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Editorial

Udayanga, Covid and Tourism

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Nobody in his right senses would object to reopening the country to tourism if, and that is a very big if, the necessary precautions are in place to prevent such a measure triggering a new Covid wave here. This is imperative in the context of the ongoing global pandemic and is something that does not need underlining. Given the fact that our economy is greatly dependent on tourism earnings, and the livelihoods of hundred of hundreds of thousands of Lankans depend on this industry, even the smallest tentative step taken in that direction must be welcomed. This is what the concerned authorities attempted to do by bringing in some tourist groups from Ukraine into the country towards the end of last year with the first flights landing at the Mattala International Airport at Christmas time.

Whether this attempt has blown up in the faces of those who tried to swing it is something that is yet to be finally determined. There have been three positive Covid infected persons in the first tour group that arrived here. Some of these holidaymakers have already left the country, cutting short their vacations in the wake of the many necessary restrictions that had to be imposed to ensure that nothing untoward happens as a result of their arrival. There has been a public spat between Ms. Kimarli Fernando, the chairperson of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, and Mr. Udayanga Weeratunga, Sri Lanka’s former ambassador to Russia and Ukraine, over the bringing of these tourists here. Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga has backed Fernando. It is public knowledge that Weeratunga is a close kinsman (first cousin) of the ruling Rajapaksa clan. The media has leaped on the fact that his official address has been published as Temple Trees, Colombo.

Therein lies the rub. It was nearly a century ago that a British judge, Lord Hewart, pronounced that “It is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly, be seen to be done.” That famous quotation flowing from a minor court action involving a motorcycle accident and a fine of a mere 10 British pounds (even though money had a different value at the time) has since been accepted as basic norm of justice systems and become a common aphorism. What has been universally accepted in the judicial sphere must also necessarily apply elsewhere; and the fact that a close kinsman of the ruling family, a businessman with a well known past who had previously enjoyed Rajapaksa patronage, was chosen to pilot the ‘pilot project’ is a matter of no little consequence.

However that be, it can be credibly argued that Weeratunga was very well placed, or may even be said best placed, to kick start a project of reopening Sri Lanka’s beleaguered tourism industry to a Covid-wracked world. He had all the contacts and political muscle (not only here but also in Ukraine where he was once accredited) needed to get the project going. He has for good or bad, successfully or not, got it started. These obviously were factors that were weighed carefully before the first tourist flights from Ukraine were allowed into the country under his wing. Apart from the detection of the three Covid infected tourists, there have been video clips of the visitors with face masks covering just their chins widely telecast. Safari jeep drivers in Tissamaharama hired to drive the visitors to the Yala National Park have kicked up a public row over being quarantined following that assignment. Opposition politicians have waded into the fray alleging crony capitalism in the manner in which the business arising from the few flights that have already arrived has been allocated. The concerned authorities have been compelled to admit that there have been “shortcomings” in the experiment that was attempted.

But it is clear that what has been started will not be abandoned in the face of mounting pressure. It was reported on Friday that a fifth Ukranian flight had landed at Mattala the day before. The tourism minister, acknowledging the negatives already encountered, is on record saying that despite some hiccups the project was on track. There is no denying Ranatunga’s claim that what is being attempted is of pivotal importance to the country and it is to be hoped that all possible cooperation to make it succeed will be offered regardless of personal considerations. Weeratunga who was for long a fugitive from the law, and who attracted an Interpol Red Alert, did neither himself nor his patrons any credit by boasting that no indictment was served on him and that “I was smarter than them” (the law enforcers) appears to be going strong. Approximately 800 tourists from Ukraine have already arrived here and total of ten flights from there are due before the Bandaranaike International Airport is reopened on January 21. While the expected figure of nearly 2,600 tourists from that country is not likely to be achieved before the reopening of the BIA – previously postponed – with some of the previous bookings canceled, the majority will be coming, a report said.

UNWTO, the tourism agency of the United Nations has set up a Global Tourism Crisis Committee and developed a sector-wide response to the unprecedented challenges now facing numerous countries greatly dependent on tourism on both economic and employment considerations. The first set of recommendations in this regard has already been presented. We have no doubt that the concerned authorities here are keenly studying how the rest of the world is tackling the challenge. Each country will have problems that are unique to itself and will have to innovate measures to combat them. We too must do the same. So let us give a chance to what is being attempted without rushing to too hasty conclusions.



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Editorial

Villains as heroes

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Monday 8th March, 2021

Pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar have dug their heels in. Demonstrating remarkable resilience in the face of the military junta, they have urged the US to intervene to save their country from the clutches of the power-hungry Generals. Why they are making such desperate appeals is understandable; any port in a storm! But they would find themselves in a far bigger crisis if the US ever decided to make an intervention. The plight of the people of Libya, who enlisted US backing to get rid of their eccentric dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, serves as an example.

Human rights violations are a global phenomenon, which needs to be addressed. But the UN institution created for that purpose is ineffectual thanks to the servility of its officials and some meddlesome global powers. Today, the UNHRC has become a cat’s paw used by the western states to promote neocolonialism. Swayed by the geo-political interests of strategic alliances, it has become a playground for the world powers.

China sought to make light of the recent military coup in Myanmar by initially calling it a Cabinet reshuffle, of all things. Military takeovers in Pakistan did not matter to the US, at all, while Washington could use Islamabad to advance its geo-strategic agenda vis-à-vis India, which was not in the good books of Uncle Sam at the time. The US did not welcome the ouster of Shah’s repressive regime, in Iran, and backed evil military dictatorships to the hilt in several countries it considered its allies, Chile under General Pinochet being a case in point. Now, Washington is weeping buckets for the people of Myanmar! Had the Burmese Generals been pro-American, Washington would have had no qualms about defending them, and the human rights groups dependent on western funding would have chosen to ignore the coup.

The UK has taken upon itself the task of protecting human rights across the globe despite being one of the worst human rights violators in the world. One may recall that Britain expelled more than 10,000 people of the Chagos Islands between 1967 and 1973 for the US to build the Diego Garcia military base; it has refused to comply with a UN ruling that the displaced people’s right to return be respected. Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth has gone on record as saying that the jurisdiction of the ICC will be invoked against Britian’s crimes against humanity. There is irrefutable evidence that Tony Blair, as the British PM, together with US President George W. Bush, carried out an illegal war in Iraq, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths. The Chilcot Report, too, has revealed that military action against Iraq was not justified, but no case has been filed against Blair or anyone else for war crimes in Iraq. The British Parliament has introduced an indemnity law to protect its military personnel against war crimes probes. Senior LTTE leader, Adele Balasingham, who brainwashed thousands of LTTE child combatants, turned them into human bombs, and thereby committed war crimes, is living comfortably in London; the UK pretends that she does not exist while insisting that war crimes must not go unpunished! Some British politicians are dependent LTTE activists for votes and funds to win elections. Thanks to diplomatic cables disclosed by Wikileaks, the world is aware that it was due to domestic political calculations and compulsions that, in 2009, the then British Foreign Secretary David Miliband remained intensely focused on Sri Lanka’s war and even rushed here in a bid to save Prabhakaran.

UNHRC chiefs have also compromised their credibility by being servile to the western bloc. A few years ago, the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay succumbed to US pressure and withdrew a statement she had issued condemning human rights abuses in Bahrain, which is a close ally of the UK and the US. Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, who once described missing UAE Princess Latifa as a ‘troubled young woman’ has now admitted that she was ‘horribly tricked’ by the victim’s family. Isn’t it possible that Robinson was tricked into issuing a strongly-worded statement on Sri Lanka as well? Incumbent UNHRC chief, Michelle Bachelet, has manifestly failed to act independently and impartially; she has prepared what can be described as a political report on Sri Lanka and blotted her copybook further in the process.

Perhaps, the only thing the Trump administration got right was its assessment of the UNHRC, which it called a cesspool of political bias. But, having pulled the US out of the cesspit, Washington continued to make other nations wallow in it, and the Biden government has plunged head first into it.

The UNHRC in the clutches of the worst human rights violators in the world, masquerading as champions of democracy, has faced a fate similar to that of Sri Lanka’s Police Narcotic Bureau, which has been infiltrated by criminals to further their interests. It looks as if human rights had to be protected against the UNHRC.

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Editorial

No quick fix

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That there is no quick fix to the globally raging Covid-19 pandemic is now all too clear. Countries worldwide seek to protect their populations as best as they could by inoculating them with vaccines hurriedly developed in some of the best scientific laboratories in the world. Billions of dollars have been poured into this research effort, thankfully marked by some significant successes, and the vaccination process is ongoing in most parts of the world including this small backwater called Sri Lanka. But the global supply of vaccine falls far short of demand and how this gap is to be bridged is a yet unanswered question.

However, it is very well known that untapped manufacturing capacity is available in many parts of the world. How such capacity can be harnessed to meet the crying need of humanity is not rocket science. The heart of the problem lies in the reluctance, nay unwillingness, of the world of commerce to share the research gains already made in an equitable manner and relax patents to enable maximum utilization of available manufacturing capacity, particularly in the Indian subcontinent, to break the back of if not significantly dent this problem that continues to confront mankind.

The global pharmaceutical industry, throughout its long history, has poured vast funds and resources, both material and human, to develop wide ranges of medicines to treat and protect living beings – human and animal – from the many illnesses that have always been a part of life. Many notable successes, ranging from penicillin to the various drugs and medicines that have defeated numerous scourges that have confronted humanity over the course of history, have marked this effort. It is well known that when new drugs are developed, their manufacturers recover the huge investments made in the research and development efforts to achieve the various outcomes, in pricing the various products they market. These are patent protected and such patents, most often ironclad, are zealously protected.

Unarguably, industry must be permitted to recover investments made in developing products and processes benefiting humanity. But this can, and often does, lead to profiteering and unjustifiable ripoffs of consumers. However that be, the immediate problem confronting the whole world is to find ways and means of relaxing the various patents and devices in force to maximize the production and availability of supplies of vaccines to fight the pandemic. It has been reported that the new head of the World Trade Organization has joined calls for pharmaceutical companies to share their coronavirus vaccine know-how and technology more broadly in the developing world. Whether this will happen or not, and the profit motive will remain the overriding consideration as has always happened in the past, remains to be seen.

The Associated. Press (AP), one of the world’s biggest news agencies, a non-profit organization owned by newspapers and broadcasters in the U.S., recently reported its findings in three continents that established pharmaceutical manufacturers could start producing hundreds of millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines at short notice if they only had the necessary blueprints and know-how to get started. But that knowledge belongs to the large pharmaceutical companies that have produced the first three vaccines authorized in many countries both in the developed and developing world including Sri Lanka. These vaccines now in use in countries that include Britain, the European Union, and the U.S. are products of Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca. Responses from the patent holders to requests to enable more broad based manufacture, are awaited.

The WHO which is supplying countries in need, including our own, with free vaccine to inoculate a proportion of their population, has called on manufacturers to share their know-bow to “dramatically increase global supply” to stop the virus before it mutates into deadlier forms. This issue must be obviously looked at from a non-commercial perspective. The vaccine was not developed utilizing only private resources. Billions of dollars of taxpayer funds, largely from the U.S. and European countries, were injected into the R&D efforts of pharmaceutical manufacturers to develop now patented vaccines. Such money came out of the pockets of ordinary people in some of the world’s richer countries. There is no debate that the benefits of such efforts must also be shared with people in poorer countries.

These vaccines were developed at unprecedented speed after the disease, first seen in China and thereafter in many parts of the globe, spread like wildfire worldwide. However, sharing the knowledge discovered has unfortunately not happened as speedily. Although contracts and licensing deals are being negotiated with producers on individual case-by-case basis on the logic that the intellectual property of the vaccine developers must be protected, manufacturing capacity worldwide is not being boosted at the needed pace. All over the world, the supply of coranavirus vaccines is falling short of demand. Much of the limited supplies that are available are going to rich countries. The AP report said that nearly 80 percent of the vaccine thus far administered had been used in just 10 countries. WHO is on record saying that more than 210 countries and territories with 2.5 billion people have not received a single shot by the end of last month.

The shortcomings in getting the urgently needed results of boosting the supply and distribution of the vaccine to parts of the world most in need have been highlighted ad infinitum. Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS recently said that “what we are seeing today is a stampede, a survival of the fittest approach, where those with the deepest pockets, with the sharpest elbows, grabbing what is there and leaving others to die.” The AP report said that governments and health experts have offered two potential solutions to the vaccine shortage. One, supported by WHO is a ‘patent pool’ modeled on a platform set up to fight HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis. The other is is to suspend intellectual property rights during the pandemic. But no progress in either direction is visible.

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Editorial

When ignorance kills

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Saturday 6th March, 2021

Superstition can be dangerous when taken to an extreme. A female exorcist who mercilessly caned a nine-year-old girl in a bid to ‘expel an evil spirit’, thereby, causing her death, in Delgoda, and the victim’s mother have been remanded. They are not alone in resorting to occult practices that have survived in spite of scientific and technological advancements during the last several centuries; humans have failed to overcome their atavistic fears.

The Sri Lanka College of Psychiatrists (SLCP) has, in a statement published in this newspaper today, condemned the aforesaid incident, and scientifically explained the phenomena that crafty exorcists use to fleece the public. “These individuals who repeatedly go into trance and possession states should be referred for psychiatric assessments, following which they may be referred for psychiatric or psychological treatments. Today, every district in Sri Lanka has a general psychiatry and child psychiatry clinic that can investigate these abnormal behaviours and deliver treatment.” The SLCP has rightly said acts such as beating children to ‘expel evil spirits’ are an anachronism from the Stone Age. But it is doubtful whether the good doctors will be able to knock any sense into those with a Stone Age mindset.

Sri Lanka is said to be home to several great religions, but superstition apparently remains the prominent religion of feeble minds, and one wonders whether it even receives state patronage albeit unofficially. A few weeks ago, we saw a shaman being received by the Speaker, a group of ministers and some Opposition MPs at the parliament complex, where he distributed some herbal concoction touted as a cure for COVID-19. Even some doctors and scientists leapt to his defence when he came under fire for duping the public by claiming that a goddess had revealed the ‘cure’. Worse, a national university went so far as to grant ethical clearance for his product! Among the promoters of his potion was no less a person than the Health Minister, who contracted COVID-19 despite having ingested the concoction and performing what may be called a pot-dropping ritual to neutralise coronavirus.

It is generally thought that only crazy dictators such as Papa Doc, Baby Doc, Bokassa and Idi Amin let witchcraft take precedence over statecraft. Papa Doc of Haiti publicly cast a voodoo spell on the then US President John F. Kennedy, claiming that the latter would not live long. The assassination of Kennedy, which obviously had nothing to do with voodoo, helped the Haitian dictator frighten his people into submission even more effectively; his son Baby Doc followed suit. (The duo’s ascent to power would not have been possible without US backing!) There are, however, other countries where occultism holds sway, Sri Lanka being a case in point.

Influence that seers exert on superstitious politicians and even parliamentary affairs came to light during a vote of condolence on former Speaker W. J. M. Lokubandara in Parliament, the other day. SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella boasted that in 2004 the then UNP-led Opposition had enlisted the support of an astrologer to have Lokubandara elected Speaker though the UNP did not have a majority in the House. The JHU, which had fallen out with the Kumaratunga government, would have backed Lokubandara anyway, and stars certainly had nothing to do with his election as the Speaker.

The 2015 regime change occurred because the Rajapaksa government followed astrological advice and opted for a snap presidential election. Political leaders’ dependency on occult practitioners was clearly seen in the early 1990s, when a group of UNP rebels joined forces with the Opposition to move an impeachment motion against the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who did not leave any stone unturned in his efforts to defeat his enemies. The Opposition MPs said that the President had hired a famous kattadiya, who had some charmed oil applied on their seats to make them switch their allegiance to him. Not to be outdone, they took phials of lard oil into the House and applied it on their seats to neutralise the effect of the President’s oil!

A fish is said to rot from the head down. When political leaders and some scientists promote the occult, it is well-nigh impossible to rid the country of superstitious beliefs and practices that cause harm to the public. Perhaps, it is these irresponsible characters who deserve caning.

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