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Editorial

Vaccine nationalism and moral failure

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Thursday 29th April, 2021

The US has at last decided to send emergency supplies of vaccine raw materials, ventilators, personal protective equipment, etc., to India, which is struggling to contain the pandemic. Curiously, when some Indian vaccine producers, unable to meet their production targets to keep the virus at bay, desperately appealed to the US to lift its export ban on raw materials needed for vaccines, Washington did not accede to their request, citing domestic needs. Its change of heart has come as a surprise.

The US says it is willing to share as many as 60 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine with developing countries. About 10 million doses are expected to be ready within the next few weeks, according to media reports. India is seeking to secure most of them, given the severity of the current wave of infections it is faced with. Although Washington says it needs weeks to share the jabs, there are reports that it already has huge stocks of AstraZeneca vaccine. The New York Times reported, a few weeks ago, that tens of millions of doses of AstraZeneca vaccine were ‘sitting idly in US manufacturing facilities awaiting the results of clinical trials’ while the countries that had approved the jab for use were begging for access’.

The global rich are stockpiling vaccines while the poor are dying without them. We are witnessing what the World Health Organization has rightly called ‘vaccine nationalism’, which has stood in the way of a truly global vaccination drive to achieve herd immunity. One may recall that WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned, in January, that the world was on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure and insisted that equitable access to vaccines was not only a moral imperative but also an economic and strategic imperative, and failure to ensure it would only lead to the prolongation of the pandemic. It is time the nations that have huge stocks of vaccines idling in warehouses sent them where they are needed.

The US State Department did not use ‘diplomatese’ when it turned down India’s recent request at issue. It only curtly said the Biden administration’s first obligation was to take care of the requirements of the American people. But why has the US suddenly become amenable to what it refused to do about a week ago?

The reversal of the US decision is apparently due to several reasons; Washington must be feeling guilty that its refusal to comply with the Indian vaccine producers’ appeal has adversely affected India’s efforts to minimise deaths due to Covid-19; the WHO has frowned at Washington; Beijing has offered assistance to New Delhi, which, however, has not responded, and several other countries have already rushed emergency supplies to India.

India, to its credit, generously shared its vaccines with other nations in need, and Sri Lanka has also benefited from its munificence. It deserves unstinted assistance from the international community to curb the spread of the pandemic although its leaders are acting as irresponsibly as their Sri Lankan counterparts, giving priority to electioneering. If medical oxygen generating facilities in Asia step up their production with supplies of the life-saving gas being airlifted to India, it may be possible to save thousands of lives.

Meanwhile, going by the predicament of India, one of the leading vaccine manufacturers in the world, what is in store for the non-vaccine producing countries in the event of the current pandemic situation worsening further, or the world being plagued by a new virus is not difficult to imagine. There are lessons that need to be learnt from the current global health emergency. Every country should be equipped to produce vaccines as far as possible, for scientists have warned of the possibility of viruses far worse than coronavirus troubling humans in the future.

Sri Lanka will have to develop the Medical Research Institute (MRI), which used to produce most vaccines the country needed in the past, to meet future challenges. If the MRI had not been run down after the opening up of the economy in the late 1970s, it would have been able to partner with a foreign counterpart to produce a Covid-19 jab locally. This is something the present-day rulers who wrap themselves in the flag and bellow patriotic rhetoric, while going cap in hand begging for funds and vaccines, should give serious thought to.



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Editorial

Big, bold strokes or hemin hemin?

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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it appears, is a firm believer in big, bold strokes in taking far-reaching policy decisions. The recent decision to immediately ban the import of inorganic (chemical) fertilizer is one such. According to reports two fertilizer shipments have already been turned away from our shores. However, stocks of previous imports, believed to be sufficient for short-term requirements are said to be available in the country. So there is a little time yet available to change track if that be the wisest course. Many reputed scientists have published articles in the Lankan press since the ban was first publicized urging that the decision be reconsidered, adducing seemingly valid reasons on why this should be done. There has been no reaction up to now to this request nor has there been credible refutation of the reasons offered by advocates of re-thinking the ban.

There is no doubt that a world without without widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides will be a better world in environmental terms. But it may also be a hungrier world. Much of the successes in global food production today is attributed to boosting crops by using inorganic fertilizers and protecting them with chemical pesticides. Genetic engineering too has contributed to increased production although there have been many warnings against interfering with nature in some of the ways attempted. However nobody objects to the practice of hybrid agriculture, common for many years, involving cross pollination of two different varieties of plants to get the best traits of the parents in the offspring. We in this country today are able to buy a variety of mango superior to what we were accustomed – though at a price of course – thanks to scientific advances in producing better quality fruit and grain. Older readers will remember a time when there were no seedless grapes that are abundant today.

Writing to a recent issue of The Island, Prof. O.A. Ileperuma, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry of the Peradeniya University, said an inorganic fertilizer ban will have a “devastating effect” on our economy. Nobody can quarrel with the president’s desire that we make do with compost fertilizer instead of utilizing scarce resources for importing chemical fertilizers issued to farmers at subsidized rates. But the scientific view is that compost alone cannot provide the macro-nutrients necessary for the healthy growth of crops. The president does not disagree with the contention that these inorganic soil supplements mean better crops and resultant better incomes. This applies not only to peasant farmers but also plantations. But he says they pollute waterways – as they no doubt do – and are suspected to cause kidney disease endemic in some agricultural areas. The bottom line according to the president’s thinking is that the cost to society of chemical fertilizer use outweighs the benefits.

The country is virtually self-sufficient in rice today although occasional imports are necessary to tide over temporary difficulties. This has been possible due to the efforts of the Department of Agriculture as well as the development of high yielding varieties such as the ‘miracle rice’ bred at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines in the sixties. All the pluses achieved would be in vain if we abruptly ban the import of fertilizer, Ileperuma has said. He agrees that there are positive effects, such as improving soil texture and providing some micro-nutrients. But he says that compost cannot entirely substitute the fertilizer requirements of the high yielding rice varieties now being grown here. That will obviously reduce the income of farmers and also necessitate rice imports to feed the people. The professor has also revealed – what many many may not have known – that rice from some countries, particularly Bangladesh, is laden with arsenic which is an extremely toxic element. As for the argument that inorganic fertilizers is the cause of kidney disease, there is scientific evidence that this is so. It is a suspicion at most and by no means an established fact.

A hemin hemin (slowly, slowly) approach is what is required at this moment. There must be intensive study of the relevant evidence, meticulous evaluation of the various costs and benefits before an ironclad decision to ban fertilizer imports is implemented. We must also look at what is happening elsewhere in the world. Have other countries, many with far better facilities than we can ever hope to match, taken decisions to totally ban the use of chemical fertilizers? What happens in large countries like China and India? When Rachel Carson wrote her celebrated Silent Spring over 50 years ago focusing largely on the negative effects of chemical pesticides, particularly DDT, the world woke up to the dangers that President Rajapaksa has brought to the forefront of our national agenda. But can we forget that we eliminated the scourge of malaria which cost our country hugely in the thirties by using DDT? Very much later we shifted to the less harmful malathion.

There was also the recent decision to ban the import of palm oil which was amended after its impact on the bakery industry surfaced. Whether we will go ahead with the decision to ban cultivation of oil palm, believed by some to guzzle ground water at an unsustainable rate and replant existing plantations with rubber, will be implemented remains to be seen. The big, bold strokes that the president favours undoubtedly helped end our 30-year civil war during his tenure as Defence Secretary. But whether a hasty ban on fertilizer imports, in the teeth of the many dangers highlighted, will have a similar beneficial impact, remains doubtful.

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Editorial

When mutts try to be docs

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Saturday 8th May, 2021

The police are busy, these days, arresting, as they do, scores of ordinary people daily for violating the Covid-19 protocol. They are shown on television bundling offenders into police vehicles. They deserve public plaudits for taking such swift action against the quarantine law violators, who are a threat to others. But, unfortunately, these laws do not apply to the ruling party politicians.

Transport Minister Gamini Lokuge stands accused of having had the pandemic-related restrictions in Piliyandala removed against the advice of health professionals. No sooner had the Piliyandala police area been isolated, on Sunday, owing to a rapid spread of Covid-19 than it was reopened reportedly at the behest of Lokuge. Only the Director General of Health Services (DGHS) has the authority to impose and lift such restrictions, based on recommendations made by the Medical Officers of Health (MoHs) and Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) in the areas concerned. DGHS Dr. Asela Gunawardana insists he did not have restrictions in Piliyandala lifted.

The government, as a face-saving exercise, sent a team to assess the Covid-19 situation in Piliyandala; the latter has decided that there was no need for a lockdown in the area! The highest number of Covid-19 cases in the Colombo District has been reported from Piliyandala during the past several days. That was the reason why the MoH and the PHIs concerned had the area isolated. Only the naïve may have expected the government team to reveal the truth and incur the wrath of the powers by embarrassing them. The issue, on the other hand, was not whether the situation in Piliyandala warranted a lockdown; instead, it was why the restrictions imposed in the area had been arbitrarily lifted by someone other than the DGHS.

The thinking of the present-day rulers seems to be that if any illegal practice cannot be stopped, the solution is to legalise it. This is what they did when they were in power previously. The MPs sold their duty-free vehicle permits illegally, and when the racket got out of hand, the then Rajapaksa government legalised the sale of permits! Since the destruction of forests is illegal, the SLPP leaders have removed some forests from the purview of the Forest Department. Now, any government backer can encroach on forestlands on the pretext of engaging in traditional agriculture!

Likewise, since the likes of Lokuge cannot be reined in, will the government consider changing the current health regulations to empower its provincial potentates to countermand decisions taken by health professionals responsible for pandemic control? These politicians consider themselves more knowledgeable than medical professionals, and their bosses take their opinion seriously and defend them while refusing to take on board the advice of educated, intelligent ministers such as Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle. Therefore, a wag says the government should consider awarding medical degrees to its omniscient MPs and ministers and put them in charge of the pandemic control programme. Thereafter, the anti-Covid campaign in areas south of Colombo could be carried out under the supervision of Lokuge, who can also be appointed State Minister of Primary Health Care, Epidemics and COVID Disease Control while medical consultant, Dr. Fernandopulle, who currently holds that portfolio but cannot have herself heard on matters concerning public health, is made the Minister of Transport. This should be child’s play for a government that readily intervenes to have court cases against its politicians withdrawn, abolishes import duties on some commodities and tries to set up gyms countrywide amidst a crippling health crisis to help its financiers make a killing. One may recall that during the previous Rajapaksa government ‘Dr. Mervyn Silva’ took over the dengue control campaign in Kelaniya and even tied a health worker to a tree in full view of the police for being late for a meeting he had called.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is known as an allegory of the Bolshevik revolution and the situation in Russia thereafter, but we wonder whether Orwell foresaw what would happen in this former British colony, decades later, when he wrote that dystopian novella, especially where the proclamation by the Pigs that control the government in the enthrallingly satirical story is concerned: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’ Nothing exemplifies this ‘commandment’ more than the manner in which this country is being run by those who came into power, promising a utopia.

 

 

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Editorial

Minister in china shop, and big ego trips

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Friday 7th May, 2021

Most government politicians are in the news, always for the wrong reasons. Minister Gamini Lokuge has not only endangered the lives of people but also caused what remains of the government’ popularity to plummet further by having Covid-19 travel restrictions in the Piliyandala area arbitrarily lifted recently. We thought the 20th Amendment to the Constitution would restore the dictatorial powers of only the Executive President, but it looks as if it had led to the emergence of dictators at the provincial level as well. These self-important politicians who countermand vital decisions of health professionals tasked with controlling the pandemic must be kept on a tight leash.

Close on the heels of Minister Lokuge’s high-handed action came a government announcement that the Cabinet had approved a proposal for setting up a large number of gyms countrywide. One wonders whether the ruling politicians have taken leave of their senses.

There is no gainsaying that physical fitness goes a long way towards warding off diseases and battling them. Not everyone can afford modern gym facilities and coaching, and the public will gain tremendously if they could be made available free or charge. Public walking tracks and recreational parks built under the previous Rajapaksa administration have stood the ordinary people in good stead. But the government must get its expenditure priorities right at this hour of crisis.

There is a pressing need to rationalise state expenditure on account of the current national health crisis; projects that can wait must be put on hold immediately. The country must remain maniacally focused on beating the runaway virus, which has brought even the developed world to its knees.

The government has sought to justify its irrational spending by claiming that it has allocated enough funds for the fight against Covid-19, but the truth is otherwise. The country is without enough PCR machines to detect infections, and genome sequencing equipment to identify new variants of the virus. The number of PCR tests conducted daily remains woefully low.

Aggressive testing is a prerequisite for curbing the spread of the pandemic. The state hospital network is under severe strain, and all pandemic treatment centres are bursting at the seams. The procurement of vaccines has become a problem. The poor are crying out for relief. This situation has come about mostly due to lack of funds.

Ideally, the country should go into another round of lockdowns if the rapid tranmission of the virus is to be halted and the number of infections brought down to a manageable level, as public health experts argue. But the government is wary of adopting this method, given the heavy socio-economic costs it entails; if the country is to remain open safely, there are some essential facilities that must be provided to the public.

The public transport sector should be given priority. The Covid-19 health regulations require the number of passengers in buses and trains to be drastically reduced so that physical distancing could be maintained. But there are not enough buses and trains, and the available ones are overcrowded. Private buses cannot be expected to run at a loss, and, in fact, it is not fair to force them do so. The government has to step in to solve this problem, but the fleet of state-owned bus service alone cannot cater to the demand. Everybody realises the value of the Sri Lanka Transport Board during crisis situations, but nobody cares to do anything to develop it. Thus, instead of procuring new aircraft and fitness equipment, the government ought to purchase buses to enable workers to commute safely so that the economy will not contract further.

There has emerged a pressing need for more ambulances for Suwaseriya, which has proved to be a huge success. Sri Lankans must be grateful to India, which made this service a reality, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Dr. Harsha de Silva, MP, who fought quite a battle to set it up, under the previous government, amidst unfair criticism from those who are currently in power. The procurement of more ambulances to transport the sick ought to take precedence over that of fitness centres and choppers.

The government keeps faulting the public for lack of co-operation to beat the virus. True, people have to follow the Covid-19 protocol without leaving the task of battling the pandemic entirely to the health authorities. The government must also act responsibly; it must get its expenditure priorities right instead of embarking on ego-boosting projects, and rein in its unruly politicians who have become a nuisance to the public as well as health professionals.

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