and taken responsibility for the fuel price hikes, and therefore the no-faith motion at issue should be moved against the government instead of Gammanpila.
Fuel price hikes presage only the beginning of trouble for the public; the worst is yet to come. Speculation is rife that the prices of several other commodities including wheat flour and cooking gas will increase soon. The government is desperate for funds and does not care where they come from; it is like a bull in a pandemic treatment centre, goring hapless Covid patients.
There is no gainsaying that the government has to boost the state revenue, which has dropped due to lockdowns, etc., but it would have been able to do so without hurting the public so much if it had acted prudently in April, when the country should have been closed to prevent an explosive spread of Covid-19. A stitch in April, as we have pointed out in a previous comment, would have saved nine each in May and June. The government played politics with pandemic control in a bid to shore up its crumbling image by allowing the public to revel and forget their worries during the avurudu season. Some television channels keep calling the massive cluster of infections that formed in April ‘avurudu pokura—New Year cluster. Instead, it should be called the pohottu pokura—(lotus) bud cluster—because the government created conditions for its formation.
It is surprising that the Opposition has not moved a no-faith motion against the government for ignoring health experts’ repeated calls for lockdowns in April to prevent the rapid transmission of the virus, exposing the public to danger, mismanaging the vaccination campaign, causing economic hardships to the pandemic-hit people, and trying to import luxury vehicles for the MPs amidst the current crises.
The Opposition does not seem to be with it.
Lift restrictions on 21 June, and be prepared for dire consequences – Medical Specialists
SL youth eligible for employment in Korea, to get the opportunity shortly
SLPP will not let disputes with Gammanpila undermine govt.
7-billion-rupee diamond heist; Madush splls the beans before being shot
The Burghers of Ceylon/Sri Lanka- Reminiscences and Anecdotes
Unfit, unprofessional, fat Sri Lankans
Features6 days ago
What to expect in the short term and long term
Sports5 days ago
The kid who came to Colombo to study law
news7 days ago
Vaccinations: eminent group follows-up with Prez., PM and ministers
Sports4 days ago
Learning honesty and integrity through cricket
Features7 days ago
UNDERSTANDING PERSONALITIES – Part 10
Features7 days ago
Echoes of NM’s dismissal may have an impact on present crisis
Midweek Review4 days ago
news3 days ago
SJB, TNA, JVP insist they didn’t ask for vehicles: Speaker’s Office silent